Feeding the community with compassion
Through Family Kitchen’s red door entrance, a noticeable hum alerts visitors to a well-oiled machine in operation. Every month, over 250 volunteers enter and immediately insert themselves as one of the essential gears in the process of preparing approximately 5,000 meals for those in need in our community. Except this hum isn’t mechanical at all. It’s a din of loud chatter, boisterous laughter, and clanging pots.
Family Kitchen began in 1986 as a response to the local mill closures. Assuming that many families would soon be in financial trauma, a group of women from Trinity Episcopal Church began serving home-cooked meals one day a week. The program expanded quickly as other churches offered up additional volunteers and food. Today, Family Kitchen is still housed on the Trinity Episcopal Church campus, now as the primary user of the kitchen and dining room in St. Helens Hall. In addition to the many churches who provide meal teams, there are teams from local businesses, service groups and even groups of friends.
“I am so impressed with the volunteers and organization,” raves Phoebe Degree, a volunteer since the beginning. “What started as a tiny thing has developed into such a community-oriented entity.”
From the beginning, there has been a simple and clear mission: to serve a nutritious meal to anyone in need in a safe and caring environment.
All meals are cooked onsite with the goal of being a well-rounded, hearty fare every time. The food is fit for kings and queens, while not considered a luxury. For the past three years, this includes a great deal of protein-rich, high-quality ingredients through a generous partnership with Newport Avenue Market and their shoppers. The market’s ‘Food for February’ program provides premium meats, cheeses, milk and eggs all year. Depending upon the season and availability, local farmers provide fresh produce. The Savory Spice Shop chips in with regular shipments of fabulous spices. And, Safeway and Costco regularly donates a wonderful array of desserts.
“I eat at Family Kitchen because I can’t afford to buy groceries and because of the quality of food and the way it is served. If only I could express my appreciation for everything they do for us,” explained a Family Kitchen regular.
All are served. No questions asked and no forms to fill out. Patrons at Family Kitchen are referred to as, “the diners” and never, “the homeless.” Family Kitchen diners are unemployed, underemployed or employed. They are healthy, mentally or physically ill, or aging. They are babies, children, teens, adults, and seniors. Some have houses or apartments, some sleep in tents, some are couch-surfing.
“We don’t claim to know what their individual situation may be and we don’t want to be making assumptions. If a diner arrives in a Mercedes, they are welcome to eat here. I just can’t be so sure that they aren’t sleeping in that Mercedes and it’s just not any of my business,” says Kitchen Program Coordinator Cindy Tidball.
Volunteers are encouraged to make a connection with diners. At the very least, there will be a greeting with eye contact and a question regarding meal preference. At best, volunteers and diners will know one another’s stories and can check-in regularly. Diners regularly rave not only about the food they’re served, but also the respect they’re shown and the feeling of dignity in what is otherwise a vulnerable situation.
During a recent Friday dinner, a regular diner, who is also a volunteer, sat with her husband and their usual crowd. She was softly crying while her companions were commiserating with her. “It’s the holidays,” she said. “It’s a tough time to be in our situation. That’s why I come here, though. I’ve got people to check-in with who understand.”
In March, Family Kitchen will celebrate thirty years of helping people. These days, there are a few more gears allowing the bigger machine to run smoothly, yet the goal is the same: provide a good meal and a dose of dignity to every diner who walks through that red door.
231 NW Idaho