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Mama’s Kitchen Feeds San Diegans Living With AIDS Or Cancer


In the early years of the AIDS epidemic, volunteers at a San Diego food pantry noticed that some of it's clients, sick with the AIDS virus became too sick to pick up their food. The idea for Mama's Kitchen was born in 1990, and since then the organization has served more than 5 million meals. We talk to Alberto Cortés about the history of the organization and its mission to address nutritional needs of people living with AIDS or cancer.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): A food delivery service might not seem like a life-saving idea but back in 1990, that's just what Mama's Kitchen was. Many people suffering with AIDS in San Diego were desperately ill and could not take care of basic needs, like preparing food. Since that time, the clientele of Mama's Kitchen has expanded, and thousands of volunteers have made and delivered meals to sick and needy people in our community. This year, Mama's Kitchen celebrates it's 20th anniversary in a very stylish way. I'd like to introduce my guest. Alberto Cortés is executive director of Mama’s Kitchen. Alberto, welcome to These Days.

ALBERTO CORTES (Executive Director, Mama’s Kitchen): Thank you, Maureen. It’s a pleasure being here.

CAVANAUGH: How did Mama’s Kitchen get started?

CORTES: Mama's Kitchen emerged as a response to a need that was identified by a few very thoughtful people who realized that people who were very sick with AIDS were vulnerable to hunger because of their inability to take care of their nutritional needs, especially in more advanced stages of the disease.

CAVANAUGH: How many people were involved in that original idea that you just talked about?

CORTES: It was a very small number of people that actually emerged from a pantry that was functioning out of the San Diego AIDS Project back in the fall of 1990. And they realized that the clients with AIDS who were coming to the pantry were less able to come and pick up food because of the advancement of the – their condition. And so they realized that there was a need to take the food to people. This was happening simultaneously during the course of those – a three-year period approximately in many major cities throughout the country. And today there are other organizations in other cities like Mama's Kitchen that have very similar missions in response to the needs of people with AIDS and, today, other folks with critical illnesses that are also vulnerable to hunger.

CAVANAUGH: I wonder, Alberto, if you could remind us a little bit about how desperate the situation was for people sick with AIDS back in 1990, and how few resources there actually were.

CORTES: Absolutely. I appreciate the opportunity because I think the context is very important. We are talking about a time when it was the early stages of the AIDS epidemic in this country and we were experiencing misinformation, fear prejudice. There was a huge stigma attached to AIDS at the time and it is within the context of that that organizations like Mama's Kitchen emerged to address the needs of people with AIDS. And it speaks to the best of what came out in human beings in a time that was very challenging.

CAVANAUGH: In a way, even though there are many people involved with Mama's Kitchen who are not gay, it was the gay community responding to a need within the gay community.

CORTES: Mostly. Mostly, though not exclusively but, yes, that is accurate.

CAVANAUGH: Now, I’m wondering, as you say it’s – the pantry started in the kitchen of the AIDS Project. Where is Mama's Kitchen now?

CORTES: We are located in a downtown kitchen in the basement of a church where we’ve been for approximately 14, 16 years actually. And from there we operate with a team of 11 staff and a volunteer core of over 650 individuals who put in in the neighborhood of 30,000 hours a year, involved in everything from the preparation, the packaging and the delivery of food in their own vehicles. And we provide services throughout San Diego County, so people that we serve today are folks that will receive 3 meals a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year free of charge. So we are providing 100% of the nutritional need.

CAVANAUGH: Describe for us a little bit what it’s like in that kitchen on a day-to-day basis.

CORTES: It’s always unpredictable. We have an array of truly wonderful people. I think one the fringe benefits of working in an organization like Mama's Kitchen, and it’s a true value and a gift to be able to meet and work and interact with some truly amazing San Diegans that come in and put in their time either making cake or putting together a salad or packaging the hot meal that will go out that evening. The drivers that come in, which are usually people who are working that come in after work to help deliver food between four and six o’clock in the evening, and the people that we serve who are very grateful for the ability to have their nutritional needs met and to feel that they are worth it because they have somebody coming to their door delivering food and somebody who may be the only person they see during the course of their day.

CAVANAUGH: I’m speaking with Alberto Cortés. He’s executive director of Mama's Kitchen, and Mama's Kitchen is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year. I’m wondering on a day-to-day basis, managing all those volunteers, the people who cook the food, the people who deliver it, is it something of a madhouse? Or is it very well organized?

CORTES: It’s organized. There is a – there is a simplicity to it and there is a lot of thought into it and it happens. At the end of the day there are empty tables where a few hours before there were hundreds of bags of food and hundreds of meals in hot boxes. And at the end of the day, they’re gone and we basically say a miracle happened again today.

CAVANAUGH: And how has the organization changed as the AIDS epidemic has changed?

CORTES: We have looked to stay relevant, first of all, to the needs of the people that we serve and we have—and still have—a strong commitment to the nutritional needs of people with AIDS. That has changed as the epidemic has changed but there are still people that are vulnerable to hunger and people who are too ill to prepare their own meals, and we continue to respond to that need. That said, medical advancements have been such that the needs for our services has reduced some over the years consistently, though not dramatically, and so a few years back we went through a thoughtful process of determining what should we do? Should we shrink as an organization as the need for our services shrink? Do we take the capacity, the skills, the core competencies that we’ve gained over the years and apply them to somebody else? And we decided that we would make our services available to other people. So today Mama's Kitchen takes care of people with AIDS and people who have cancer. And we have been able to use the skills that we learned in addressing the nutritional needs of people with AIDS and apply them to people with cancer in San Diego.

CAVANAUGH: I’m wondering how actually the meals that you prepare have changed as medical science has learned more about what supports different illnesses. Have your dinners changed with more advanced nutritional information?

CORTES: Well, we certainly know that food is critical for the absorption of medications and, thus, is a critical component to the effective treatment of people with AIDS and people with cancer. We also know that some of the nutritional needs are more specific. People that are ill need more calories. We also know from taking care of people with AIDS that a higher portion of nutrition is absolutely of – protein is absolutely critical in the diet of the people that we serve. And we also look to be as responsive to the specific nutritional needs of our clients. We have many diabetics who are in our role – receive our services because there just is a high population of people with diabetes among the population to be served. And so we look to tailor our menu to people with those needs as well as taking care of folks that are vegetarian, that need a low salt diet, liquid diet, a protein – a bland diet. So there are about 20 different dietary restrictions that we’re able to meet for the people that we serve.

CAVANAUGH: And how do you make the choices of – I would imagine that this is a very hard thing when people come to you and say, you know, I would like some help from Mama's Kitchen. What is – How do you make the determination that you’re going to select someone as a client?

CORTES: Yes, that’s a good question, Maureen. It’s not an easy thing but we are really clear on the following: a referral into our services is a third party referral, not a self-referral program. We – People are referred into our program by either a social worker, a case worker, a case manager, a medical service provider who provides information to us and supporting documentation that indicates that this person is physically and/or mentally unable to prepare their meals due to their diagnosis.

CAVANAUGH: And where does your funding come from?

CORTES: The community of San Diego. We have 17% of our funding, which is government funding, and 83% is from support in the community. We function on a budget of about $2 million a year and the 83% that comes from the community come from individual contributions, special events, fundraising events that we conduct, direct mail appeals, corporate funding, private foundation funding, planned gifts. We would not be able to provide the level of service and the scope of service that we provide without the support of San Diego.

CAVANAUGH: When your volunteers go and deliver these meals, as I say, you deliver 3 meals a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year, what else do they check on when they actually do arrive at a client’s house?

CORTES: Yes. Our client – our volunteers are trained to basically be observant. They will notice if a client that is normally – keeps a neat home suddenly is not keeping as neat of a place and maybe having something else happening in their health that is manifesting itself in a home in disarray for example. There are situations when we find that a client may not be home or may be home and may be unable to answer the door. And sometimes our volunteers have had to dial 911 and get medical help for our clients. So they play a critical role because unlike their medical provider and other services that they receive, we’re probably the one agency that’s at their door most frequently.

CAVANAUGH: Alberto, how did you get involved in Mama's Kitchen?

CORTES: I have been working in the field of AIDS and HIV for the last 20-some-odd years and so I had briefly volunteered with Mama's Kitchen in the very, very early years and then in 2000 I joined the board of directors and I was on the board for about two and a half years. My predecessor then announced her retirement and I was asked to consider being considered for the position of executive director. I’ve had the privilege and honor of serving the organization as the executive director for close to 8 years now.

CAVANAUGH: This seems like a job that you wouldn’t be able to do unless it was more than a job, that it was something that really touched your heart.

CORTES: Absolutely. Absolutely. This requires passion, patience, and a belief that it is what one is supposed to be doing. Yes.

CAVANAUGH: Well, all right then, let me ask you about this 20th anniversary year and how you are going to commemorate this landmark for Mama's Kitchen.

CORTES: Well, we’re taking this opportunity to look to honor the people who have been involved with Mama's Kitchen over the last 20 years. Many of these folks who are folks that were involved in the very early days of the organization but whose passion and whose beliefs still reverberate in the organization. And we’re looking also to take this opportunity to learn and use what we’ve learned in these last 20 years to determine where we go for the next 20 years. And so we are doing a celebration on Sunday, May the 12th, which is…

CAVANAUGH: No, that’s September the 12th.

CORTES: Oh, thank you. Maureen, thank you.

CAVANAUGH: You’re very welcome.

CORTES: Sunday, May – September – Why am I saying May? September 12th, we are doing a wonderful brunch, which is going to be our 20th anniversary celebration at a lovely home in Hillcrest, and we’re hoping to get a lot of community support. At that time, we will be honoring some folks that have been involved with the organization for many years and, hopefully, define, as we’re trying to do right now, where we go in the next 20 years.

CAVANAUGH: Sounds like it’s going to be a reunion as well as a celebration.

CORTES: That is my vision. I’m hoping that we can bring back a lot of the folks that were involved in the early years and that they can be present so that we can acknowledge them and celebrate them as well.

CAVANAUGH: Alberto Cortés, thank you so much.

CORTES: Maureen, thank you. I truly appreciate the opportunity.

CAVANAUGH: And to celebrate its 20th anniversary, Mama's Kitchen, as you heard, will host a “Great Gatsby Garden Brunch.” That is Sunday, September 12th. For more information, you can go online, And if you’d like to comment, go online, Coming up, a discussion about obesity and pregnancy. Doctors say it’s not a good combination. That’s as These Days continues here on KPBS.

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