The lines at the Pueblo Community Soup Kitchen begin forming around 10 a.m. each day. Men, women, young, old have brought their appetites. Inside, the facility’s director, Helen Benavidez, is busy putting together what she has on hand to serve this steady homeless clientele.
This time of year, in addition to serving daily meals, Benavidez is also trying to figure out how she’s going to put together the season’s first big meal, Thanksgiving dinner; a meal, she says, everyone deserves.
The Pueblo native---a Salt Creek girl---shows up every day at the kitchen, an operation that’s been knocked around by a virus that has taken no prisoners.“COVID has pretty much consumed my life at the kitchen,” she said. But she understands that it’s not only her who’s reeling from this out-of-the-blue, microscopic killer. “Everybody is worried about their own household.”
The virus and the uncertain economy it has spawned has forced the kitchen to become “more creative,” Benavidez said, putting a softer spin on her daily reality. The description falls short, sometimes well short, of the axe-juggling it sometimes takes to put a meal.
Pre-COVID donations, especially gifts of meat, have plunged. “Thankfully, we had a lot of eggs. The chickens were really busy this spring,” she said with a tiny laugh in her voice. It’s lucky they were because it’s meant no breakdown in daily meals. It has also meant, at times, a steady diet of “egg salad, chicken salad and tuna salad…and fruit when we’ve got it,” she said.
Benavidez has been director of the operation for the last two-plus years. But the last nine months have scrambled normality and made predictability a roll of the dice.
A lot of kitchen volunteers, mostly retired, are staying away out of caution, said Benavidez, fully respectful of their decision. A couple of cooks also stopped coming. “We’ve had to develop a completely different way of feeding folks.”
There have been days when a normal hot meal or a filling sandwich has given way to one she is loath to serve. But, by necessity, one she has to serve; a lunch of canned “SpaghettiOs or ravioli.” Again, It’s a last option. Despite it all, said Benavidez, “we’re making it work…we’re still able to feed them at least three hot meals a week.” But donations, she said, would help, provide a little breathing room at a time when holding one’s breath has become the new reality. But a deadly virus isn’t the Kitchen’s only reality.
“We have overhead,” she said, “including utility bills.” A little help would ease some of the everyday anxiety, not the least of which are kitchen essentials. “Our condenser went out on our walk-in cooler.” A migraine in the age of headaches.
This Thanksgiving, in addition to adult homeless, there will also be families joining the line and bringing along with them a number of young children. “We’re expecting at least fifty percent more people,” she predicts.
Benavidez said the kitchen will serve as long as the food holds out. “If someone wants seconds, we welcome the opportunity to give it to them.” Growing up in a household that knew the reality of poverty, Benavidez said she is glad to lend a hand. There is no shame in hunger.
Benavidez is confident there are enough turkeys on hand to provide a good holiday meal to anyone who shows up. But a few donations of desserts, disposable plates, spoons, forks, food boats and baggies would help. Contributions can be made directly at the Kitchen at 422 W. 7th St. or through PayPal. Information can be found at the Kitchen’s website, www.pueblosoupkitchen.org.
Despite the coronavirus, the soup kitchen has never closed. “We didn’t have to shut down,” said Benavidez. “We’re considered essential.” Still, while remaining open, in-door dining was stopped and remains that way. This year, soup kitchen diners will have their meals outside on benches, under canopies with space heaters providing the warmth. Endless summer, which seemed like only yesterday, has become endless winter for those whose home is anywhere their backpack lands.
The Pueblo Community Soup Kitchen’s holiday meal will be served on Wednesday, one day before the official holiday.