One morning this summer, workers picked more than 100 pounds of tomatoes at GrowGood – big squat red ones, yellow and green striped ones, cocktail tomatoes and more. Along with basil, cucumbers and other food, they were rinsed and then wheeled in a green garden wagon across the parking lot to the kitchen at the Bell Shelter.

That tomato bonanza day also happened to be a day I was volunteering in the kitchen, and soon after the farm delivery, we were at work on a simple but stellar summer salad for the shelter clients.

Amie Carrillo-Wolfe, the food service manager at the Bell Shelter, says she appreciates being able to use food that comes from just a few steps away from the kitchen. And she believes that also has an affect on those who eat it.

“The No. 1 thing is that it’s really about knowing what you can do on your own. Who knew you could grow this food here?” she says. And she hopes the clients see it this way: “This is your home, your back yard.”

GrowGood also encourages the shelter residents to think of the farm as their back yard. They are welcome to visit, enjoy the peaceful atmosphere or volunteer.

The kitchen, staffed with six full-time employees plus volunteers, serves 450 to 480 meals a day in the Pregerson Dining Hall, starting with a 4:30 a.m. breakfast for people who leave the shelter for early work shifts. That means the staff begins work at 2 a.m. to put on coffee and start the first meals.

Mary and kitchen staff member slicing tomatoes. 

Mary and kitchen staff member slicing tomatoes. 

Carrillo-Wolfe came to the Bell Shelter from the world of high-end catering.

“It was a very big culture shock,” says Carrillo-Wolfe, who had decided it was time for a more satisfying job and heard about the Bell job through an aunt who works for the Salvation Army. “My whole theory was that God sent me here.”

It was a sometimes-rough transition. “I was learning to adapt to staff members without any culinary training,” she says. “I did question myself.”

The mother of 3-year-old twins, she returned three years ago for a second stint at Bell after five years at the Salvation Army camp in Malibu. It’s been a long time now since her haute cuisine days.

“It’s a spiritual journey,” she says one recent morning, sitting in her little office off the kitchen. “I’m losing my experience, but it’s really not about that.”

These days, she says, she’s bolstered by the thank-yous from diners.

GrowGood supplies about half the produce for the kitchen from its 1.5-acre plot. Much of the produce is used in soups, sauces, stir-fries and other dishes – all of which are made from scratch, she says.

In an effort to make sure the produce gets used as soon as possible, Carrillo-Wolfe and the farm manager, Corinne McAndrews, made some adjustments this summer. In the kitchen’s walk-in refrigerator, there’s a set of shelves dedicated to the farm produce. Food gets put into bins marked by date. What isn’t used in a week goes to a “farmers market,” where shelter residents who have kitchens can take whatever food they’ll use.

By Mary MacVean