PARK SLOPE — When Park Slope resident Jen Halpin tells people she runs a Hurricane Sandy relief kitchen in the neighborhood, they tend to look at her with surprise.
Nearly five months after the superstorm struck, it's a distant memory for some, especially in neighborhoods like Park Slope that suffered relatively minimal damage.
But Halpin is still busy helming a kitchen that churns out 2,500 meals a week for families in hard-hit areas like the Rockaways, Gerritsen Beach and Staten Island, places where some are still waiting on insurance money to rebuild homes and access to fresh produce is limited because grocery stores remain closed.
"People think time has passed and things are getting better... [But] so many people, their kitchens were destroyed," Halpin said. "The need is definitely there."
The all-volunteer kitchen was started by Andy Wandzilak, the owner of Two Boots Brooklyn on Second Street, who decided to take action after he visited the Rockaways in the wake of the storm with a friend whose home was destroyed. Wandzilak contributed the way he knew best — by cooking.
At first he prepared food in a backyard tent at Two Boots, but soon found a more workable set-up at Old First Reformed Church on Seventh Avenue. Pastor Daniel Meeter is a regular at Two Boots and offered up his house of worship for the relief kitchen.
Now the church's 1891 sanctuary — which isn't in use by the congregation because chunks of plaster have been falling from its ceiling — is serving as a warehouse for the relief kitchen, with 50-pound bags of onions, potatoes and rice looking a little out of place among the jewel-like stained glass windows and massive pipe organ.
"It's the prettiest store room I've ever used," joked Wandzilak. "In the morning the sun streams through the angel window as I'm sorting through cans of beans."
On Thursday, the church's light-filled kitchen hummed with activity. The sweet scent of garam masala wafted out of a 10-gallon pot of Indian chickpea stew while giant trays of pasta primavera heated in the oven. A team of volunteers peeled dozens of sweet potatoes in one corner while another cleaned beef for the next day's stew.
The cooking is supervised by Katie O'Donnell, a former chef de cuisine at the Manhattan restaurant Esca. She's one of dozens of volunteers from near and far who have chipped in time and donations.
A radio station from Baltimore sent two buses and a moving truck full of supplies, and groups of students from Bluffton University in Ohio and Morehead State University in Kentucky spent their spring breaks making sandwiches in the church's meeting room.
Very few of the relief kitchen's volunteers are members of Old First Reformed, but Pastor Meeter says he's happy to open his doors to the community-fueled charity.
"Our mission is to soften the boundary between the church and the community," Meeter said. "We think the fact that we can offer shelter for the relief kitchen is great."
It costs about $3,000 a week to run the kitchen, which prepares and delivers hot meals and sandwiches. With donations on the wane, the kitchen will be forced to cut back operations next month because it can't afford to continue at its current pace.
The relief kitchen is hosting a fundraiser with live bands and a buffet on Sunday that organizers hope will keep their effort afloat.
"This is a way we can tell people we haven't forgotten about them," Halpin said. "We've heard stories of people eating cereal... Relief [groups] are starting to pull out of the areas. For the people that need it the most, who don't have access to hot food, it's more urgent than ever."
The March 24 fundraiser for the Hurricane Sandy Relief Kitchen starts at 5 p.m. at Old First Reformed Church, 729 Carroll St. For more information click here.