Ruthie McDonough had no food background when she volunteered at Rosie’s Place 13 years ago. For the last seven years, the Allston native has served as the dining room manager, overseeing the revamp of food quality standards at the longtime women’s sanctuary. Following USDA nutrition guidelines, McDonough redid the menu to offer healthier options, including one serving of fruit per meal, two servings of vegetables, more fiber, and lower sodium and fat. “It was definitely a learning curve, changing the menu. Ruthie tried to make a beet salad and the women were running away from it,” says Sue Marsh, executive director of Rosie’s Place. “I think they really had to retrain their palates because they were used to salty food and sugary food.”
Last year, McDonough and her rotating staff of about 1,500 volunteers, many of whom also have no food experience, served more than 78,000 meals, an increase of about 5,000 over 2011. “I would challenge any other program in the city to match the way Ruthie’s created a menu that not only keeps the women full, but feeds them well,” Marsh says. McDonough told us about her food mission and the challenges and rewards it has brought.
Q. You were working in a warehouse part time when you and your daughter first volunteered at Rosie’s Place. What appealed to you about the center?
A. Everything. It offers a lot of different services to the women and it has a really good spirit. You walk through the door and everyone’s treated with kindness and compassion.
Q. What were guests eating before you starting implementing menu changes?
A. There were a lot of hot dogs, a lot of sandwiches, a lot of processed foods with sodium, a lot of chips and pickles and french fries, a lot of things that could be cooked really quickly. And the women got used to eating all these products and they suffered from different health conditions like diabetes and high blood pressure, and I thought, if we change the meals, we’ll help the women with their health.
Q. You coordinate 150 volunteer groups that donate about half the food you serve. How did they take to the menu alterations?
A. We had someone who was bringing in a casserole the first Monday of the month, and she did that for 38 years. So when I suggested some changes to her meals to make them reach our standards, some of the volunteers didn’t like the change but a lot of them really helped out. We told them that they had to start providing sauces that were made from scratch, less canned stuff. A lot of processed foods with sodium that they were bringing in, they had to change that. It was a slow process, but we’ve converted the meals to reach our standards.
Q. You partnered with local farms. How did that help the transition?
A. In 2009, we reached out to the farmers and asked them if they’d like to donate some of their produce to us. And then we set it up with volunteers and staff and people on the board to go over to the farms and pick up all the produce and drop it off here. We decided to use all the fresh vegetables in the kitchen and what we have left, we give to the grocery program. So we have about 10 different farms that we’re working with. We also partnered with [the nonprofit food rescue program] Lovin’ Spoonfuls, who pick up and drop off to us.
Q. How much money do those farm partnerships save the program?
A. We saved about $25,000 worth of fresh produce for our dining room and the food pantry. And the donations are seasonal, so that means everything from strawberries in the summer to squash in the fall to asparagus in the spring. This allows the guests to also cook seasonally if we give it out in the grocery program.