How a member of the Utah Homelessness Council upended a feed-the-hungry program

SLC’s Food Justice Coalition now struggles to continue a free lunch program for those living on the margins.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Nat Gillot, stirs a pot of Pinto Bean Soup, while volunteering with the Food Justice Coalition, on Friday, Dec. 9, 2022.

This story is part of The Salt Lake Tribune’s ongoing commitment to identify solutions to Utah’s biggest challenges through the work of the Innovation Lab.

On a Sunday afternoon Jeanette Padilla lugged a black Cambro cooler filled with 50 hot meals into the high-ceilinged, string-light-adorned brick event space adjoining Publik Coffee’s West Temple location.

While young people sipped cappuccinos and tapped on laptop keyboards next door, Padilla trained her new volunteers, a family of four, on the protocol for handing out the free, vegan meals.

“Ask people how their day is going,” Padilla told the family. “Being friendly is an important part of de-stigmatizing food insecurity.”

The free lunch program, which targets anyone who might need a little extra help — from students to agricultural workers to parents stretching every dollar to feed their children — is one of two programs Padilla runs through her nonprofit Food Justice Coalition.

Padilla aims to not only tackle hunger, but provide meals that are healthy and easy for busy, working people to consume. Plus, they’re delicious. When she opens the cooler, an enticing aroma of spices wafts out.

She doesn’t typically serve her meals from Publik Coffee. Padilla’s home base is a mile away at ComCom Kitchen, a commissary site at 67 W. 1700 South in Salt Lake City. ComCom features 16 different vendors on its website and boasts of “a storefront retail space” for tenants “to sell goods to the public.”

In November, Padilla said, the building owner who leases the space to ComCom, told her she could no longer serve meals from the space. She could continue to prepare meals there, but there could be no more pickups.

According to public records, the building that houses ComCom Kitchen, which includes Padilla’s space, is owned by Axis T Properties, with Tiffanie Provost Price as the registered agent.

Padilla said in her interactions with Price, she was told her work serving low-income clients could “endanger the safety of the building and the tenants.”

Price, a longtime commercial property owner in Salt Lake County, sits on the executive committees of both the Pioneer Park Coalition and the Governor’s Utah Homelessness Council. Both organizations are rooted in addressing causes of homelessness and solutions.

Serving those living on the edge

With housing and grocery prices swelling, the work of the Food Justice Coalition has become especially important to more Salt Lake City residents. Padilla hopes by providing those on the edge with a slight cushion in the form of healthy food, families will maintain their precarious hold on housing.

Until a few weeks ago, Padilla was able to hand out 50 to 75 meals reserved for low-income students or busy working parents twice a month from ComCom, and she said its founders have been supportive of the Food Justice Coalition.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Steaming hot cups of Pinto Bean Soup, made by volunteers from the Food Justice Coalition, on Friday, Dec. 9, 2022.

But with building owner Price’s notification for her to stop serving, Padilla is facing a hurdle that imperils the free lunch program and has upended the organization she’s been building for the past two years.

“I said to her, ‘we don’t serve unsheltered people in our kitchen, we run our free lunch program out of our kitchen, which primarily serves low-income families, students, and service workers,” Padilla said. “People that are facing food insecurity, but that are housed.”

Price declined to comment for this story. Reached by telephone to offer her version of events to a reporter, she said, “no thanks. Just no comment.”

The Pioneer Park Coalition, where Price serves on the executive team, recently called for Salt Lake City to force unsheltered people to “accept services, head to a shelter, stay at a sanctioned camp, or go to jail.” On the executive committee of the Utah Homelessness Council, Price sits with a who’s who of elected leaders, policy and business experts empaneled by Gov. Spencer Cox to tackle homelessness in Utah. Members include Wayne Niederhauser, the state’s current and first homeless services coordinator; Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson; Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall; and philanthropists Gail Miller and Randy Shumway.

Homeless or food insecure?

Providing prepared food rather than shelf stable pantry basics “solve[s] a lot of issues for families and students who are really short on time and can’t eat nutrient dense food because of budget.” Padilla said. “They don’t have time to prepare their meals into something healthy.”

All of her meals are plant-based, and often feature fresh ingredients donated by local farms and restaurants. They cost about two dollars each to prepare.

Padilla does, indeed, manage a program that distributes meals to the unhoused population around Salt Lake City. That program is distinct from the meals previously picked up at ComCom Kitchen, where clients are food insecure but not unsheltered, Padilla said.

Her explanation of the two different programs didn’t change the building owner’s verdict, Padilla said. People could no longer collect meals from Padilla’s space in the building, and that was that.

Most of the Food Justice Coalition’s meals do go to people living on the streets. Padilla and volunteers drive around the city to distribute those meals. “We meet people where they’re at, because transportation is a barrier for all the unhoused people that we serve,” Padilla said.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Jeanette Padilla distributes cups of hot chocolate to residents of the Cornell Street camp, with volunteers from the Food Justice Coalition, Wednesday, Feb. 17, 2021.

Scrambling for a new location

“What this means for us is that now we have to find a different space to serve people out of,” Padilla said. “Which complicates everything for us and makes it more expensive when we’re already operating on a shoestring budget.”

Padilla’s nonprofit just became stable enough for her to call it a full-time job about two months ago. Given that positive growth, Price putting a halt to food distribution from the site was particularly unsettling to Padilla. “Now my income is at risk because once again we’ve been derailed,” she said.

The offer to use Publik as a temporary place to serve food came as a relief.

“You can use our space on Sundays for as long as you need to,” Missy Greis, owner of the local chain of coffee houses, recalled telling Padilla when the free lunch program faced an indefinite pause. “It’s easy for me to offer space and so I did.”

Still, while Greis’ help enabled the Food Justice Coalition to continue the program, “it’s a lot more stressful on the backend,” Padilla said.

Changing locations, even just moving it eight blocks away, resulted in fewer meal pickups. The first Sunday they’d switched locations, only about half as many meals were picked up, Padilla said. She hopes those numbers improve in the coming weeks as news of the change spreads via Instagram and word of mouth.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Esme Stevenson helps her dad TJ, pack soup for a customer, as they volunteer with the Food Justice Coalition during their free lunch program, at Publik Coffee Roasters in Salt Lake City, Sunday, Dec. 4, 2022.

Padilla now wants to find a new kitchen space where the landlord understands and supports the work she does to feed both sheltered and unsheltered people in the community. A place where she doesn’t have to worry about moving the program.

To do that, she’ll need to potentially build out a new kitchen.

On Friday, Nov. 9 Padilla launched a fundraiser to do just that. The online effort to build “our good green kitchen,” as Padilla describes it, continues. She hopes to raise about $80,000.

In her call for donations, Padilla stressed the importance of having a space where someone else can’t upend her work at a moment’s notice. A secure place.

“In order to do more impactful work, we need agency over our space,” Padilla wrote on the fundraiser’s landing page. “We need a physical location we own and operate where no one can turn away the people we serve.”