How a Utah Homelessness Council member turned a Feed the Hunger program on its head

This story is part of The Salt Lake Tribune’s ongoing commitment to finding solutions to Utah’s biggest challenges through the work of the Innovation Lab.

On a Sunday afternoon, Jeanette Padilla lugged a black Cambro cooler containing 50 hot meals into the fairy-light-bedecked, high-ceilinged brick event space adjacent to Publik Coffee’s West Temple.

While young people next door sipped cappuccinos and typed on laptop keyboards, Padilla trained her new volunteers, a family of four, on the protocol for distributing the free vegan meals.

“Ask people how their day is going,” Padilla told the family. “Kindness is an important part of destigmatizing food insecurity.”

The free lunch program, which caters to anyone who needs a little extra help — from college students to farm workers to parents who will do whatever it takes to feed their kids — is one of two programs the Padilla is supporting by their non-profit Food Justice Coalition.

Padilla aims not only to fight hunger, but to provide meals that are healthy and easy to consume for busy, working people. Besides, they are delicious. When she opens the cool box, a seductive scent of spices wafts out of her.

She doesn’t usually serve her meals from Publik Coffee. Padilla’s home base is a mile away at ComCom Kitchen, a commissariat at 67 W. 1700 South in Salt Lake City. ComCom presents 16 different providers on its website and boasts a “shop front” for tenants “to sell goods to the public”.

In November, Padilla, the building owner who rents the room to ComCom, told her she could no longer serve meals from the room. You can continue to prepare meals there, but there can no longer be pickups.

According to public records, the building that houses the ComCom Kitchen, which includes Padilla’s premises, is owned by Axis T Properties with Tiffanie Provost Price as the registered agent.

Padilla said in her interactions with Price she was told her work for low-income clients could “compromise the safety of the building and tenants.”

Price, a longtime owner of commercial real estate in Salt Lake County, serves on the executive committees of the Pioneer Park Coalition and the Governor’s Utah Homelessness Council. Both organizations are rooted in tackling the root causes of homelessness and solutions.

As housing and food prices soar, the work of the Food Justice Coalition has become especially relevant to more and more Salt Lake City residents. Padilla hopes that by providing those in need with an easy cushion in the form of wholesome food, Padilla hopes that families will retain their precarious possessions of housing.

Up until a few weeks ago, Padilla was able to hand out 50 to 75 meals from ComCom twice a month, reserved for low-income students or busy working parents, and she said her founders had supported the Food Justice Coalition.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Steaming hot mugs of pinto bean soup prepared by Food Justice Coalition volunteers on Friday December 9, 2022.

But with building owner Price notifying her that she was shutting down the service, Padilla faces a hurdle that has jeopardized the free lunch program and turned the organization she’s built over the past two years upside down.

“I said to her, ‘We don’t serve unprotected people in our kitchen, we run our free lunchtime program out of our kitchen, which primarily serves low-income families, students and service workers,’ Padilla said. “People facing food insecurity but sheltered.”

Price declined to comment on this story. When reached by phone to offer a reporter her version of events, she said, “No thanks. Just no comment.”

The Pioneer Park Coalition, of which Price is a member of the leadership team, recently called on Salt Lake City to force unprotected people “to accept service, go to an animal shelter, stay in a sanctioned camp, or go to jail.” On the Utah Homelessness Council’s executive committee, Price sits with a who’s who of elected leaders, political and economic experts assigned by Gov. Spencer Cox to tackle homelessness in Utah. Members include Wayne Niederhauser, the state’s current and first coordinator for homeless services; Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson; Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall; and philanthropists Gail Miller and Randy Shumway.

Providing Ready Meals Instead of Durable Pantry Essentials” to solve[s] a lot of problems for families and students who are really short on time and can’t eat nutritious food due to budget constraints,” Padilla said. “They don’t have time to prepare their meals into something healthy.”

All of their meals are plant-based and often feature fresh ingredients donated by local farms and restaurants. Each preparation costs about two dollars.

Padilla actually runs a program that distributes meals to the homeless in the Salt Lake City area. This program differs from the meals previously picked up at ComCom Kitchen, where customers’ diets are unsafe but not unprotected, Padilla said.

Her explanation of the two different programs didn’t change the building owner’s judgment, Padilla said. People could no longer get meals from Padilla’s room in the building, and that was it.

Most of the Food Justice Coalition’s meals go to people living on the streets. Padilla and volunteers drive around town to distribute these meals. “We meet people where they are because transportation is a barrier for all the homeless people we serve,” Padilla said.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Jeanette Padilla, along with volunteers from the Food Justice Coalition, hands out mugs of hot chocolate to residents of Cornell Street Camp on Wednesday, February 17, 2021.

“This means for us that we now have to find another place where we can serve the people,” Padilla said. “It complicates everything for us and makes it more expensive when we’re already working on a tight budget.”

Padilla’s nonprofit just got stable enough that she could call it a full-time job about two months ago. With such positive growth, Padilla was particularly concerned that Price halted on-site grocery distribution. “Now my income is at risk because we derailed once again,” she said.

The offer to use the public as a temporary bar came as a relief.

“You can use our space as long as you like on Sundays,” recalled Missy Greis, owner of the local coffeehouse chain, as she told Padilla as the free lunchtime program was about to take an indefinite break. “It’s easy for me to offer spaces and I’ve done that.”

Although Greis’ help allowed the Food Justice Coalition to continue with the program, “it’s a lot more stressful on the back end,” Padilla said.

A relocation, even if it was only eight blocks away, resulted in fewer food pickups. The first Sunday they switched locations, only about half as many meals were picked up, Padilla said. She hopes those numbers will improve in the coming weeks as news of the change spreads via Instagram and word of mouth.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Esme Stevenson helps her father TJ bag soup for a customer while volunteering with the Food Justice Coalition during their free lunchtime program at Publik Coffee Roasters in Salt Lake City, Sunday, December 4 engage , 2022.

Padilla now wants to find a new kitchen space where the landlady understands and supports the work she is doing to feed both protected and vulnerable people in the community. A place where she doesn’t have to worry about moving the program.

To do this, she may need to build a new kitchen.

On Friday, November 9th, Padilla launched a fundraiser to do just that. The online effort to build “our good green kitchen,” as Padilla describes it, continues. She hopes to raise about $80,000.

In her appeal for donations, Padilla emphasized the importance of having a space where someone else can’t turn their work upside down at short notice. A safe place.

“To do more effective work, we need agency in our space,” Padilla wrote on the fundraiser’s landing page. “We need a physical location that we own and operate where no one can turn away the people we serve.” How a Utah Homelessness Council member turned a Feed the Hunger program on its head

Justin Scacco

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