MOUNT VERNON — After months of planning, Friendship House has come a big step closer to its goal of better feeding the needs of the community.

The organization, which runs emergency shelters and transitional housing for the homeless, is looking to construct a new kitchen and cafeteria on Snoqualmie Street adjacent to its current homeless shelters and expand its ability to serve Skagit County’s hungry.

The facility also would allow the organization to kick off its Hunger to Hope program aimed at training residents to cook and giving them marketable skills.

The program’s first year of operating costs will be covered by a $30,000 grant from Wal-Mart. The organization has received more than $200,000 toward the facility, estimated to cost $400,000, thanks to a grant from the Jack and Shirley McIntyre Foundation and other community support.

To keep the McIntyre grant, the organization must raise the rest of the money by June and is turning from grants to the community for support.

“The neighbors are pretty excited,” said Marie Marchand, executive director of Friendship House, as she walked past the empty lot that’s the focus of the organization’s efforts. A dirty house used by squatters had once stood there.

“We tore all of it down, and now we’re waiting for this grand project,” she said.

Currently, about 5,000 meals a month are served up in the 238-square-foot kitchen, with just enough room for about 16 people to gather in its cafeteria space.

It’s safe and legal, but it’s also cramped, said resident Steve Kronick of the current kitchen.

One person at a time can be served and only one person can work in the cooking area, which has a small grill and oven. When people line up to be served, they’re cramped, too.

“They feed us well, so that gets difficult right there,” Kronick said, patting his stomach.

The new kitchen would be nearly twice the size — 545 square feet — of the old current facility, allowing several people to cook and prepare food. The cafeteria would accomodate 35 people at a time, with a covered walkway, plus bathrooms and a sink for hand washing.

People currently wash their hands at a portable, plastic sink as they enter the seating area.

“We make do with what we have,” Marchand said.

Along with the new kitchen, the Hunger to Hope program would allow residents to learn cooking skills from the organization’s kitchen manager and visiting chefs. Participants could earn a state food handler permit, first aid certifications and new, employable skills.

If all goes well, the organization will open the new kitchen and cafeteria by early 2014.

“I think that this facility will expand Friendship House’s capacity to really transform people’s lives by empowering them, helping them see their value as human beings and getting back into society through jobs,” Marchand said, adding that one of the organization’s goals is to “restore people to community.”

“This building and this program will allow us to fulfill that mission in an even greater sense,” she said.

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