A reinvented Mary’s Kitchen is back to serve the homeless
By John Underwood
For almost thirty years Mary’s Kitchen, the last daily food pantry for the homeless and hungry of North Orange County, provided safety and refuge behind its gates at the end of an industrial cul-de-sac leased from the city of Orange to service hundreds homeless for whom Mary’s Kitchen was their only “home.” And for those three decades it was by the city’s own accounts a mutually beneficial partnership.
Then in 2021 the City of Orange suddenly turned on Mary’s Kitchen, calling the nonprofit food pantry an “attractive nuisance” and a toll on its law enforcement services it could “no longer tolerate.” Despite the fact that a federal judge found no statistical evidence of Mary’s Kitchen as a societal or criminal burden on the city, local officials pressed forward with a hasty eviction of the homeless kitchen, which up to that point had been no financial burden to the city, the non-profit paying its own way as it cared for Orange’s homeless. Still the vilification of Mary’s Kitchen continued. Even the Kitchen’s CEO Gloria Suess was subjected to personal insults and accusations of mismanagement by certain city officials in an attempt to divert attention from the real motive behind the city’s sudden disaffection with its longstanding and only direct food pantry service to its homeless population.
It was eventually revealed that the city had bigger plans for the Struck Avenue cul-de-sac than a homeless food kitchen. Since 2021 it had been planning to fast track the removal of Mary’s Kitchen to make way for a much more commercially lucrative transport logistics depot competing for space and unencumbered access for its trucks at the end of the Struck Avenue cul-de-sac. Mary’s Kitchen, and its 200 or so homeless patrons a day trudging up struck Avenue mostly on foot, had to go. But not without a fight in federal court the City of Orange had not anticipated, in which Judge Carter imposed on the city the requirement to generate “like services” of its own that could replace those that the homeless were going to be denied with the closing of Mary’s Kitchen.
Before closing Mary’s Kitchen, Orange was forced to make a halfhearted attempt to replace those services per federal court order, at an expense to the city of a Million dollars a year (Mary’s Kitchen operated for 30 years at no expense to the city). And though the city’s “like services” never did reach the level of care or quality of food services provided by Mary’s, the City of Orange was allowed to finally evict Mary’s Kitchen from her Struck Avenue property in the summer of 2022.
That might have been the end of Mary’s Kitchen and its illustrious run as a last chance resource for the unhoused and the hungry of Orange County. It certainly was presumed dead by its critics and many homeless advocates alike who seemed resigned to write Mary’s Kitchen off as the end of an era of walk up food kitchens for the homeless. But these voices heralding the demise of Mary’s Kitchen underestimated its formidable CEO and matriarch Gloria Suess.
Since the passing of the Kitchen’s founder Mary McAnena, Gloria Suess has been the driving force and guiding light behind the spirit of Mary’s vision of direct service to the homeless and hungry of Orange. Drawing on her pragmatic experience as a real estate broker Gloria had been able to elevate Mary’s Kitchen into a connected network of partnerships in the surplus food world even before the City of Orange pulled the welcome mat out from under her.
Though stunned at first by the city’s turnabout and perplexed by their motives for suddenly seeking her eviction, Gloria never wavered in her mission and soon gathered her supporters, volunteers, friends and like-minded partners who saw in this crippled giant of a resource a connection to the hungry and unhoused of OC that was irreplaceable. Floundering at first in false starts and broken promises trying to relocate the kitchen, Suess began to realize there was a larger role Mary’s Kitchen could play in connecting surplus food and services to the homeless and the hungry by creating a distribution and delivery network of giving that could crisscross all of Orange County.
After several months of uncertainty and handshake deals that turned to “no’s,” a warehouse in Anaheim was finally secured. It would not be the walk-up kitchen they had known for three decades, but it was someplace to bring over the appliances and hardware, park the trucks, set up storage shelving, install new refrigeration and begin again to rebuild Mary’s Kitchen on an even larger scale.
Connecting many of the surplus food sources Mary’s Kitchen has developed over the years with an ever-increasing number of community and religious groups coming to her for food and supplies, Gloria Suess has transformed her newly renamed Mary’s Kitchen and Pantry into a surplus food and goods delivery operation that draws from her many suppliers, and thanks to her small army of dedicated volunteers and staff, delivers to nonprofit and faith-based distribution sites now on a weekly and sometimes daily basis.
Pulling together decades of old partnerships and seeking to create new ones, Mary’s Kitchen and Pantry is back, at the center of a growing surplus food distribution hub that has risen from the ashes of its untimely eviction by the City of Orange to rededicate itself to a larger mission with even greater potential for reaching the hungry and the homeless of Orange County. With an ever-increasing number of community and religious groups coming to her for food and supplies, Gloria has managed to transformed her newly renamed Mary’s Kitchen and Pantry into a surplus food network. She is even in the process of purchasing a full refrigeration truck.
The new Mary’s Kitchen and Pantry has expanded its operation not only in size but also has adapted its mission to many new forms of giving the times have dictated. At Calvary Church in Santa Ana, for example, where drive-through giving is the order of the day, Mary’s Kitchen and Pantry volunteers, including Gloria, arrive early and stay late to provide surplus food and volunteers for the monthly drive up-load up-and-drive-off event they call Pop-up Pantry. “All this couldn’t happen without the partnership of Mary’s Kitchen,” says Calvary’s Associate Pastor Matt Doan who oversees some 200 local families matriculating through their back parking lot. “We used to service maybe a few dozen families in cars. Gloria and her volunteers have allowed us to expand with the need.”
At a recent Church of the Southland’s special outreach day in Anaheim cold weather clothing, goods and services, as well as a buffet dinner and social gathering was supported with assistance from Mary’s Kitchen and Pantry. Event coordinator Terry Lu, who got his start years ago as a volunteer for Mary’s Kitchen, said in a recent documentary I produced about Mary’s Kitchen, “Everything ties back to Mary’s Kitchen. . .Gloria is a hero of mine. . . and whatever Gloria is going to do I am with her all the way.”
Currently, Mary’s Kitchen and Pantry is delivering donated food products to over a dozen non-profits and faith-based congregations at least 3 days a week, with hopes to expand distribution service soon to 6 days.
Another food outreach program on Gloria’s to do list is a return to serving the homeless directly. “I made that promise to the homeless on the streets, and to Mary. . . .and I intend to keep it. At this moment now we are where the Lord wants us, on His timeline, serving and delivering to large numbers through other outreach groups. But my heart is always with those who are on the street struggling to help themselves.”
To that end, Gloria and her staff will also begin serving families and individuals once again, not quite on a scale as before, but out of its own warehouse in Anaheim by phone appointment only, five days a week. Staff will take orders for food and an assortment of household items and arrange for pick up at the warehouse.
“It‘s always gratifying to be able to give directly,” Gloria beams, “I never want to get too far away from that one-to-one connection with our guests. They need to know someone cares. It’s all about human dignity. . .and hope. With it anything’s possible. When I see that in their eyes . . . that’s the payoff for me.”
Gloria’s very personal commitment to the plight of the homeless has been honored numerous times, three times just in the past year including named as one of the OC Register’s most influential people, and also honored in 2022 with a National Freedom Foundation Award for her humanitarian efforts (even as her beloved Mary’s Kitchen was being evicted!).
When asked how she dealt with praise and condemnation all at the same time, she only said, “You just have to smile through it all . . . and go with the good.”
With an attitude like that at the helm of the new Mary’s Kitchen and Pantry, it’s future appears in good hands for 2023, and its commitment to the hungry and the unhoused, contrary to the rumors of its demise, very much alive and thriving as a productive addition to Anaheim’s and the whole county’s social safety net. The only loser here, it appears, is the City of Orange.
John Underwood is a journalist and documentary producer based in Orange County who has reported extensively on homeless issues in OC. Mary’s Kitchen can be reached at 714 633-0444.