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A Year After Closing, This Restaurant Is Feeding More People Than Ever—for Free

Written by Sarah HoltzPublished Feb. 28, 2023 • 9:00am
A kitchen staff member from Rico Rico restaurant in Oakland prepares and packages meals for Community Kitchens. | Courtesy Community Kitchens

About a year ago, Luka’s Taproom, a restaurant that helped transform Uptown Oakland into a dining destination, closed after the landlord allegedly attempted to double the rent. Unable to meet the sharp increase in the wake of Covid, owners Maria Alderete and Rick Mitchell made the difficult decision to permanently shutter their 18-year-old eatery.

Today, Luka’s—named after the owners’ dearly departed dog—is getting a second chapter, carrying on a thriving food justice project that Alderete started at the beginning of the pandemic. Now in its third year, Community Kitchens distributes restaurant-quality food to Oakland’s unhoused residents. 

“When we closed Luka’s, we realized we didn’t need walls to bring our community together,” Alderete said. 

Community Kitchens is a food justice way station of sorts. Alderete partners with local restaurants and home chefs to prepare and package meals that community groups then sign up to distribute. In return, Community Kitchens compensates the restaurants for their food and labor. Currently, around 30 East Bay restaurants contribute meals to the project.

Alderete told The Standard that Community Kitchens traces back to the first week of shelter-in-place. Unlike most restaurants, Luka’s never fully closed during Covid. Alderete said that some of her staff had been working at the restaurant since it opened in 2004, so she decided to immediately switch gears to feed the hungry.

“It was really just this stark inequality that you could see instantly with shelter-in-place,” she said. “Some people were in houses, some in apartments, while some were living outside, sheltering in a tent.” 

That same week, she said the Berkeley Free Clinic approached her to let her know it had to pause its outreach to the encampments. 

“They told us that the best way to keep people healthy is through food,” she said.

Mela Bistro, which is located down the street from Luka's previous storefront, is now a Community Kitchens partner restaurant. | Courtesy Community Kitchens

And so Alderete began fundraising to make the Community Kitchens model work. “2020 was about pivoting and pivoting and pivoting until your head fell off,” she said, laughing. 

In addition to feeding people, Alderete said she made it her goal to support immigrant mom-and-pop restaurants in Oakland Chinatown, deep East Oakland, Fruitvale and in the Vietnamese community of Clinton Park, as well as restaurateurs of color and new business owners. 

As part of its model, Community Kitchens collaborates with existing food justice organizations in the East Bay, like the East Oakland Collective. Alderete explained that before Covid, the collective sourced food from corporate cafeterias, but with the shelter-in-place order, all of that food abruptly disappeared. 

Born and raised in East Oakland, founder Candice Elder said she founded the collective seven years ago out of sheer frustration. 

“I was just tired of seeing disenfranchisement and lack of resources,” Elder said. “Gentrification has already hit our neighborhoods, and I was disheartened by the widespread displacement of African Americans.”

Elder has launched several resource distribution initiatives, including a bag lunch program called Feed the Hood. She said that Luka’s was one of the first restaurants to reach out to support the collective at the start of the pandemic, allowing her group to expand its service base.  

In the fall of 2022, Community Kitchens launched the CK Mobile Oasis bus, a brightly-painted school bus that the group repurposed to distribute free food directly to encampments and other communities in need. Parking at the largest encampments in Oakland, Alderete said the launch was a joyful show of solidarity. She said she remembers a few people who walked up and started an impromptu dance party.

Community Kitchens launched a street outreach vehicle in the fall of 2022. | Courtesy Community Kitchens

“In the spirit of Luka’s, we had to have a kick-ass sound system,” Alderete said. “There’s just something about the music and presence that made people feel comfortable receiving food.”

That’s a crucial tenet of Community Kitchens’ approach. Many traditional food charities have strict rules that participants must follow to access a free meal. Some require clients to fill out forms and others maintain static locations far from where those in need live.  Both Alderete and Elder hope to break that mold by providing nutritious food without sacrificing the dignity of those in need. 

“We need to reimagine the charitable food system,” Alderete said. “We have to move around from the pantry model where people have to stand in line for food.”

“There’s no red tape,” Elder added. “If you are hungry, you will get a meal from us.” 

Plus, the groups require participating restaurants to provide the same food to Community Kitchens that they would serve to their paying customers.  

Later this year, Alderete said she plans to move Community Kitchens into a forever home, a food hub where people can make and distribute meals, learn how to work in a kitchen, access health resources and apply for jobs. There will also be space at the food hub for kids just coming out of foster care. She said she’s still finalizing the location but it will be headquartered somewhere between the Fruitvale and San Antonio neighborhoods in Oakland. 

Alderete said she’s constantly motivated by a staggering statistic—that the average life expectancy of an unhoused person is 48 years.

“Our model works and should be part of the longer term solution for food justice,” she said. “We have to come together with the urgency to address this human rights crisis.”

Sarah Holtz can be reached at [email protected]

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