Often we only adopt a negative perspective of the Pajaro River levee, seeing it as a dangerous place where people with addictions or mental health problems get stuck. But Margot Loehr and Arlene Betz see it differently. By reaching out to the community at the levee and they have seen that the people there are no different from you or I, they just took one bad turn, or got dealt a bad hand. That’s why every week day morning at eight-thirty Margot and Arlene and a few volunteers are at the river levee serving a hot meal from their mobile kitchen.
They begin cooking at six in the morning, five days a week, in the Church of Nazarene kitchen. Then, they bring the food to the levee, set up a make-shift buffet, and serve breakfast to as many as 60 people a day. The numbers rise in the winter when fewer people have work. Arlene has been doing it for over five years, Margot for around 4 years.
With the help of several volunteers, Margot and Arlene have helped the soup kitchen grow to form a regular community. “It’s an ongoing process. Over the years that we’ve been doing it we’ve seen a marked change in the people and their attitude toward us,” Margot says. “I think it matters to them that we’re not getting paid to be there–we’re just people who care enough to get up every day of the week to cook, because we care about them.”
Margot and Arlene serve soup every day, along with an occasional salad, cooked vegetables, meat, milk and cereal. Nearly all of the food they make is from Second Harvest, and since they have a very minimal budget, they usually only pick up the free food at the food bank. The day I came to visit, they were serving bagels with goat cheese that they scored for free from the food bank. Margot says, “Without the food bank, we would go under immediately. What we do purchase is through the food bank, mainly through grants we get from them.”
By cooking and serving healthy food at the levee, Margot and Arlene are able to bring together people who might not have eaten for several days. Margot believes that this community, centered around food, helps people at the levee get back on their feet. Having a hearty meal in the morning can sustain someone for the rest of the day. “The first step toward solving problems is to develop community,” says Margot. “There’s got to be involvement on a personal level, one-to-one.”
Margot and Arlene see these successes when the group at the river levee changes. Some clients are able to get housing and move on. “I have to tell you,” Margot says one day as she is shopping in the distribution center. “I believe in Second Harvest as an institution. They reach out to the community, and it’s about the people…people helping people. I feel honored to be a part of a place like Second Harvest.”