All sources in the following piece requested that their last names be omitted for their safety.

The Santa Cruz People’s Kitchen was born out of flames. During last summer’s CZU Lightning Complex fires, Sal, a UCSC dropout and experienced line cook, was evacuated from Boulder Creek. 

Facing an apocalyptic scene, but from the comfort of a friend’s house with a large kitchen, Sal decided to cook. He and two friends prepared fried chicken and mac ‘n cheese — now People’s Kitchen staples — along with pie and cornbread, and gave the food to local folks in need. 

“There’s a lot of houseless people that live in Boulder Creek,”  Sal said. “They were bringing those people down [to Santa Cruz] by the loads, I mean, the houseless population down here [in Santa Cruz] went up drastically.” 

Currently, the People’s Kitchen does large food distributions about every two weeks, serving the classic mac ‘n cheese, pie, cornbread, and fried chicken. In addition to the large distributions the People’s Kitchen has also hosted one-off events, including a hot dog sale, a tamale sale, and most recently a Valentine’s bake sale. 

They have also grown in scale; what started as three people cooking at home has grown into a rotating group of over 100 volunteers. While they once prepared food in volunteers’ homes, the organization now uses the Calvary Episcopal Church on Center Street as a preparation station. 

After the first distribution in Santa Cruz and during the fire, Sal realized he had the capacity to impact his community. He made an Instagram account in late August to crowdsource funds to buy food and recruit volunteers. 

Among the first volunteers to respond to Sal’s call were Ben and Cev. They were put into a Signal group chat where no one used real names. A call was put out to the chat by “S,” Sal, looking for volunteers to cook. 

“I was super nervous,” Ben said. “But I was like, ‘I’ll do it’. I went and I picked up a total stranger and drove all the way out to Boulder Creek and met up with this mysterious ‘S’ at like eight o’clock at night, because it took forever to get there. Then we just cooked until midnight.”

Ben said that the early days of the People’s Kitchen were like that. A few volunteers under the direction of Sal cooked mass quantities of food, usually around 100-200 meals, and took those meals to houseless encampments around Santa Cruz. Ben stressed that the People’s Kitchen makes an effort to go to encampments to make sure houseless people with disabilities and those who are uncomfortable leaving their belongings unattended can still get a meal. 

Key to the success of this venture was Sal’s experience as a line cook and working large banquets, which enabled him to train volunteers to cook good food in mass quantities. 

“I remember the very first thing being cooked was a bunch of chicken,” Ben said. “Both [me and Cev] are white vegetarians, who had no idea how to fry chicken. It was really, really bad.”

Ben said that under Sal’s direction they have since learned a great deal about how to cook. 

“I’m definitely a lot better, like I can make a mean roux now,” Ben said, referring to the vats of sauce for the mac ‘n cheese that are prepared in quantities large enough to serve more than 200 people.

Rows of boxed lunch containing cornbread and fried chicken.
Boxed lunches cover the counter, and then some, as the chefs prepare to bring food to over 200 people. Photo by Ellie Prickett-Morgan.

The focus on high-quality food is deliberate. Central to the ethic of the People’s Kitchen is the idea that houseless folks do not just deserve food, they deserve satisfying food. 

Ben made sure to say that a lot of important work is already done by food distribution organizations in Santa Cruz. He pointed to Food Not Bombs, who advocated for the People’s Kitchen to be able to use the kitchen at Calvary Church. 

Ben explained that Food Not Bombs operates on a different model, providing daily vegan and vegetarian meals with the intent to be inclusive of all diets. The People’s Kitchen does not distribute as regularly and prioritizes providing houseless folks with comfort foods. A running joke among members is that of the thousands of meals that they have distributed, only once or twice has someone asked for a vegetarian meal.

“At the end of the day, if you’re sleeping on the streets, like yeah, you want some fried chicken,” said Ben. “You want some pie. You want a nice home-cooked meal.”

There have also been efforts by the People’s Kitchen to branch out. The People’s Garden initiative is currently growing peas, radishes, lettuce, carrots, and potatoes out of a volunteer’s backyard.  

“I think learning to grow our own food is very important because it’s a way of taking back a sort of sovereignty,” said Cev, who currently coordinates the garden project. “A future goal would be to have a garden that is publicly accessible.”

As it stands now, the garden is mostly an experiment and training ground for volunteers, who eventually hope to incorporate their produce into the larger food distributions. It is small, no more than a couple raised beds, but Cev is hopeful that with access to more space it could be a great community resource for nourishing both body and mind.

Another new enterprise was the Valentine’s bake sale. A form was released on the organization’s Instagram that allowed people to order boxes of cookies, vegan banana bread, chocolate covered strawberries, brownies, bagels, or charcuterie boards to be delivered. Proceeds went toward the next People’s Kitchen distribution. 

The organization has plans to expand their operations. While they are small, as a mutual aid organization of mostly young people, they see huge potential for growth. Sal said that a long-term goal would be to have a sliding scale restaurant where people would pay however much they could afford, refusing no one who needed food. 

“All we have is ourselves to save ourselves,” said Sal. “Only through sharing resources, selflessly and continuously do you find a system where you don’t have to rely on capitalism.”