Professional chefs help South Texas volunteers feed masses at migrant tent camp

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Volunteer group relieved to have outside help

This World Central Kitchen food truck has been in the Brownsville driveway of a volunteer since November (Courtesy photo)

McALLEN, Texas (Border Report) — A team of professional chefs from a disaster-relief nonprofit has arrived in South Texas to help train volunteers who have been cooking for thousands of migrants daily for months, oftentimes from their home kitchens.

Chefs with World Central Kitchen have been in Brownsville this week assessing what it takes to feed 2,500 asylum-seekers living across the river in Matamoros, Mexico.

On videos posted to social media, chef Tim Kilcoyne expressed amazement with how local volunteers from the grassroots organization Team Brownsville have managed to feed thousands of people five days of a week for the past several months. And he vowed World Central Kitchen would do all it could to help show volunteers cooking technique tips for food prepping for the masses, so they can continue to feed the migrants.

“We’re here. We have our food truck. We have a team in place. We should begin cooking in the next few days. We’re trying to integrate and work with Team Brownsville because they’ve done an amazing job and we just want to compliment them,” Kilcoyne said in a Facebook video.

Andrea Rudnik, volunteer coordinator for Team Brownsville, said she is relieved that the food troops have come to help, so to speak.

Her crew — which started in 2018 feeding 50 to 100 migrants per day at the tent encampment across the Rio Grande — said they have become overwhelmed trying to prepare evening meals for 2,500 people. Part of the difficulty is also transporting the meals in wagon carts over the Gateway International Bridge and then walking the food a couple of blocks into a plaza in Matamoros where thousands live.

“What we hope to gain is to learn from their experience with serving and prepping meals for a thousand or more people,” Rudnik said on Wednesday.

World Central Kitchen chef Tim Kilcoyne, far right, is seen beside Team Brownsville’s volunteer coordinator Andrea Rudnik in Brownsville, Texas. Kilcoyne and his chefs have come to South Texas to help the volunteers cook for the 2,500 asylum-seekers living in Matamoros, Mexico. (Courtesy Photo)

Most volunteers are in education

Rudnik, 59, is a retired teacher. In fact, most of the Team Brownsville volunteers are in education. Some are retired teachers or administrators; some still work full-time jobs, yet somehow find the time to volunteer dozens of hours per week. But Rudnik says with some professional food tips, they hope to streamline their operations and save time and effort.

“The core of the Team Brownsville group, we came together we were teachers and administrators in Brownsville ISD. We aren’t chefs,” Rudnik said.

Rudnik, who oversees a massive schedule of volunteers who come from across the country (and even Canada) to help the migrants, admits she seldom ever cooks. Once the numbers got above 150 migrants, she said that was beyond her abilities and capabilities in her home kitchen. But many others, like retirees from the Riverbend community — who call themselves the “Riverbenders” — still manage to provide massive spreads all from their home kitchens.

Read a story about the ‘Riverbenders’ providing presents to migrant children for 3 Kings Day.

Team Brownsville volunteers from the community of Riverbend take wagons filled with holiday stockings for Three Kings Day on Monday, Jan. 6, 2020, to migrant children living in Matamoros, Mexico. (Border Report Photo/Sandra Sanchez).

The number of asylum-seekers living on the streets of Matamoros quadrupled in mid-July when the Trump administration’s Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP) program was implemented in South Texas, forcing the migrants to remain in Mexico during their immigration hearings.

Nevertheless, Team Brownsville has somehow managed to provide the migrants with tents, tarps, clothing, shoes, and daily meals.

A migrant family is seen on Dec. 22, 2019, inside their tent in Matamoros, Mexico. (Border Report Photo/Sandra Sanchez).

1 meal costs $1,200

At least three groups of about 10 volunteers come to help every week, she said. Out-of-town volunteers must provide their own travel and lodging, though some fundraise and bring money to pay for the migrants’ meals. Team Brownsville also crowdsources online for donations and gives the groups gift certificates to shop for food at local grocery stores.

“We have more requests to come than we can actually accommodate,” said Rudnik, who serves on the Team Brownsville board of directors.

The operation has gotten so large that some groups will actually pay restaurants in Mexico to cook the meals for them, about $1,200 per meal. Now, Team Brownsville now pays a local taqueria located two blocks from the refugee camp to make breakfast burritos for the migrants every morning.

Rudnik explained that crossing back and forth during the morning rush hour took too long and volunteers with jobs could not return in time for work, so a few months ago they began contracting with a local one-room restaurant, which is overjoyed to get the daily basis.

The inside of the World Central Kitchen food truck where meals and mass meal prep training will begin later this month to help feed the asylum-seekers in Matamoros, Mexico. (Courtesy Photo)

Team Brownsville supplies dinners for the migrants every evening except for Wednesdays and Thursdays when Mexican pastors and their congregations send food to the encampment, Rudnik said.

The dinners they provide typically consist of rice-and-bean casserole, hot dogs or King Ranch casserole with chicken. One volunteer once paid for 200 pork tenderloin dinners, which Rudnik said was an extravagant meal the migrants enjoyed.

Since the summer, the meals have been cooked at a local homeless shelter that has a commercial kitchen, but Rudnik says the City of Brownsville is working with Team Brownsville to renovate a building near the bridge to convert it into a commercial kitchen where volunteers can do the cooking.

The food truck, which has been parked in Rudnik’s Brownsville driveway for about a month, is expected to be moved to that building’s parking lot, she said. Starting next week, Kilcoyne will start to train volunteers in quick kitchen techniques, large-menu planning and food shopping tips.

“Their plan is to park the food truck in that parking lot and then the City of Brownsville will renovate the inside of the building and then Team Brownsville can bring in commercial kitchen equipment,” she said.

Rudnik says she will be glad to see the back of the food truck, which has blocked her house’s view. She said she has been working since the summer to bring World Central Kitchen staff here to help. She said they have promised to stay anywhere from three months to a year.

Likewise, Mexican officials in Matamoros have erected a special meal serving pavilion, where Kilcoyne said he and his staff will distribute the meals. His organization also plans to bring in more tables and chairs “so people can actually sit down and have a dignified meal,” he said.

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