In Italy, the word mangia means to eat. So it was fitting when Mangia Italian Kitchen owner Raul Escareno recently began helping people in San Benito County by giving away food so they too can eat for the day.
The 32-year-old restaurant owner went above and beyond on Dec. 21 by providing almost 350 spaghetti meals that were packed with a side of TLC: tender love and care.
“It was one of those things where everybody got to eat, everybody can have a piece of the pie,” Escareno said. “It’s just to have hope and give you that little push that you need. And who knows, maybe this meal might be the one thing people need to get over that hill, over that obstacle in life.”
Escareno teamed up with the Community FoodBank of San Benito, which had an abundance of raw spaghetti that was donated by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. They transformed the parking lot into a drive-thru service to hand out trays of spaghetti with marinara sauce, salad donated by Taylor Farms and cookies made by various community members.
Staff from La Sabrosa Mexican Cuisine in Hollister and FlapJacks Breakfast & Grill in Tres Pinos were in the kitchen at the Veterans’ Memorial Building as early as 8am cooking the pasta. Escareno and his crew made their signature sauce that includes secret ingredients he’s not allowed to reveal.
“It was of a collaboration with everybody who’s just trying to do something good,” he said. “You’ve got to end the year with a big bang.”
Each tray was enough to feed a family of four and the initial goal was to provide 50 trays. But the goal grew to 200 meals and by the time they knew it they were up to 340 trays with hopes of feeding at least 1,200 people.
Sarah Nordwick, community engagement and development director at Community FoodBank, said it took several pieces of the puzzle to come together in order for them to see the full picture.
“We’re all coming together whether it’s a non-profit, a business or a grower, all for one purpose and that’s to feed those who need it during the holidays,” she said. “Our goal is to provide a little bit of joy and some full bellies for the holiday season.”
Nordwick wanted to come up with an idea to try something different by offering a cooked meal, especially to those who might not have access to a full kitchen. They needed access to a kitchen and Escareno was more than happy to offer his along with his services, she said.
“It’s a pretty amazing thing considering restaurants are struggling,” Nordwick said. “So the fact that he’s willing to donate his time and energy to make this happen is pretty amazing.”
Mayra Garcia was one of the volunteers who was handing out spaghetti meals to local community members. But it wasn’t the first time she’s helped out at an event similar to this one.
“I just like to come out and help people, especially when I heard that [Escareno] was doing it,” she said. “What he’s doing is something really nice for everybody.”
Garcia, who is a friend of Escareno, was amazed to see how many volunteers showed up to help him out. She believes that people might not know what others are going through, which is all the more reason to give back to those in need.
“There’s probably people that are experiencing worse than what others are, they probably lost their job or they’re trying to make up for rent,” she said.
Escareno admits he doesn’t know what it feels like to have his two young children go to bed with an empty stomach, which is the main reason he decided to start giving meals away. He understands it’s been a tough time for restaurants and small businesses, but he figured out there’s a way to bless those who need a helping hand.
“You have to spread the Christmas spirit,” he said.
Escareno began his own operation by giving away meals to people who called in, explaining to them that a free meal for “Sally” or “Bob” would be waiting for them. He would listen to one story after another, but it became overwhelming trying to help everybody, and at times he couldn’t sleep at night.
Escareno added that most of this wouldn’t have been possible without his wife, Yvone Sanchez, who urged him to come up with a way to serve those in need.
Nordwick reached out to Escareno so they could collaborate on making enough spaghetti to feed hundreds of families. He said he couldn’t have put together so many trays of food on his restaurant budget.
The food bank provided the spaghetti and most of the tomatoes for the sauce, while Taylor Farms donated the greens for a salad mix. He mentioned that all of the work and effort will be well worth it once each of those meals was handed out.
“I’m hoping we get a good turnout,” Escareno said. “I figured I’d close the restaurant down and make it worth my while. The more families we feed, the better.”
He mentioned this was the most pasta he’s had to cook in a while, but he doesn’t plan to stop. He already has another spaghetti giveaway planned some time after the new year, or maybe another one before the end of December.
Garcia understands that some people might be embarrassed to receive donated food, fearing that someone they know might spot them. However, she wants to assure those same people that there’s nothing wrong with a free meal.
“It’s worth it for them to come,” she said. “Why are you going to sleep at night without food in your stomach? It’s really nice to see people coming by.”