As a restaurant owner for 18 years in downtown Oakland, Maria Alderete and her husband Rick Mitchell saw firsthand the astronomical rise in people living on the streets and the resulting misery.
They knew the estimated 3,300 unhoused in Oakland were not eating well, if much at all. A 2019 study commissioned for the Alameda County Community Food bank found about 12% of county residents have limited or uncertain access to healthy foods, with the rate reaching 40% in some neighborhoods.
With that in mind, the restaurateurs began rallying their extensive Oakland network to create Community Kitchens to feed homeless people and anyone who wants a free meal. When their restaurant closed earlier this year, they went forward with the project full throttle.
The free food enterprise Alderete and Mitchell created pays restaurants to cook meals and coordinates volunteer chefs working out of their homes to deliver 10,000 free meals a month to people living outside and to unrestricted sidewalk refrigerators placed in food deserts throughout the city.
A $400,000 grant from a Kaiser Permanente fund at the East Bay Community Foundation will pay for about half of the free meals the organization produces over the next year. The grant also supports outreach to residents to help them sign up for the state CalFresh food benefit program.
“We had an incredibly successful 18 years with Luka’s, our restaurant, and I felt I wanted to give back,” said Alderete. “When the pandemic hit, it was time to do something for our community.”
Community Kitchens pays 25 restaurants $10 for each meal they cook for the program, funded in part by a 1% surcharge on restaurant customer bills. The Dining for Justice surcharge brings in about $20,000 a month. In addition, about 25 volunteer home chefs cook meals and deliver them to the network of sidewalk refrigerators.
“Access to food is the most fundamental human need, and nutritious food is essential for good health,” said Yvette Radford, Kaiser Permanente Northern California vice president of External and Community Affairs. “This partnership reflects our deep commitment to improve health in the communities we serve and help people live longer, healthier lives.”
Expanding on their fundraising success, the couple are currently scouting a location in Oakland’s produce district near Jack London Square to build a $2.5 million central kitchen space that will produce meals for unhoused individuals. The project also envisions a restaurant business incubator, a public market that sells food, and retail space.
Audrey Rieben of Oakland is one of the home chefs who together cook and deliver about 1,000 meals a month to the sidewalk refrigerators throughout Oakland. After taking a 90-minute online course to get her California Food Handler’s Card, she jumped right in, recently making pork chops, green beans, and stuffing to drop off at a free food refrigerator on Macarthur Boulevard in East Oakland.
“It’s a nice way to help people,” said Rieben. “And there is obviously a need.”