Former member of Peninsula Boys & Girls Club turned chef returns to feed community

The Boys & Girls Club of the Peninsula are giving back to the community, with the help of a former club member.  

Andres Pantoja is now a chef. He's joined by staff members and volunteers in Redwood City and East Palo Alto in preparing some 2,000 meals a day for people in need.

Pantoja said it's important that the meals are nutritious and offer comfort.

With the blow of a whistle, volunteers at the Boys & Girls Club in Redwood City start distributing free meals five days a week.

On Thursday, there was an added bonus. Many unemployed folks received boxes of produce from Second Harvest Food Bank.

"I almost didn't believe it. It's too good to be true, but it's true," said Joe Zapien, a school bus driver who says it's been financially difficult for him and his family during the pandemic. 

Fatima Arraya, a single mother of three from Redwood City said she lost her job as a hotel housekeeper, "No money, food for my children."

This giveaway started days after the club shut down its services to at-risk and low income youth in mid-March due to COVID-19 restrictions.

Behind the scenes in the kitchen, Pantoja prepares the food with close attention to detail.

He worked as a sous chef at an upscale restaurant in Palo Alto.

But when the 28-year-old heard about this opportunity to cook for families in need, it was a natural next step. 

"I thought it was super cool to help out the club that I was kind of raised in," said Pantoja. 

He said he was a member from the time he was seven-years-old until he was 18.

The CEO of the Boys & Girls Clubs of the Peninsula saw Pantoja working at the restaurant and offered him a job cooking for the meal giveaway program.

"He cares about the community. He knows the families and that's what the club is about.

We hire so many of our former club kids. It's a life cycle," said Peter Fortenbaugh, CEO of Boys & Girls Clubs of the Peninsula.  

Pantoja describes his cooking as a blend of his heritage: Mexican, Guatamalan, Californian with Asian influence.

"These are beans, specifically pinto beans," said Pantoja as he walked in the garden behind the club.

His approach: garden to table.

He grows his own herbs and vegetables on premise. 

"We're not just giving them something to fill their bellies," said Pantoja, "You want love in your life. You want something to balance out the stress. Put something delicious in your mouth and forget about the world around you for one second and just live and be happy again."

The meal giveaway program will end when the Boys & Girls club is able to resume normal operations.

As for Pantoja, he plans to teach cooking classes to students here at the club and to hopefully, inspire them to become chefs.

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