COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) -- One evening years ago, Jewel McCoy was preparing to serve dinner at the Faith Mission when a hunter dropped a deer at the door.
"He put it right on the dock -- horns and all," said McCoy, the food-service manager at the time and a cook at the shelter since last year.
With no way to process the animal, she couldn't use the donation -- but she graciously accepted it nonetheless.
"We don't turn anything away," she said. "I wanted to make him feel good about coming to donate to us."
The sentiment is familiar among the dozens of shelters and soup kitchens that serve the poor and hungry in Columbus: All donations are welcome.
On a daily basis, the core philosophy makes for some interesting scenarios for the kitchen crews:
. A man at the door of the Open Shelter has four shopping bags of fresh tomatoes to give.
. A supermarket ships 6,000 soon-to-expire sandwich buns to the Faith Mission.
. A wedding is canceled, and a banquet hall donates 500 fancy meals to the Community Kitchen.
The unexpected extras sometimes leave shelter cooks and volunteers to cobble together dishes and meals almost on the fly.
"Nothing ever runs perfectly; you have your hiccups," said Geoff Rife, an employee at the Community Kitchen, 640 S. Ohio Ave. "But we figure something out pretty quick."
One late-summer day at the Community Kitchen, a line formed in front of the lunch counter by 11:15 a.m., 15 minutes before any serving would begin.
The kitchen, which offers breakfast and lunch, serves 600 to 700 meals a day, supervisor Eric Smith said.
"There's a big need," Smith said. "A lot of people out there are hungry. A lot of people, they haven't eaten in days."
According to the Community Shelter Board, which directs funding for Franklin County shelters, Columbus had 1,418 homeless people during its annual one-day count in 2011. Also last year, according to the board's annual report, 8,368 people used its emergency-shelter system.
Meanwhile, the Mid-Ohio Foodbank in 2011 reported receiving a combined 812,283 requests at the estimated 270 food pantries it supplies, with its 29 meal sites serving a combined 1.6 million-plus meals.
The volume of people in need and the disjointed nature of donations make life interesting for the cooks and kitchen staff charged with putting meals together.
Above all else, they must be flexible and nimble.
"We don't stop serving because we run out of food," said Sue Villilo, executive director of Faith Mission, which serves three meals a day, seven days a week, at its kitchen at 151 N. 6th St. " If more people show up than the cook anticipated, we expect them to start cooking again.
"That's a hard thing for a lot of people to wrap their head around: 'I've already done a meal, and now you're telling me to do another?' "
Such challenges, Villilo said, are a regular topic whenever Faith Mission interviews applicants for one of its six full-time cook positions.
"In addition to finding someone who knows how to prepare mass-quantity meals," she said, "we talk about flexibility and creativity."
By far the largest provider of food is the Mid-Ohio Foodbank, which last year distributed more than 19 million pounds of food in Franklin County.
Other vital sources include restaurants, supermarkets and other retail outlets, which donate surplus food.
While the staff at the Community Kitchen was serving lunch on that August day, a Mid-Ohio Foodbank truck pulled up outside, making its weekly visit to drop off food donated through a program called Second Servings.
Driver Mike Emery unloaded cases of wrapped sandwiches (including turkey and cheddar on focaccia bread) from Port Columbus and frozen sliced potatoes from University Hospital East.
Eyeing the potatoes, Rife commented, "That's breakfast one day next week."
As Emery unloaded the goods, kitchen workers teased him about not "sneaking" them cases of buns or bread. Typically, they said, the kitchen receives such an abundance of donated bread that workers can't use it all before it goes bad.
"When the bread is getting older, we will bag it up and put it out on the (dining-room) tables for people to take home," Rife said. "But even then, we end up with too much. It's just an overproduced commodity."
Which explains why, on the day that the Faith Mission received the 6,000 soon-to-expire buns, Villilo "was calling other meal providers, asking, 'How many would you like?' "
"A lot of sharing goes on," she noted.
The bounty of homegrown tomatoes given to the Open Shelter, Executive Director Kent Beittel said, was used in the daily lunches that volunteers prepare and deliver to the homeless.
"When you're doing sack lunches and can suddenly offer fresh sliced tomatoes, that's pretty cool," Beittel said.
Other shelters and soup kitchens likewise do a lot of improvising.
At the Community Kitchen recently, Smith, the kitchen supervisor, was re-purposing some beef roasts donated by students at the Columbus Culinary Institute. Without enough meat to make an entree, he directed his staff to stretch the donations by chopping the beef and mixing it with noodles.
He joked about how the Community Kitchen serves as a "guinea pig" for the cooking students, then noted that he could remember only one time in his 18 months on the job that a donation proved inedible.
"It was a caper sauce," he said, scrunching up his face. "It was horrible."
With the lunch hour looming, Smith could see that the coleslaw being prepared for the day probably wasn't sufficient. So he directed the staff to pull a container of leftover salad from a cooler and add to it, so that every client in line would get a vegetable.
The cooks generally roll with the changes.
"We have to improvise from the beginning of the meal," McCoy said. "You have a certain amount of something, and, if you run out, you put a side meal on. We're challenged when that happens, but I'm one of those workers who likes to be challenged."
Many of the cooks handle the chaos well because, to them, it all comes down to the lines of people, waiting, day after day.
"My mom fed the hobos coming off the (railroad) tracks, and that's how we started cooking in my family," said Peppy Fraley, who has cooked at the Community Kitchen for 14 years.
"I want to make people happy," she said. "I want to make them full, and I just want to brighten their day in some kind of way."
Minutes later, men, women and children were shuffling past the serving line as volunteers filled trays with hot dogs, baked beans, coleslaw and their choice of various desserts.
The shelter had no ketchup or yellow mustard to offer the hungry clientele.
Thanks to a donation, though, it did have Grey Poupon.
Information from: The Columbus Dispatch, http://www.dispatch.com