Formerly a celebrated Southern California chef, Bill Bracken is now feeding the hungry in a food truck called “Betsy.”
You might have run into Bill Bracken at the Peninsula Beverly Hills, the Four Seasons Hotel in Newport Beach (now the Island Hotel) or DivBar restaurant in Newport, where he served as executive chef for a total of 35 years. He is now in charge of Bracken’s Kitchen, a hunger relief organization that provides food to economically deprived people in Southern California. So, how did he get there?
“I felt I was being called to use my talents for something more meaningful,” Bracken says.
While he was still working in the high profile culinary community, Bracken became involved in working with nonprofits, in particular volunteering as a regular guest chef at the Orange County Rescue Mission in Tustin. It was there that he witnessed first-hand the significant levels of food insecurities that exist in Orange County and set about to find a way to leverage his talent, experience and connections to make a difference and feed the hungry.
“I wanted to provide tasty and nutritious meals to those people forced to choose between food and other life necessities,” Bracken says.
Bracken tells us there are nearly 400,000 people who struggle with hunger in Orange County, and one in five children are at risk of hunger each month.
“When people lose their jobs or their homes, it’s shocking,” Bracken states. “The image of Orange County is beaches and Disneyland, but there are many more troubled areas than we could possibly image.”
It seemed simple enough – open a restaurant – they even had the name, Let Us Eat, where, on certain nights, it would morph into “Lett-uce Feed,” and needy people would eat for free. There was one big problem–transportation. How were they to get there?
Thus, Bracken’s food truck program was born in 2013, thanks to Bruce’s Catering in Los Angeles, whose owner Bruce Hecker donated the first food truck he had purchased for his business to Bracken’s newly-established nonprofit dubbed Bracken’s Kitchen. It was called “Betsy.”
With his established food truck program in full swing, Bracken’s food model provides a complete well-balanced dinner for an average price of $.50. Along with the meal, Bracken provides a fun, upbeat environment with music playing and tables and chairs to enjoy the healthy repast.
“The children look forward to the meals with anticipation on the day that the big red truck pulls up,” Bracken says.
Known as “Uncle Bill” to the kids, he often takes a break from his prep to play with them and engage on a personal level. Why?
“Because feeding people is not the same as nourishing them,” he states.
To have the greatest impact, Bracken has partnered with other nonprofit organizations. On Tuesday nights, Betsy is parked at Illumination Foundation’s Santa Ana Children’s Resource Center, where approximately 150 people are fed. Through Bracken’s Kitchen’s collaboration with Working Wardrobes, they are able to serve on a regular basis graduates of its VetNet program, which provides services to unemployed, and often, homeless veterans. Feeding the families of children with cancer through the programs established by Miracles for Kids is also in the mix.
Bracken is excited about his newest partnership with LA Specialty Produce and their Chefs to End Hunger initiative. Rescuing leftover food from hotels and restaurants is a new movement in California since the passage of the Good Samaritan Act. The rescued food, which would normally go to waste, is cooked, prepared and processed to create healthy and nutritious meals. In addition, Bracken is developing a mentorship program through the Chefs to End Hunger initiative, where at-risk young men and women are trained for jobs in the culinary world.
“Several young people I worked with at the OC Rescue Mission are now working in the food industry through the Chefs to End Hunger program,” Bracken shares.
“Our bigger message is to truly help change lives through food,” he says. “Food is a powerful thing. Coming from a small town in Kansas, food was part of our lives– whether working in the family garden, canning the produce, Friday night socials, weddings, funerals and other gatherings–food was part of it all. Breaking bread with people breaks down all the walls, and food is the conduit to change lives.”
We want to feed the most vulnerable and most at-risk in society,” Bracken says, “but we also want to change lives, and it all starts with the food truck.”
“We want to feed the most vulnerable and most at-risk in society,” Bracken says, “but we also want to change lives, and it all starts with the food truck.”
An upbeat Bracken concludes, “2016 will be an exciting year for us!”
BrackensKitchen.org / 949.445.3585