“There’s a lot of hugs that go into this kitchen,” says Julie Protich, describing the Loaves and Fishes dining room she runs at the Pittsburg location in the Saint Vincent de Paul building on Simpson Court in Pittsburg, California.
The room would normally be filled with lunch guests, many of them homeless, who come to Loaves and Fishes regularly for a hot meal, a place to rest, and a few hours of friendly conversation.
Loaves and Fishes of Contra Costa runs four dining rooms across Contra Costa County, as well as a food pantry and a culinary training program. Since the coronavirus outbreak, the dining rooms have implemented a pick-up model, and now guests receive their meals individually wrapped and ready to travel.
“I miss it a lot,” Julie says. “I wish I could give them all the hugs outside, but we can’t. It breaks my heart. I wish I could let them in the kitchen, but we have to keep everybody safe.”
Julie says her dining room typically feeds 150 people for lunch five days a week, but even with the cafeteria closed, demand has increased as the pandemic led to massive job losses and widespread financial hardship. Lately, the kitchen crew is handing out approximately 50 more meals than usual.
“A lot of people are reaching out and needing some help, especially now,” Julie says. “But we’re here. The door is open. We will give whatever we can to the people.”
Dining room guests and volunteers have adjusted to the changes, Julie says, but it’s been a difficult transition for everyone. “The first couple of weeks, it was a really big change. Our clients weren’t expecting to just stand in line and get their bags. They’re so used to coming in here and socializing and laughing. But I did explain to them — this is only a temporary thing. We are going to get through this. We just need to work together, respect each other, and we’ll get through it.”
Julie became involved with Loaves and Fishes after 38 years working at Wells Fargo. Once she retired and her son left for college in 2013, a good friend who ran one of the Loaves and Fishes dining rooms encouraged Julie to volunteer. “It was life-changing,” she says. “I never knew how many people really needed our help out there.”
Though Julie spends much of her time orchestrating meals and coordinating volunteers, an important part of her work is relational.
“A majority of the homeless — they don’t have anybody to really give that personal attention. I like to give it one-on-one. I pretty much know everybody who comes in here by first name, and I know a lot of what happened before they became homeless. This is not a kitchen where you eat and then you leave. I like them to stay, I like them to talk and tell me or our volunteers what they used to do before whatever happened to them.”
Four miles away, Christina Loyolacabral keeps another of the Loaves and Fishes dining rooms running in The American Legion Hall on West 6th Street. Like Julie, Christina feels the loss of close interactions with guests who come to enjoy a meal prepared with love and compassion.
“These are my folks out here, you know,” says Christina. “I like to go out and talk to them. They’re my friends.”
Because many of the dining room guests don’t have phones and rarely see the news, Christina says there’s been some confusion about what’s going on and why such drastic changes are needed. But Christina says she makes an announcement each morning so that visitors feel more informed about the pandemic and its effects.
Christina feels a strong connection to the people she serves each day. She even knows some of her guests from a time when her life looked much different than it does today. For thirty-five years, Christina was addicted to methamphetamines. Her lifestyle took its toll on her family; only after a tragic event was she able to break free of addiction and move her life in a new direction.
It happened seven years ago, after a night of partying. She was driving with her granddaughter when she struck a fourteen-year-old boy who was walking on the side of the road. The accident left him in a coma for two weeks, followed by six months learning to walk and talk again.
Christina went to jail and faced a prison sentence of five years, but the boy’s mother advocated on Christina’s behalf. “She wanted me to go to a program and get my life together,” and that’s what Christina did. As part of her recovery, she found Rubicon Programs, a partner of Loaves and Fishes. Christina became an intern in the kitchen and worked her way up to where she is today.
“A lot of these guys I used to party with back in the day,” Christina says. “There’s a few out there that I unfortunately introduced to drugs, and that’s my daily reminder. But I got my life together. Like, when they handed me the keys to the American Legion for me to go in and out, I was awestruck. That’s big to me. So this job keeps me clean.”
Her experience with addiction helps Christina more intimately understand the daily lives of her guests at the dining room. She noticed, for example, that a handful of clients wouldn’t eat the green salads they were served, so she asked to switch them out with oranges, knowing the guests who are still in active addiction are often craving vitamin C.
“I mother them,” she says, “and that gives them joy. And me joy. I get after them when they screw up. I lecture them and mother them.”
Today — like every Friday — it’s spaghetti day. “It’s gonna be super busy,” Christina says. “Everybody loves spaghetti.” Even though her guests can no longer gather together around a table, she’s doing her best to make everyone welcome and cared for.
“These guys are kicked around and shooed away and treated like crap by the general public,” Christina says. “When they come here to my dining room, I want them treated with love and respect — with the utmost charity. Kindness is so important. I want them to feel like they’re coming home to eat a meal.”