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Cook Talk

Cooking for 1,300+
Lauren Knutsen

The church I went to in college is coordinating a community volunteer event on campus. I am actually the original event founder from 14 years ago which started with just 30 volunteers at the time to last year having over 1,300!

This event is coordinated and ran be a core group of about 15 students and 45 students with some adult leaders. As an alumni and the event founder, I hope this one near and dear to my heart! I try and make it back every year to help out with things leading up to the event and on the day of. In reality though, the students do 98% of the work!

Anyhow, as a thank you to the volunteers, both breakfast and lunch is served on the day of the event for all volunteers. Think, over 1,300 hungry college students! Here's the hard part: the meals are cooked and planned for on a budget of $750. Total. 2,600 meals. And the budget includes having to buy the paper products. As the event has grown over the years, the students have done a fantastic job in coordinating most every fashion. The area they always struggle with the most is the meals. We have 12 burners and two commercial ovens we can use along with using crockpots and roasters. In the past they've tried soups and such, but it's always a struggle. As simple as it sounds, this year I've recommended hotdogs in crockpots, boiling water and in the oven. What they've come up with: pasta.

I'm trying to guide them in a different direction and have talked thru it with a breakdown on costs and cooking times. With costs, the two are the same. (1.5 hotdogs/pp + chips vs 1 cup pasta w sauce). I THINK they've seen now the enormity of the task (and near impossibility) pasta is... But they're still wanting it! Any thoughts for/against either or other ideas?

As a note, the other idea I had is sausage jambalaya... We do have access to two industrial rice cookers. It could be all made in advance and just heated that day. (Not for 1,300... Maybe half?)


Lauren, what a job.

First of all, I STRONGLY encourage you to seek donations to augment the budget and foods. Grocery store chains actually budget for these type events; bakeries will give day old items (college kids tend to not notice day oldness); you may have local food manufacturers who will donate some cases; even restaurant supply houses might give some paper goods or expiring cans or produce. Sometimes local non-food businesses will donate cash if they are acknowedged. Get some supporters behind you, write hand written thank yous after (students writing is even better), and you will build a network for years of support.

How big are your rice cookers?

I would suggest you consider burritos (or possibly taco bars, though that would be a little more expensive),as the lunch main dish. With the rice and beans, they are very economical, as well as healthy; college students like them; some can be made vegetarian; they can be made all morning and kept warm, or made ahead, frozen, and reheated; or many made ahead and the rest on site.

You don't have enough ovens for baked pasta, which would be the best pasta choice; and just point out to your crew that even if the pasta is made ahead and reheated on the spot, at 20 seconds per reheat (a VERY conservative estimate), you are talking 430 minutes, or about 7 hours of service time, to serve 1300.

Write back if you like, this is interesting.

Thanks for the thorough answer! When we did this on a smaller scale (years 1-3), we actually did have all the food donated - but as it's grown, that's been a big struggle for them. College towns just have a different mentality. (There was a gap of about 5 years when I wasn't involved with the event.) This is the 3rd year I've been pulled in shortly before the event, and I haven't been able to do much but try to react to where they're at with things. :-/ They have a hard time getting food donations, but they do have some. Due to the scale of size, I'm just accounting for the donated food as back-up. (They have 50 chicken sandwiches, 20 pizzas, 4 dozen bread sticks and 8 lbs of pasta casserole donated.) I've pretty much said that next year - it has to change to continue being successful. I've said that if a small group of the planning committee can be available beginning 4 months in advance, I will help guide them in getting sponsorships rather than donations. With that, it should help alleviate some of these issues that are multiplying! The reason that the food budget is so small is due to the amount of supplies needed to send the volunteers out with. It's walled Winterization and the students go out in groups of 8-20 students to homes of the elderly and handicapped in the city to get the yards ready for winter. The primary job is raking and bagging leaves. Since they're college students, they don't have rakes that they can bring with them and we have to supply them with rakes, bags, tarps, gloves, windex, etc. - that eats up most of the budget.

My only problem with the taco/burritos is cost... I can get ground meat (turkey in this instance) for $1.25/lb at the cheapest. With needing approx 315 lbs, that's about $400 for the meat alone, not including shells, toppings, seasonings, sides, etc. With a hot dogs, chips and toppings, it comes out to be $.48/person. For pasta at 1lb/4ppl (yes, I know this is scant) with sauce, it comes out to be $.53/person. I'll have to do a breakdown on the burritos to see how those end up. I know we're talking pennies here, but x1,400 adds up fast! The liking on the hot dogs is ease of prep and clean up... they can just be done in crockpots that day and no actual 'cooking' is needed.

On a side note, papergoods/silverwware comes out to be $.29/person, breakfast is $.40/person and dessert is $.17/person with the current menu plan... I'm using 1,400 volunteers as the base number (so 1,400 breakfast), but I'm saying only 3/4 of the students will stick around for lunch, so 1,050 people.

Right now we're at a total cost of $1.20/person. (There's a very extensive spreadsheet with our breakdown.)

I'll dig into the burrito idea and see how that compares. Labor wise, it's half the work that pasta is!!!!

Thanks for your feedback!

If you do burritos, you will use 1 pound meat per 10 burritos, using the big 12" tortillas you do about 12 burritos per 10 students.
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