Food connects us, especially at this time of year. In Contra Costa County, food links hundreds of organizations and businesses bringing free nourishment to those who need it most. Through word of mouth, I’ve come to know a number of groups helping to feed the community. I first reported on Loaves and Fishes of Contra Costa who referred me to White Pony Express with its hundreds of volunteers crisscrossing the county delivering fresh quality food seven days a week. White Pony Express next referred me to their fresh fruit supplier, The Urban Farmers. The Urban Farmers spoke highly of Open Heart Kitchen that serves their fruit with free hot meals every weekday and packs it in their weekend bagged lunches for kids to eat when in school.
I met with Linda McKeever, executive director of Open Heart Kitchen at Vineyard Christian Fellowship to learn more about the organization. We sat in the dining room in front of a window where clients were picking up Thanksgiving parcels, including donated turkeys for their holiday meals. The Kitchen rotates its locations five days a week throughout the area.
Linda worked in the financial industry for more than 25 years and always served on nonprofit boards. After retiring, and while still serving on the board of the Open Heart, she completed a nonprofit certification program at Cal State East Bay. Facing a financial crisis, the organization asked her to take the helm of Open Heart.
Seeing the Need to Feed
Linda McKeever: Open Heart Kitchen started in 1995. We started out with a few women from the interfaith community in the Tri-Valley area and they started serving literally soup and bread. They looked at the workers in the fields and saw a need. And from that time we have grown and continue to grow through different programs. Now we serve over 313,000 meals a year (2014 count).
One of the things that’s happened in the last year is that a service provider to seniors decided to no longer serve low income seniors in tri-valley. We went from serving one senior center to seven senior centers in less than 18 months. We did that because we’re local, we’re in the community, our kitchens are right here. Our funding comes from the community.
We have eighteen schools with Title I kids who get free or reduced priced meals during the week, but there’s no funding whatsoever for the weekends. Our organization, through private funding, picks that up and we make sure that the kids — and their younger siblings — have two healthy lunches over the weekends. So, we make sure that they have two pieces of fruit in there, that there’s juice with vitamin C and shelf-stable milk, whole grain muffins, carrots, we look at protein, Vitamin C and D and make sure there’s enough in there for a child to eat. We work with Kaiser and with a nutritionist. Every week we reach more than 2,000 children in the area. Our volunteers pack it up here on Thursdays and we deliver to schools on Friday mornings.
Underemployment and Hunger
I would ask people to ask themselves when the last time was they purchased something from a Walmart, a grocery store, and to think about living on that salary with a family of four as a single mother in this area. You are probably looking at $35,000 or less a year. We’re seeing a lot more single fathers in the area, too, and we are seeing the elderly and youth very affected by poverty here.
We serve veterans, we serve homeless, we serve anybody in need, but our biggest population is the underemployed. So many people have gone from full time high-paying jobs to part-time and not so high paying jobs. How are you surviving? Are you going to pay your electric bills, are you possibly going to try to stay in your house or not, even a rental, think about the rents in the area, and how are you going to make it? And if you say I cannot afford this, where are you going to go? Are you going to lose that job?
We want to provide the community with a safety net. That’s our goal. We are 98 percent volunteers. Every day, Monday through Friday, we have four senior centers running (and 3 more running one day a week), we have a hot meal site running, and every Friday we deliver the box lunch program. We make all the meals fresh daily. Any one can get a meal and take it home. Take food home to you and your family. The senior meal program is senior-nutritionally friendly – no salt, low sugar, everything is looked at by a dietitian and approved by Alameda Aging Agency and everything is posted for the seniors a month in advance.
Our community supports us in multiple ways; volunteer hours, food drives, they grow gardens for us, donate food for us, and they donate financially to us. Some of our main supporters are the church groups, the philanthropic groups like the Lions Club, the Rotary Club and support from corporations. Work Day has been unbelievably kind to us, Wells Fargo, Fremont Bank is a wonderful partners. Safeway, Trader Joe’s, others.
In addition to the meal services that Open Heart Services provides, there are services run by others at sites we share. You can come and get a haircut here (at Vineyard Christian Fellowship, for example), you can wash your clothes here, and at two of the sites where we serve food you can take showers. There are also sites with homeless refuge when the temperatures drop. The Hope Van also comes out for medical services. We collaborate with Axis Community Health. We are very fortunate to have such a supportive community and partners.