This chef loves cooking for homeless people

Rob Cox has a culinary degree and has managed other kitchens, but what makes him happy is cooking every day at the Shalom Community Center in Bloomington, Ind.

David Snodgress/Bloomington Herald-Times/AP
Rob Cox (l.), hunger relief coordinator at the Shalom Community Center in Bloomington, Ind., slices bread for bread pudding as Leland Carson cracks five dozen eggs on March 16.

Rob Cox doesn't hear too many complaints about his cooking.

People ask him where the hot sauce is from time to time, but that doesn't hurt his feelings. He understands it's more force of habit than lack of flavor.

Cox knows his hard work is appreciated at the Shalom Community Center in Bloomington, Ind., which helps people experiencing homelessness and poverty. Cox has been the center's hunger relief coordinator for the past six months.

"It's like a necessary evil, what we do here. Obviously, I'd prefer for homelessness to not be an issue, but that's just not the case," Cox said recently while supervising Shalom's daily free lunch. "Both mentally and spiritually, I am blessed to have this job."

Cox has a culinary degree and has managed other kitchens, often spending hours behind a desk each day placing orders for future meals. At Shalom, desk work is minimal.

The man with an imposing stature and friendly smile preps each day's meal from 8 to 11:30 a.m. with whatever ingredients are on hand. Cox, 48, said much of the food served at Shalom comes from Hoosier Hills Food Bank in Bloomington, while more donations come in from churches, sororities and fraternities.

"I open the back door and never know what will be waiting for me," Cox said of the facility. "People show up with bags of stuff, and then they thank me for taking it. I laugh and say 'thank you,' but I'm the one who should be thanking them. Everybody wins."

The variety that comes with a primarily donated storeroom provides Cox with a logistical challenge.

"Every day I come to work, it's like an episode of 'Chopped,' " Cox said, referencing the Food Network show where contestants are handed baskets of mystery ingredients and tasked to make something delicious. "I look at what we have and think about what I can make out of it. I love it.

"I get to cook every day, and that's what makes me happy."

Shalom prides itself in being an all-inclusive resource center for area homeless people, providing casework, street outreach and simply a place to hang out during the day. Sometimes overlooked, though, is the effect a warm meal can have on a person.

In the past year, Shalom served more than 74,000 meals through its kitchen.

"It's life-saving," Shalom executive director Forrest Gilmore said. "Nothing can be done without the basics in life. None of us can thrive without food in our belly or a roof over our head when we go to sleep at night. Having access to a daily meal means more than you'd think."

Gilmore said Cox has been fitting into the culture of the Shalom Center very well in his six months on the job. Cox's love for the job is apparent to Gilmore and to Shalom's clientele, who just want to eat a warm meal with friends.

"Being here makes them feel like home or reminds them of a time when things might have been better," Gilmore said.

Cox takes that charge seriously. Shalom usually has around 100 clients on any given day milling about during lunchtime. Cox said he tries to make enough food to fill 200 plates, so people can get a second helping if they want. Seconds are a given on spaghetti day, which is a staple at Shalom, or on days when Cox fixes up roast chicken or pork chops or, especially, his bread pudding.

"I know my clients, at least, the regulars," Cox said. "After a few months on the job, I've figured out what the hits are."

Meals are often ladled out by volunteers such as Levi Bolton, who was homeless for a couple of years before finding a stable apartment; now, he says he wants to give back to a place that gave him so much.

"When you're homeless, people look down on you wherever you go. When you come here, people look you in the eyes," Bolton said. "I'm happy to give back and be that person."

Cox said he relies heavily on volunteers, since he's the only paid member of the kitchen staff. Money is always tight at Shalom; that's just the nature of the business.

In order to alleviate the cost of about $1 a meal, Shalom has launched its annual Hunger Relief fundraising drive. This year, two donors have agreed to match 50 percent of every donation made now through April 30, up to a total of $30,000.

Shalom has also launched a social media campaign with another matching grant offer from Hand Up National Fund, a national nonprofit that supports local fundraising efforts. That campaign can be found at www.handup.org/campaigns/mealmatch.

To learn more or to donate to Shalom, visit www.shalomcommunitycenter.org.

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