PINETOP-LAKESIDE — A community icon of charity is about to disappear.
Thirty five years ago a couple by the last name of Hardt opened the Love Kitchen at a community center just off Rainbow Lake. Mission of Grace took it over around 2000 and with the help of many dedicated volunteers and generous donors, it has continued over the years to operate serving meals, food boxes and Head Start breakfasts, lunches and snacks out of the building on South Penrod Road behind Eddie’s Country Store.
Unfortunately, due to a number of factors, there will not be a 36th year for the Love Kitchen. It will be closing in November.
According to Director Lynn Lewis, closing the kitchen is one of the hardest decisions their seven member board has ever had to make.
Monies to operate the Love Kitchen come from donations and from the two Head Start contracts they were awarded for Pinetop and Show Low. Those two contracts are actually what has paid for the operation of the kitchen which has always served lunch Monday through Friday to anyone who needs a meal — no questions asked.
The Love Kitchen, a partner agency with United Food Bank, also distributes food boxes out of their location once a week.
Lewis said when the pandemic hit people continued to donate. She said they were very generous, even donating from government monies they received, and that money helped the Love Kitchen continue to operate.
Their Head Start contracts are for nine months and they felt they could make it financially with their contracts for Blue Ridge and Show Low.
COVID-19 changed things, said Lewis, and as Blue Ridge kids were able to be fed at Blue Ridge, they were only feeding the Show Low kids. That number had been 110 which made continuing feasible but with all the changes that occurred, their number went down to 20 this year when school started. Out of their contract monies they still had to purchase the food and snacks for the kids and it did not leave enough to pay for the cost of operating the kitchen.
The Head Start contract expired on Sept. 30 and the Love Kitchen decided not to apply for a renewal.
“We were only going to gross $2,000 a month before we paid an employee,” said Lewis. “It is not enough to keep our heads above water.”
Lewis is the only employee paid by the Love Kitchen and, knowing the financial situation, she said she has declined her salary for quite some time.
They have also experienced a change in their volunteer numbers since COVID-19 spiked. Issues surrounding vaccinations arose and they went to curbside pickup. The number of people coming for pickup also changed and only 15 to 30 a day were showing up. The kitchen has been operating with around 10 dedicated volunteers who await daily for a text to see what is needed.
While still trying to find their way in this new way of operating, their freezer went out. Lewis said people responded to their cry for help within 24 hours but it was too late. They lost thousand of pounds of meat which they could not replenish.
There are other factors which the Love Kitchen said it cannot ignore. The insurance on the building is high and the building is “wearing down.” Utilities still have to be paid and although Navopache Electric has been extremely understanding, the utilities are not free.
The Love Kitchen does not own the building; it belongs to the Blue Ridge Unified School District. They have leased it to them on a year to year basis for a $1 a year.
“I have cried a million tears,” said Lewis. “I have kind of known it was going in that direction — that it was leaning that way a couple of months ago.”
“I had to call my volunteers and tell them the Love Kitchen is closing,” said Lewis. “It was heartbreaking.”
She said so many people have helped over the years. So many groups donated money and their time, and many relationships have been forged because of the Love Kitchen. She said everyone was always welcomed without judgment or qualification and with a smile.
Lewis recalled 2008 when she was looking for a job. She had lived in Vegas and had a number of good jobs but everywhere she applied on the Mountain, she was told she was over-qualified. She had five kids and needed to go to work. She had been to church and had come home and was sitting on her bed. The bulletin fell out of the Bible — face up. There was an ad right on the front for Camp Grace. She prayed and reluctantly applied and was asked to come in for an interview — she had expected another “you are over qualified” reply.
“The main thing they asked me,” said Lewis, “was ‘What is your relationship with God?’ I said I am an infant; I am always growing.”
She got the job and started on Aug. 3, 2008 — her birthday.
Knowing nothing about a soup kitchen, she said she just watched for about two weeks to see how it was run and has been doing it ever since.
Her five kids were raised in the Love Kitchen — all grown now — but each one worked there and actually had their holiday meals the majority of the time right there, after all the other people had been fed and gone home.
Before the pandemic, the Love Kitchen was serving 4,000 to 6,000 people a month.
Lewis said her health has suffered over this situation, but she sees that other organizations, like the Re: Center, have already begun to step up and are fulfilling some of the needs.
Lewis said this situation has humbled her. She said she learned that everyone has a story. She is proud of the fact that no one was turned away whether they drove up in a Mercedes well dressed or otherwise. She has so many stories of people who were lonely or were in a position of need who showed up even though it was difficult for them. She said she is grateful that she was always approachable — that no one was afraid to ask her for an extra loaf of bread or whatever they needed.
Lewis said she always wanted to make sure the Love Kitchen was more than just food on a tray.
“We will continue to distribute the food we have until we run out,” said Lewis. “Full closure will be by the end of November so that we can do final cleanup of the building by the end of the year.”
They will also have a rummage sale to help pay their debts.
Lewis and her board will still do their Hogs and Hot Rods fundraiser each year and donate the proceeds to help the community.
The kitchen may close, but that building will forever hold special memories for the dedicated volunteers and donors, and for those who were the recipients of the food and fellowship extended them.
The Love Kitchen made a difference.