More than 21 years ago, the South County People’s Kitchen served its first free meal out of the back of a truck parked where the Amtrak depot now sits in Grover Beach. There were only three diners that first day — and the volunteers had to go out and find them.
Barbara Owen volunteered that day, and 21 years later, she’s among more than 300 South County residents who take turns preparing multi-course meals for people in need. The number of meals served has grown dramatically; it generally fluctuates between 80 and 100, though as many as 140 have been served on busy summer days.
Owen serves on two teams sponsored by her church, Nipomo Community Presbyterian; each is responsible for providing a meal one day a month.
“I’m not sure where it came from, but I’ve always had a heart for the homeless and the needy,” said Owen. “I have a philosophy that there but for the grace of God go I.”
In an area that has no homeless shelter, People’s Kitchen has been one of the most consistent sources of aid for needy families and individuals in South County, serving up not only hot meals, but also kindness, caring and connections. Several people used the word “family” when describing the gatherings.
“There’s something very magical about attending a meal at People’s Kitchen,” said volunteer Peter Dobson, who got hooked on volunteering after helping with a Thanksgiving dinner. “It’s not just about a meal. It’s a huge family.”
It’s a family that’s weathered a lot of change. Over the past 21 years, the group has changed location at least half a dozen times. While it’s been touch-and-go, the organization has always managed to find a church or other facility willing to provide space to set up serving facilities and tables — until now.
People’s Kitchen recently had to discontinue ser ving meals at a county-owned lot on 16th Street. The Grover Beach City Council denied a permit needed for the gatherings after neighboring residents and businesses complained of problems with vagrancy, loitering, littering and trespassing.
For the first time in 21 years, the People’s Kitchen will not be serving clients a traditional, sitdown Thanksgiving dinner with all the fixings this year.
But People’s Kitchen volunteers are famously resilient. Teams are still preparing meals, then boxing them up in “to go” containers distributed at various locations in South County. Today, volunteers will be passing out turkey meals in bags.
The group is still looking for a permanent location — ideally, awarehouse where meals can be served indoors. In the meantime, People’s Kitchen continues the mission it started 21 years ago — providing a daily hearty meal and a helping hand to those in need.
“It’s easy to be flexible if you keep your eye on the goal,” said Owen. “The path may change, but the goal remains the same.”
For never losing sight of the goal, no matter the challenges, on this Thanksgiving Day The Tribune salutes every one of the unsung heroes who volunteers with South County People’s Kitchen.
HOW TO HELP
The South County People’s Kitchen is looking for a warehouse or other indoor location where it can serve meals. Anyone who can help can call 489-9046.
Cash donations are also welcome; send to South County’s People Kitchen; 187 Moore Lane, Arroyo Grande 93420.
ABOUT THE UNSUNG HERO SERIES
Although The Tribune seeks to celebrate our community’s quiet heroes throughout the year, it’s especially appropriate during the holidays, when we pause to give thanks, gather with friends and family and share the warmth and light that brightens our lives.
These unsung heroes are people who practice the Golden Rule and are passionate about their causes but seek no return for their actions other than the satisfaction that comes with helping others.
By highlighting individuals who unselfishly apply their energy and skills to lighten the burden of others, we hope, first, to offer these community heroes the appreciation they deserve; second, to let those who could use the help know of available resources; and third, to inspire others who are able to help in whatever way they can.