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Mama's Kitchen's new facility with expanded services opens today

SAN DIEGO -- Starting today, Mama's Kitchen officially opens the doors to its new facility, increasing the organization's ability to serve San Diegans living with HIV/AIDS and cancer.

The organization's operations have been moved from a leased space in a church basement to an 11,000-square-foot, warehouse-style facility on Home Avenue. This a major step forward for Mama's Kitchen, which has been serving three hot meals a day to its clients, 365 days a year, since its founding in 1990.

When the organization was founded, many in the HIV/AIDS community had high hopes that a cure for the disease was near, with the organization's founders only intending to stay in business as long as there was a need.

"As the face of the disease evolved and people with AIDS were living longer, our organization recognized it could no longer plan and operate in response to a crisis," said Alberto Cortés, executive director of Mama's Kitchen.

Because of this, the Mama's Kitchen's staff and board of directors began a search for a new space, and purchased and renovated the building that will house their operations starting today. The organization says that the new space will increase its capacity to serve more people and provide more in-house prepared foods, while improving operational efficiency and organizational effectiveness.

About 75 people gathered at the two-story facility last week for a ribbon-cutting ceremony to celebrate the building's opening.

San Diego City Councilmember Todd Gloria, who was among the crowd of media, donors, elected officials and supporters who attended the event, said that the new facility is a symbol of Mama's Kitchen's long-standing support of the community.

"Mama's Kitchen has served San Diego for many years, and ownership of a new permanent facility will allow the organization to focus solely on its mission to assist the very ill," Gloria said. "Purchasing its facility demonstrates the strength of Mama's Kitchen and its long-term dedication to our community."

Todd Gabello, Mama's Kitchen board president-elect, agreed with Gloria, saying the new building means that the organization he is preparing to lead is committed to San Diego and fulfilling its mission.

"By purchasing a building, it says that we are here to stay and will continue to assist our clients until a cure is found for HIV/AIDS and cancer," Gabello said. "I strongly believe that if a cure was developed for both HIV and cancer, we would alter our mission to be an organization that is here to take care of the San Diego community – no matter what it is.”

While the new space will increase the organization's capacity to serve more individuals, Cortés says that he measures success based on community involvement.

"The number of people we will serve is measured by more than the facility," Cortés said. "The level of involvement of the San Diego community is the truest measure of the number of people we can serve. Involvement as volunteers and financial contributors. The ideal manifestation of our capacity will be knowing that no San Diego resident from whom we exist ever goes hungry."

Mama's Kitchen says that it served more than 325,000 meals to 509 home-bound individuals in 2010, and additional 43,000 equivalent meals to the 729 clients of the Mama's Pantry program. Nearly 750 people give their time to Mama's Kitchen as volunteers, contributing more than 30,000 hours annually.

The organization does have some service expansion plans in the works already, though.

The Mama's Pantry program, which provides free grocery items for clients, will now be housed at the main facility instead of at the separate North Park location it has been operating out of.

"We will be doubling the hours of operations at Mama’s Pantry’s now that it will be under the same roof," Cortés said. "And we will, soon after the move, be introducing perishable items at the Pantry."

Cortés said the new kitchen will allow for the expansion of menu items for the home-delivered meal service, including the addition of "flash-freezing" in-house prepared meals.

"Additionally, in the coming months, as we are settling into our new home, we will explore more ways of responding to community needs within the scope of our mission," Cortés said.

Cheryl Houk, who serves on the leadership team for the Mama's Kitchen Capital Campaign and previously served as the executive director of Stepping Stone, said she vividly recalls the early days of HIV/AIDS in San Diego County and the need for Mama's Kitchen.

"I remember back in the very early '90s, we were seeing so many HIV-positive and AIDS clients. Many were dying very quickly and the community was overwhelmed with grief and panic," Houk said. "Many of the people with AIDS were so quickly compromised by their health, they couldn't keep their jobs and were not eating properly, simply because they couldn't afford to or they just didn't feel well enough to even fix a meal for themselves."

Houk, who recalls how desperately the LGBT community scrambled to help these people stay alive, said Mama's Kitchen came along and "saved the day."

"The agency began as a result of a swiftly moving tragic epidemic. I am sure Mama's didn't even know how they were going to financially support feeding people on a daily basis, but they just started delivering meals directly to the people in need at their homes for free," Houk said.

"Mama's began saving lives and relieving people who were sick of worries of how they were going to feed themselves immediately. Mama's Kitchen was a godsend then and continues to be so today for people who's health issues have compromised their ability to feed themselves. The strong leadership, dedicated volunteers, and committment to serve continues to be invaluable to the San Diego community."

Dr. Ken Villa, current board president, said that the original mission of Mama's Kitchen still guides the organization today and establishing this permanent home strengthens that commitment.

"We are eliminating the worry of many logistical issues of this organization so that we may concentrate on what we do best - providing three meals a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year," Villa said.

To ensure the successful implementation of Mama's Kitchen's strategic goals, the organization has launched a capital campaign to raise $5.3 million. The campaign includes $1 million that will establish a permanent endowment to maintain the new building and sustain its operation.

"The goal of our capital campaign is to strengthen our organization by raising funds that will support our new facility and the long-term growth and evolution of our organization," Cortés said. "In the coming months Mama’s Kitchen will be unveiling unique opportunities for community involvement in our capital campaign."

For more information about Mama's Kitchen, to volunteer, or learn about opportunities to support the organization's work, click HERE or call (619) 233-6262.