Samantha Weigel/Daily Journal
Samaritan House’s top cook Ruby Kaho works at the nonprofit’s commercial-grade kitchen to prepare daily meals for hundreds of low-income people with the help of a dedicated crew of staff and volunteers.
When Ruby Kaho wakes up every weekday morning, she doesn’t always know what will fill her kitchen. One thing is for sure, however, she’s planning to feed hundreds of people throughout the community.
Kaho, who works as the kitchen manager for Samaritan House, is known for working miracles with whatever food comes her way — a skill she’s seasoned over the last 15 years. As the San Mateo-headquartered nonprofit never knows exactly what donations will be dropped off for the day, Kaho’s motto is simple: “make it work.”
Friday morning in the kitchen was abuzz as Kaho, along with her dedicated crew of staff and volunteers, were hard at work cooking for nearly 500 people depending on a free meal. Chicken with homemade gravy, baked salmon, vegetable stir-fried rice, salad and simple roast beef sandwiches were being prepared in nearly every corner of the commercial-grade kitchen.
“I love what I do for a living,” said Kaho, a 53-year-old San Mateo resident born in Tonga. “I love connecting with the people, I love connecting with the food. When you connect with food, you connect with family.”
Giving a nod to the Samaritan House logo, she said “it’s neighbor helping neighbor.”
Being able to work with what you’ve got — coworkers chuckle Kaho once found a way to incorporate calamari, one of the more random donations they’ve received — is undoubtedly one of her strong suits. But so too is her refined ability to stay on top of the various meal deliveries that change by the day, as well as the handful of longtime clients whose special requests she aims to appease.
With a variety of lists, she points to one 92-year-old who doesn’t like mashed potatoes and another who enjoys fish on Fridays — just two on the list of mobile meal recipients who receive food dropped off at their homes by volunteers.
Then there’s the summer lunch program at the Martin Luther King Jr. Center where this year they served over 3,400 meals. In the coming weeks, after-school snack programs will pick back up with hundreds of kids fed every day. Monday through Friday, they also serve breakfast to day laborers at the Worker Resource Center, at least 150 hot meals at their regular dining service and another 90 are fed at the Safe Harbor Shelter in South San Francisco. Through partnerships with local faith congregations, they make meals for hundreds of others in need seven days a week, said Kaho and La Trice Taylor, associate director of programs and services.
About 70 percent of their donations are organized through the Second Harvest Food Bank — of which Samaritan House is the county’s largest client. The other 30 percent comes from individual donations and grocery store “rescues” from local Trader Joe’s, Draeger’s Market and Costco.
“We do try to push healthy, healthy, healthy,” said Taylor, who helps clients register for programs like meal service. “That’s another thing we need to make sure keeps going.”
Volunteers drive truckloads of boxes filled with fresh bell peppers, tomatoes, strawberries, bread, lettuce, chicken, sausage, fish, yogurt, milk, eggs, cake, pizza crusts, veggie burgers, fresh flowers and much, much more.
As quickly as food is dropped off, it may only be a matter of minutes before it goes right back out the door to someone in need either through the grocery pickup or after Kaho and her crew whip up a meal.
As early as 8 a.m., Kaho can be heard directing staff and volunteers as she organizes enough food to feed thousands.
Every so often her strong voice with remnants of a Polynesian accent can be heard, “lemon!,” “rice is done!,” “fridge is open!,” “can you stir this?” “coming through!” and always followed by a “thank you!”
Kaho recognizes the power in numbers, noting her staff and volunteers ranging from 8 to 92 years old, are at the core of the work they do.
“You really appreciate it. The more hands they throw in, the more work that gets done. It’s not like me myself, without them we’re not going to make a difference,” Kaho said, adding “you’re connected, it’s like family.”
But having spent the last 15 years working at Samaritan House from delivering meals to rising as the nonprofit’s top cook, she’s built deep connections and lost good friends. She’s been to 65 funerals of volunteers she’s worked with over the years.
After moving to the United States as a teen, Kaho began cleaning homes before working at a hospital kitchen. She raised seven children and is thankful to go home to her husband and family who help cook for the household, she said with a smile.
Twice a day, she stops by the home of John Kelly, the former longtime Samaritan House executive director, now in his late 80s.
“I call Samaritan House the great heart of a great community. And at its heart, are people just like Ruby, that’s what it’s really all about,” said Bart Charlow, who took over as executive director in 2014.
One of her proudest accomplishments was during a recent Thanksgiving. After years of striving to arrange a meal service at the Rotary Hacienda Senior Apartments in San Mateo, Kaho was pleased to report she succeeded. Overcome with emotion as tears filled her eyes, Kaho described the low-income seniors as an elderly community that had seemed overlooked. Now, she’s pleased they now do a monthly meal service. Another dream is to host a massive Thanksgiving dinner so large it would require people to meet at the local San Mateo County Event Center.
In her line of work, she’s seen how people in the community struggle to make ends meet. She notes the demand for services has increased, particularly as people continue to grapple with the region’s increasing cost of living and high rents. And that’s where Samaritan House steps in; because people need to eat, so the kitchen continues to open every day and people like Ruby will be there to help.
“When you serve them, they feel good. They sleep in the night because they have a happy face and a happy meal,” Kaho said. “You feel good about it, because they receive the food and they feel good. And sometimes I get tired, but when you’re finished, you look at it and remember that.”
Visit samaritanhousesanmateo.org for more information about Samaritan House.
(650) 344-5200 ext. 106