“You can’t just think ‘poor me, I’m a woman, and I can’t do this.’ You have to put on that armor and get out there and say: I can do this, and nothing is going to prevent me from doing this,” said Alva Santos, Assistant Director of the community kitchen, Our Daily Bread, based in Denton, Texas.
A team of almost all women runs this community kitchen, working tirelessly every single day to feed and help the lower-income in Denton, Texas, a city in the north-west suburbs of Dallas, Texas.
The women running the kitchen
Meet Alva Santos and Liz Whitaker. Two of the workers at Our Daily Bread.
Alva is the assistant director, but she does so much more than that. She is a program coordinator, volunteer coordinator, she does the office work, and she always makes sure everyone is taken care of; to name only a few of the many roles Alva manages.
While Alva has been working with food since graduating from college and working for a food bank for the last six years; Alva has only been working with Our Daily Bread for eight months. In such a short time, Alva has become an important piece for the foundation of this community kitchen.
“I took an adventurous step in working with the food bank, which ended up landing me here [at Our Daily Bread]. I found my niche.”Alva Santos
One of the biggest parts of a community kitchen is the kitchen itself. This may seem simple; however, the work done by the kitchen staff and volunteers certainly isn’t. Liz Whitaker has been with Our Daily Bread since it first opened 20 years ago.
“I’ve been a chef for 43 years,” Liz said. And 20 of those years has been working out of the kitchen St. Andrew Presbyterian Church for Our Daily Bread.
Liz runs that kitchen. Also, she does the menu planning, she monitors all the temperatures and other safety measures, and she does the majority of the cooking.
“I took this job on the condition that it would be wholesome cooking, it would be like mom’s cooking,” Liz said.
Liz monitors and reviews all of the food sent out of the kitchen. If she wouldn’t eat the food, it doesn’t leave her kitchen. But Liz hasn’t had the easiest path to where she is now.
“Well you’re a woman, you’re not as good as a man chef”Liz Whitaker
“When I was in chef school, I was the only female, and they treated me horribly. They figured I would never amount to anything. You still see the ‘well you’re a woman; you’re not as good as a man chef.’ That still prevails today, unfortunately. I’d like to say it doesn’t, but it does. I’d like to see more women going into chef school,” Liz said.
Sexism, both within the academic world of cooking and within the industry itself, is only one of the obstacles in Liz’s life. Her parents’ lack of belief in her to the death of her husband; it all became roadblocks in her life. After every obstacle, Liz has continued working and is apart of a wonderful organization that feeds and helps so many people.
“Anytime you’re having a bad day, its best to think about the other side and who’s standing in front of you. It just makes you want to make their day better. That positive energy and making someone else’s day better is what I think about all the time,” Alva said.
Being able to work or volunteer to help others takes a lot of patience and kindness. It’s definitely not easy work. The thought of how others are feeling, that’s what keeps both Liz and Alva, as well as anyone else, going.
“I don’t consider this a sacrifice. I really don’t. I really, really love my job. I love being here. I love everything about it. There’s no sacrifice. Of course, I could be in a restaurant and be doing something different, but that wouldn’t make me happy like this makes me happy,” Liz said.
What exactly is a community kitchen?
The short answer to this is that a community kitchen is a bigger and better soup kitchen. More options available and more help.
“We’ve expanded our services. I always wanted to do showers. I always wanted to send them to other agencies. But back then, there were only a few agencies. And so I was the first one in Denton to start sharing amongst agencies. I revolutionized that, cause they weren’t doing that,” Liz said.
Now, Our Daily Bread offers two meals a day, showers, vouchers for laundry, clothing, varying hygiene products, along with many other services.
“We still have the mindset of what a soup kitchen is, like sandwiches and soup. So when I started this job, I didn’t want that to be the image. I wanted it to be mom’s cooking,” Liz said.
The connotation of ‘soup kitchen’ still ties back to the image of a 1920s soup kitchen. Our Daily Bread, and so many other organizations, do so much more than most people could even imagine.
The reality of the community kitchen
“What goes into my day is over 10,000 steps and a whole bunch of ‘let’s go’,” Alva said.
Each day a community kitchen is busy from start to finish. There are so many people to help and so many different things to do.
“I hit that kitchen at 7:15 and this is the first time I’m sitting down all day,” Liz said. “I don’t get a lunch break, there’s too much work to be done. Seven to two, sometimes three o’clock.”
Every worker and volunteer puts in long hours from morning till afternoon. Most of the volunteers work their own jobs alongside volunteering at the community kitchen.
Everything is based on donations
“The menus are roughly planned a week in advance,” Liz said. “The main course is planned and then it depends on what I get in. So I’ve got to take what’s donated and come up with ideas that are creative.”
Everything in a community kitchen depends on donations. There is no guarantee that any item will be available. Working at Our Daily Bread takes a lot of flexibility and out-of-the-box thinking.
The ‘lazy homeless person’ stereotype
“There should be no set judgement and no set viewpoint on who is homeless”Alva Santos
“People look at homeless and think ‘this person has been homeless forever and they don’t do anything and Our Daily Bread is just a place for them to hunch over.’ And it’s not. This is a place to help them be successful,” Alva said.
Often times, organizations working with low income and homeless people get a stigma that those people are simply living off of someone else’s money and donations. And there is no disputing that some people do that.
“When you see someone smile and thank you, that makes everything worth it,” Liz said.
From my own experience volunteering, every person I have interacted with through Our Daily Bread has been polite and courteous with me. Every single person I have served or helped has thanked me sincerely.
At the end of the day, there are people who simply can’t take care of themselves or end up in a bad situation. No one should be judging others or their situations.
“There should be no set judgment and no set viewpoint on who is homeless. They struggle every single day. Working here gives you a different perspective of what is out there. It helps to portray that everybody is important,” Alva said.
Our Daily Bread during times of COVID-19
Community kitchens take a lot of work to run at the best of times. In present times with COVID-19, community kitchens take a lot more work to run.
“COVID has definitely put a spin on everything. It’s brought you into looking at what you would think as a homeless guest to more family guests. There’s a lot of devastation,” Alva said.
There have been so many people living with no income because of COVID. No way to support themselves and their families. There are people who never struggled before but now have no way of taking care of themselves. Our Daily Bread sees that more than anyone.
“With COVID, we’ve been down volunteers. We started with 45 volunteers a day and now we’re typically hitting 10-12, which is short and shy,” Alva said.
What YOU can do
“You can’t just look at life and think about how can I succeed”Alva Santos
No matter who you are or what’s happening, we should all try our best to be kind and understanding to one another. We should always be striving to help those around us.
“We have so much going on that being judgemental of others just saddens me. Instead of a country working together, we’re divided,’ Liz said.
During both times of COVID and any other time, there is so much any one person can do to help others. Especially within community kitchens.
“It’s definitely hard at this time to ask anybody to donate money, but money always helps. Money is a first,” Alva said.
The workers at any community kitchen can take donated money and use it where it’s needed most; food, clothing, cooking equipment, laundry vouchers, etc. Money isn’t always something people can donate, but there are still so many ways to help.
“We take donations from a flipflop to a roast. There is nothing we turn our backs to. Everything here is appreciated. If you can donate your old clothing items, we need that,” Alva said.
Seasonal donations needed
Along with clothing, hygiene products are always in high demand, anything from clean underwear to tampons and pads to deodorant to bandaids, the list is endless. It is also often changing.
“We try and post things to our Facebook, we try and send out emails to our volunteers or own our website. It’s really seasonal. So right now we’re going to mosquito phase, sunscreen, water, Gatorade, Propels, stuff like that. We need our donations to affect that season,” Alva said.
Before donating items, check with your local pantry or community kitchen for the items they need most. Old gloves from the winter won’t be needed during the summer, hold off on donating those gloves until winter rolls around again.
“But donating your time, so being a volunteer, is top-notch,” Alva said.
There are so many places to volunteer and donate your time. For those who live in the Dallas area, Our Daily Bread is an amazing place to volunteer at.
“I accept anyone who wants to come in and work in the kitchen. I always say you get a free cooking lesson if you’d like. I just love working with the volunteers. I’ve met some truly incredible people. I feel anyone that walks in the door that comes to volunteer for us is beautiful in my book. I treasure the volunteers. I would encourage more people to come in and volunteer,” Liz said.
For those who don’t live near Dallas, there are so many places that need help across America and the rest of the world.
“Feeding America is probably the best website to find out what is in your area,” Alva said.
Food pantries cover almost all of America. Look into established places in your area. If there isn’t anything, think about starting something.
“With Feeding America, look for your city, your zip code, and look for the food bank that is supplying your area. Then just get a group of people who actually care and want to work on the same goal and find a central location,” Alva said.
For anyone outside of America, research your local area and government to find where you can help.
“We have so much food in Denton, in Texas, in America. Nobody should ever be going to bed hungry”Alva Santos
There are so many places that anyone can offer their help to. There are so many places that anyone can find the help they need. You just need to find them and reach out.
“No one ever leaves here without a meal,” Liz said. “Ever, in all the years I’ve been here. Ever.”
Our Daily Bread has been working hard for over 20 years to feed anyone in Denton who needs it and seeks that help out.
“We are no longer just a soup kitchen, we’re doing more than that. We want to see you happy, we don’t want to see you struggle,” Alva said.
A Better World
No matter who you. No matter your gender, your background, your skin color. Let’s put on our armor. Let’s focus on being kind and helping others. Let’s each do our small part to make the world a nicer and happier place.