Vietnam veteran and Turlock resident John Haggstrom has been cooking dinners in the American Legion Hall’s kitchen for 50 years, but none have been more important to the organization than those he’s hosting these days to raise funds during the coronavirus pandemic.
Turlock’s American Legion Rex Ish Post 88 is a haven for local veterans and community members alike, serving as a gathering place for not only those who have fought in our nation’s wars, but also as a space where birthday parties are held, weddings are celebrated and organizations can convene. Haggstrom has been an American Legion member for 54 years, he said, and the state shutdown due to COVID-19 has put the group’s mission of “continuing to serve America” at risk.
Through community outreach, veteran support and monetary donations, the American Legion makes it a point to give back to the communities they’ve already served in uniform. Post 88 previously made a majority of its funds through their beer booth, or “fun booth,” as Haggstrom refers to it, at the Stanislaus County Fair. One year the organization earned just over $100,000 in beer sales alone, but now that annual revenue is gone with the fair’s cancellation.
Now, the veteran is manning the kitchen on Friday nights and selling takeout dinners to the community in order to make up for funds lost.
“This COVID stuff really hit us hard. Our main source of money was the fair, and they took that all away from us…it did pay the bills for a long time,” Haggstrom said. “If we didn’t do these dinners, I think we’d probably fold up in a couple of years. The fair kept us going — we’re just trying to survive now.”
Every Friday night at 5 p.m., an upwards of 200 community members have driven through the Post 88 parking lot to pick up a meal. Sometimes steak is on the menu, and sometimes it’s chicken. On Friday night, customers were treated to slow-cooked ribs, potatoes, beans and coleslaw. Meals range from $8 to $10, depending on the night’s menu.
Haggstrom is used to cooking meals for Post 88 members every Tuesday and Friday, but seeing the community come out to support the organization in such large numbers has been a blessing.
“It makes my heart full. I love it,” he said.
For the first time on Monday, Haggstrom also began hosting a weekly “Burgers and Beer” night at the hall, where customers can grab — you guessed it — a burger and a beer for just $5. In addition, servicemen and women, police officers and firefighters who arrive in uniform receive a free burger.
Haggstrom hopes the meals can teach people about the American Legion and attract new members, which are hard to come by these days.
“We’re a dying organization. Our membership is dwindling,” he said. “My vision is to get people to know who we are. I think this might get everyone to know us and think it might be a good place to hang out.”
Haggstrom said he typically needs to know how many meals to make prior to the dinners, and community members can add him on Facebook or keep an eye out for his posts on the Turlock To Go page to place an order. For more information, call Rex Ish Post 88 at 209-634-4202.