MOUNT VERNON — Friendship House served its first meal Monday in its newly built, 2,400-square-foot kitchen and dining room.
The 28-year-old organization operates four houses, two that provide emergency shelter and two that provide transitional housing. Friendship House is the only daily meal service in Skagit County and has been using the small kitchen inside the men’s shelter to do so since 1991.
The number of meals served is growing each year, it was about time to get a new kitchen, said Executive Director Marie Marchand. The kitchen in the men’s house is in a 100-year-old Victorian home and didn’t offer much space for prep and serving.
Marchand estimates the house serves about 4,500 meals each month. The new kitchen is about three times as big, and can seat 36 people, a big increase from the old 16-person capacity.
“This new place is so welcoming and inviting looking,” she said. “It’s new, it’s light, it’s safe and secure, and we really want more hungry families to come.”
It also has a covered area outside where people can wait while meals are prepared. A Boy Scout group is making picnic benches for the patio.
Community support for the project has been great, Marchand said. Mount Vernon Building Center saved the organization $10,000 by providing lumber at cost.
The kitchen was built with a $300,000 grant from the Jack and Shirley McIntyre Foundation and $350,000 in donations from private foundations, churches, individuals and families.
Most of the meals are cooked by kitchen manager Tom Hoffman and residents, and now they will have more serving stations, prep stations and equipment. Hoffman said the new space will allow more people to eat a larger variety of food.
The new serving station is five times larger, meaning volunteers and residents can serve the food, rather than using a self-serve system.
The kitchen offers the organization a chance to start a program it has been talking about for years. Hunger to Hope will offer classes to house residents and teach basic cooking skills with an emphasis on food safety.
It will help residents get a food handler’s license and find jobs in the food industry, Marchand said. Hoffman, a chef, will instruct the Hunger to Hope classes, along with guest chefs.
With funds from the M.J. Murdock Charitable Trust, Friendship House was able to hire a program coordinator to facilitate classes. Blake Westhoff will also help with residents’ job searches at the end of the three-month culinary program.
He will travel to the East Coast early in the year to look at similar food service training programs that might provide useful ideas for Hunger to Hope.
The new kitchen stands just behind the existing men’s house. The organization feels lucky the property became available; on it used to sit four condemned structures, creating hazardous living conditions.
“We demolished the existing structures to build something that’s helpful and uplifting to the community,” Marchand said.
The organization will host a ribbon cutting ceremony at 2 p.m. Wednesday, Jan. 15.
Friendship House will host a Christmas day brunch from 9 to 10:30 a.m. and dinner from 4 to 5 p.m. in the new kitchen, behind the men’s shelter at 1008 S. Third St.
The shelters are bursting with donated Christmas presents and holiday decorations.
“Love and abundance is what Friendship House is about this time of year,” Marchand said.