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Volunteers make meals that matter

Ronald McDonald House's Megabites program makes it easy for people to volunteer

Ryan Conway serves dinner to families at the Ronald McDonald House Taube Family Center on Oct. 19, 2017. Dinner included meatloaf, mashed potatoes, squash and grilled zucchini. Photo by Veronica Weber.

It's 3:30 p.m. and a synchronized kitchen ballet is taking place in the Ronald McDonald House in Palo Alto. A group of volunteers in aprons and gloves quickly divvy up responsibilities: Some start chopping tomatoes, others reach for recipe cards that are already set on the center island. Some are pulling out pots and pans, knives and cutting boards. The volunteers work together like a well-oiled machine.

But like any smooth production, the reason it runs seamlessly is because a team of people is working in the background to support the endeavor: in this case, the staff of Ronald McDonald House's Megabites volunteer meal program. They plan and facilitate the work of feeding the families who stay at Ronald McDonald House at Stanford, a nonprofit that provides a place to stay at little or no cost to families whose children are getting specialized medical treatments at nearby Lucile Packard Children's Hospital.

With the completed construction of the Arrillaga Family Center in 2016 and the renovation of the Taube Family Center in May, Ronald McDonald House, located on Sand Hill Road in Palo Alto, went from housing 47 families to housing 123 families. The expansion meant that Megabites had to adjust to meet the new demand.

For the volunteers, feeding that many more mouths — now upwards of 200 — would be a far different organizational challenge.

So Megabites partnered with Google Food, which provided a 21-day menu, and Jay Marshall, a chef from Sysco, a leading food distribution company. Marshall offered his expertise in modifying the menu specifically for Megabites' volunteers and community groups.

Marshall helped to make the recipes simple and easy, noting when pre-chopped veggies could be used or when oven space would be needed for a meal, said Juan Hernández, family care manager at Ronald McDonald House.

"If anybody understands the food-service line, it's really Sysco," Hernández said, adding that Sysco also supplies the program with fresh products.

"(We wanted to make) it easy enough and enticing enough for the community groups ... especially those individuals that are, like, 'I don't know how to cook. How are we going to serve 200 servings?' We wanted to make sure that we were supporting them correctly," he said.

Volunteers and community groups are pivotal for the program. In fact, if a group does not sign up, a meal does not get made.

Elmera Asadipour, a volunteer, said the Megabites program provided her group with simple, easy-to-use directions on how to prepare the meals.

"They provided the food and ingredients and gave us a member of their staff to help with any questions during the process," she said in an email. "Megabites creates a fun environment that makes its volunteers feel motivated to give back to the organization."

Wilbert Tom, a marketing associate at Sysco, said that the experience was his first time volunteering with Megabites, adding that he was grateful for the opportunity to do something to help others.

In addition to providing families ready-made meals, the program is meant to take a financial burden off the families.

When groups volunteer with Megabites, they are essentially donating the food to the families by paying a tax-deductible flat fee of $600, which goes toward procuring ingredients for the meal. The program is able to turn out meals at an average cost of $2 per meal to the program.

Though Hernández said they rarely have any leftover food, when they do, food is individually packaged and placed in community refrigerators for the families.

"Any families that are at the hospital and didn't have a chance to come over that night, they'll come over ... once the visitation hours are over, and they know where to get the food; they'll reheat it," he said.

Hernández said that they're hoping to expand Megabites so that the meal program can provide breakfast, lunch and dinner.

Currently the nonprofit provides "grab and go" food options for the families and maintains a full-stocked pantry with canned goods, cooking oil, instant soups, spices, pasta, beans, rice, tuna and chicken in a can. It also provides a continental breakfast that's available at 5:30 a.m.

Having a volunteer group every single day to make breakfast, lunch and dinner "would just make it so much easier for the families," he said.

Former Editorial Assistant and Intern Coordinator Anna Medina can be reached at rosales@alumni.stanford.edu.

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Follow the Palo Alto Weekly/Palo Alto Online on Twitter @PaloAltoWeekly and Facebook for breaking news, local events, photos, videos and more.

Editor's note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that the Arrillaga Family Center completed construction in June, but the work was finished in 2016.

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