Combating hunger in Los Angeles: A Bread and Roses story

Chef James Cunningham stands with Jack Watkinson in Bread and Roses kitchen. Bread and Roses cafe feeds over 200 people daily.
Chef James Cunningham stands with Jack Watkinson in Bread and Roses kitchen. Bread and Roses cafe feeds over 200 people daily.
Photo credit: Shae Killam

When a client walks into Bread and Roses cafe, the first face they are greeted with is Isabel Martinez, the cafe’s current hostess. Martinez checks reservations and tells clients where to sit. Then, volunteers bring out beverages such as as water, coffee and juice. Chef James Cunningham finishes up plating the bowls of soup, as well as an entree prepared fresh that morning. Each client is greeted with a “good morning” and a smile from the volunteers’ face.

Bread and Roses cafe, a branch of the Saint Joseph Center, is one of many soup kitchens located in Los Angeles. The cafe takes a different approach in combating hunger in comparison to other local soup kitchens.

The cafe chooses to address the restaurant-goers as clients and have them sit at tables, like any other restaurant. Mollison said this provides a sense of equality that many unhoused people do not experience elsewhere.

A table is set for clients at Bread and Roses cafe with a fresh yellow rose. The cafe has been serving unhoused people for multiple years in the Venice community. “Anybody who shows up can sit down and eat.” Mollison said. (Photo credit: Shae Killam)

In Los Angeles county, roughly 75,000 people are currently unhoused. Soup kitchens are one of the ways unhoused people and low income families can get food for free.

According to The Soup Kitchen, soup kitchens date back to 1929, during the Great Depression, and were most commonly funded by churches and charities. Soup was commonly served to provide people with more water in their diet.

Volunteers for Bread and Roses provide services including bringing out plates and bowls, cleaning tables and serving beverages. The service days are divided into three shifts, which clients can come in and have a meal. Martinez, who is from New Jersey, came to Bread and Roses through a service program called the Saint Joseph Workers Program. 

Warren Mollison, a volunteer at the cafe, talked about his experience working at the cafe. He has provided service for over 10 years.

“It shows respect. When they’re out there they keep hearing ‘No, no, no.’ When they come in here, whatever they ask, I always say yes. Even though I may not be able to do it, I figure out some way to try to do as much as I can. I never want to say no,” Mollison said. “I want to show respect to the men and women who are here who have circumstances so much more difficult than mine.”

Bread and Roses cafe was founded by two sisters from Europe, who owned a school for the deaf and blind. Up on arriving in Los Angeles and realizing the extensive homelessness issue, the sisters decided to start the Saint Joseph’s organization, which has grown to help 14,000 people with their 25 programs across Los Angeles.


Shae Killam

While the numbers of clients who show up to the restaurant stays relatively similar, Martinez said different people show up based on many different factors, one them being rainy weather. 

“So typically, we’re supposed to sit around 120 [people]. I would say it goes way past that, like up to 160 every day. It really depends,” Martinez said. “I know towards the end of the month, it gets a lot busier. I think a lot of new people come when it rains because they don’t know where else to go. A lot of people who have been on the streets for a long time know to go to emergency shelters that open up. So I think we see a different crowd, but the numbers don’t necessarily change that much.” 

A highlight from Martinez’s time working at Bread and Roses was during the past holiday season. She reflected on a particular memory that resonated with her.

“We had Christmas carolers for a couple days right before we left on break, which can be really hard for a lot of people who can’t be at home for Christmas or can’t necessarily be around family, but some people also really enjoyed it.” Said Martinez. “And there’s this one client who his friend was like, Hey, my friend wants to go up and sing.’ He’s this really shy, quiet guy, and he got up, and he sang “Rudolph The Red Nosed Reindeer”, and it made me cry.”

Head Chef James Cunningham is a paid employee for the cafe, who also leads a culinary program for people to go through to get jobs in the food industry. Cunningham talked about his decision to work at Bread and Roses, and why he thinks the mission of Saint Joseph Center is so important. 

“It’s not Bread and Roses but the mission that Bread and Roses has to treat everyone as if they were your brother or your sister,” Cunningham said. “Everyone gets treated with respect and dignity. I’m all about that in life and I’m all about using my skills to help benefit the community.”

Chef Sarah Harvey went through the Cunningham’s culinary program and got a job at the Bread and Roses cafe. Over the course of the three months program, she spent eight weeks in the classroom and then four weeks in an internship. Harvey said she has a special relationship with the cafe because she was once a client who went to Bread and Roses for meals.

“I also used to live in my car. So I came to Bread and Roses to have meals…. Sometimes, because I’m soft spoken and things are always hectic in the kitchen… sometimes I would get my meal late.” Harvey said. “So that was a bit challenging. I guess the group of folks that I usually sat with in the community, we all liked conversations as well. So between eating slowly, conversation… I would usually take some of [the food] away with me. But [the food was] very good, very nourishing.”

Books set out for clients from volunteers in the shelf alongside the side wall. Many volunteers leave old clothes, books and any other items for clients to take. (Photo Credit: Shae Killam) (Photo credit: Shae Killam)

Karen Showman, who has only volunteered at Bread and Roses since early January, said she loves volunteering at the restaurant and is never going to stop. 

“From the people who work at Bread and Roses to the volunteers to customers that come in, it just feels like the magic sauce.” Said Showman. “Everybody is so happy and enjoys the food, and there’s so much love put into all the food that’s made.” 

Even though the cafe has changed over the years, the mission Bread and Roses upholds stays the same. Harvey said, the idea of clients being served, treated as an equal, is a new approach to combating the hunger crisis in Los Angeles.

“I have a simple goal” volunteer Watkinson said. “I would like there not to be a need for Bread and Roses, so that all of these people that are unhoused and need to come here for a meal don’t need that service because have their house and have access to food on a daily regular basis.”

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  • T

    Tina PrattMay 31, 2024 at 11:39 pm

    A very thorough and insightful article about “Bread and Roses” in LA which seems to be a very necessary and supportive enterprise for those in need of comfort and respect, those who are homeless and lacking in hope.

    Thank you Shae Killam for your sensitive approach to this issue and congratulations on providing this informative focus on an organization helping with current day dilemnas.