By Margie M. Palmer
Perhaps you’ve grown to know Mama’s Kitchen through its annual Pie in the Sky bake sale—a fundraising event in which individuals and business volunteers from throughout San Diego County pre-sell donated apple, pecan and pumpkin pies in the month before Thanksgiving.
Regardless of how you’ve learned about the food-delivery organization, what’s most important is realizing all the good it does on a daily basis for San Diego County residents affected by HIV/AIDS and cancer—who often are too ill to meet their individual nutritional needs.
The organization was launched in 1990 at the height of the AIDS epidemic.
A group of volunteers from the AIDS Assistance Fund, who ran a small grocery store for low-income people with AIDS, discovered patients were dying from malnutrition long before their immune systems were overcome by AIDS-related infections.
“It was realized that if people were too sick and [were unable to go out and purchase food] that they were probably unable to prepare their own meals or meet their own nutritional needs,” said Alberto Cortes, executive director of Mama’s Kitchen.
The organizers’ solution to the problem was to create a meal-delivery service for patients too ill, isolated or emotionally devastated to shop and cook for themselves.
“There were two or three people who started it,” Cortes said. “As the months moved on it just grew from there.”
Unbeknownst to staff and their committed team of volunteers, though, was how quickly the need for their services would grow.
“I think we probably had 120 clients when I started, and at one point we were up to 410 clients per day,” said former Mama’s Kitchen Executive Director Carolyn McFarlane, who worked with the organization from 1994 to 2002.
“It jumped really fast,” she said. “There was a tremendous increase in the need of our service. It was almost scary at times because it was increasing so quickly, and the number of cases of people with HIV/AIDS was exploding.”
They quickly worked through the organization’s growing pains.
“The level of dedication of those involved was tremendous,” McFarlane said. “Through the hard work of the board, the staff and our volunteers we were able to respond quickly to the increase in need for our service, as well as greatly improve the services we provided.
“I just remember having this sense of wonderment at how fast a community can respond to a problem, and was in awe at the number of people who were just willing to give and give and give.”
In 2006 Mama’s Kitchen expanded its mission to serve people under the age of 60 with illnesses other than AIDS, and in 2009 Mama’s Kitchen’s scope was refocused to provide nutritional support to critically-ill local residents most vulnerable to hunger and malnutrition—those fighting AIDS or any type of cancer.
Last year alone, the Kitchen delivered 375,723 meals to a total of 1327 clients, free of charge. The organization has never turned away anyone qualified for the service.
To date, more than 5 million meals have been delivered.
“There has been a lot that we’ve accomplished in the past 20 years,” Cortes said.
Among Mama’s Kitchen’s long list of accomplishments is an expansion of its services during the recent economic downturn.
“In 2009 we were functioning on a budget that was 25 percent less than what we had been used to and still provided 14 percent more meals than in the year before,” he said.
Mama’s Kitchen volunteer Bobbi Harwood is among a team of 600 who dedicates their time to helping the organization further its mission.
“Mama’s Kitchen is providing a service that the community could not do without,” said Harwood, who has been volunteering there since she retired in 1998. “It’s a wonderful thing to be a part of. There is a small staff and many communal volunteers, and it’s wonderful to be a part of an organization that has been around for so long and is so well respected. I would never think of leaving.”
Mama’s Kitchen will mark its 20th anniversary with a gala brunch, “Great Gatsby! Mama Turns 20” on Sept. 12 from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. at a private Marston Hills home. Food, vintage champagne, classic cars, cabanas and live jazz will all be part of the event. Tickets are $125 and $250 each, with all proceeds benefiting Mama’s Kitchen. For more information, go to mamaskitchen.org.