Jesus A. and Kristen F., from left, pose for a photograph at an Open Heart Kitchen meal distribution in Livermore, Calif., on Friday, Oct. 15, 2021. (Anda Chu/Bay Area News Group)


Open Heart Kitchen provides meals, and friendly company

Livermore nonprofit has served up has served more than 1.2 million meals in 2021

Bay Area News Group

Published November 2021

Note: This story is from our 2021 campaign and has been fulfilled, but you can still donate to the Share the Spirit general fund.

The pandemic forced everyone into the confines of their home. For Kristen, Jesus and their four young children, ranging in age from 3 to 7, home is a moss green Ford Expedition SUV.

For more than a year, most of the family’s time has been spent in that van, either asleep or trekking up and down Vasco Road. At the crack of dawn, they’re off to Livermore to drop off Jesus at his job at Block by Block, then to Antioch for school drop-off. After school, Kristen heads back down the road to Livermore to run errands, run around the park and pick up Jesus before 7 p.m, Then they head to Pleasanton, where Kristen starts her overnight job at a hotel. The family did not want to use their last name.

“Home is where we make it right now. Home is where we’re at,” said Kristen, 29. “When we’re in the car, we are home. That’s what we’ve been telling them for years.”

With limited funds and no kitchen, there was never a guarantee their growing children would have food to eat.

Scrolling through her phone contacts one day, Kristen ran across an old friend who once tried to help. The friend recommended Open Heart Kitchen, a Livermore organization that provides free hot meals to families in need. The program operates a free meal service that has become a curb-side service for the unhoused and seniors in the Tri-Valley area. In 2021 alone, Open Heart Kitchen has served more than 1.2 million meals.

Volunteers Susan Bollinger, left, and Leslie Banta, right, pack meals at an Open Heart Kitchen meal distribution in Livermore, Calif., on Friday, Oct. 15, 2021. (Anda Chu/Bay Area News Group) 

The organization received funding this year from Share the Spirit, an annual holiday campaign that serves residents in need in the East Bay. Donations will help support 56 nonprofit agencies in Contra Costa and Alameda counties. Open Heart will use the grant to help produce about 1,370 meals provided in its Hot Meal program, which can cost $6.80 per meal to prepare and package for curbside pickup or distribution.

It’s a small operation with three full-time employees and three volunteers working to serve up four meals per person each day for those in need, including Jesus and Kristen and the kids, ages 3, 4, 6 and 7.

Struggling through drug addiction years ago, Kristen and Jesus had always pushed away helping hands. They got together in 2014, and had four children by the time Jesus was incarcerated for an unarmed bank robbery in 2018. Kristen moved back in with her parents to raise the kids, and Jesus had an epiphany behind bars.

Over the phone the couple drew up their dream of getting sober, having steady jobs and a permanent roof over their heads. Now they realize that accepting help is one step in their recovery.

Kristen F. and Jesus A., from left, pose for a photograph at an Open Heart Kitchen meal distribution in Livermore, Calif., on Friday, Oct. 15, 2021. (Anda Chu/Bay Area News Group) 

Not only does the free meal at Open Heart Kitchen provide stability for a family constantly on the move, but it also affords them a piece of quality time to share over a meal.

Open Heart Kitchen also provides a friendly face for those in need.

A daily lunch service for seniors has cars lined up like a Bay Area freeway at rush hour. Some don’t come for the food, but for the company. One woman comes on orders from her doctor because it gets her out of the house, said Charlie Mabie, a food distribution assistant at Open Heart.

“For some of the seniors, the food isn’t even 50% of it,” Mabie said. “They’re missing the human contact. I have a lady that comes through every day who has tremors. She’s in her 80s, can’t sew anymore and lives alone. She comes by and sometimes I hold her hand for a minute out of the car.”

Site supervisor Heather Lane has been at Open Heart Kitchen for two years, taking on a life of service after more than 30 years working in fine dining. She loved her career, but nothing felt more rewarding than the service she could provide. It’s a service she once had to use.

Heather Lane, left, site manger at Open Heart Kitchen gives Ruby, an eleven-year-old Black Mouth Cur, a dog biscuit as Lauren Cohen pulls up to meal distribution in Livermore, Calif., on Friday, Oct. 15, 2021. (Anda Chu/Bay Area News Group) 

Raising two young children after a divorce and unable to work due to an injury, Lane recalls not being able to pay for all her groceries on the food belt at the store. That’s when she knew she needed to ask for help.

“It is very hard to come here and ask for food. It’s very emotionally tough. I’ve had to do it myself,” Lane said. “It’s embarrassing because in our society we have to learn how to be self-sufficient.

Self-sufficiency is the goal for Jesus and Kristen. Open Heart Kitchen helps.

“Now that we’re sober, we’re getting a lot of help from people who tried to help us years ago,” Kristen said. “But now we can remember their names. And why they are helping us.”

How to help

Donations will help fund Open Heart Kitchen’s Hot Meal Program that provides meals to homeless, senior citizens on a fixed income, and mostly the working poor.

Goal: $10,000

Note: This story was fulfilled, but you can still donate to the general fund

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