One of the most basic and vital human needs is having food to eat. In 2020, food insecurity was on the rise for many in the Bay Area, especially for the homeless and those precariously housed.
One organization knows this more than most. For 32 years, the Committee on the Shelterless, COTS, based in Petaluma, CA, assists those experiencing homelessness in finding and keeping housing, increasing self-sufficiency and improving well-being. They provide hot and nutritious meals daily to anyone in need. When COVID-19 hit in March, the team had to move quickly. And squarely at the heart of those plans and shifts was COTS staff member, Chef Janin Harmon.
Chef Janin started with COTS in November 2019 as the Chef of Mary’s Table. From her first days, COTS knew she was someone special to serve their community. “Janin truly cares about serving our shelter residents and those in the community in need of a meal the best possible quality and nutritious meals,” shared Chuck Fernandez, COTS CEO. “They say ‘one first eats with their eyes’ and her meals are just mouth-watering, beautiful and rival pictures in any food magazine!”
Chef Janin had to quickly – practically overnight – move from leading a full-service restaurant to a boxed meal program. In addition to serving the individuals and families in their program, COTS also feeds a significant number of homeless and food-disadvantaged people throughout their community. And their hero Janin has done so for the past nine months without missing a beat.
“My main goal and focus is we are feeding people. So we had to find a way and keep going,” shared Janin.
Janin also recruited her family to step in and get creative to keep the food services working. COTS relies on food picked up from local stores and normally a crew of volunteers would drive around and manage the pick-ups during the week. As all of the volunteers are over 65, COTS could not deploy their trusted and dedicated volunteer network safely during COVID. So Janin’s husband does all the food pick up now.
Despite not having their usual army of volunteers in the Kitchen either, Chef Janin still manages to prepare and serve healthy and delicious meals. From normally working with a crew of 15 down to 4, Janin kept all the food services going for COTS. “I do well under pressure,” commented Janin. “I thrive best in chaotic situations. I don’t mind skiing up the hill!”
In a prior role, Janin was the manager at a popular restaurant chain. One day, her boss asked her to ask the homeless man sleeping in front of the restaurant to move along. “I said to myself, well not without bringing him a cup of coffee first,” reflected Janin. When she returned back inside after talking with him and giving him a warm cup to go, her boss said to Janin that she should go work at a food bank, rather snidely. And Janin thought to herself, you know that is a very good idea.
“I remember standing in food lines with my mom. I understand the struggle. It is hard right now. My mom struggled, worked three jobs, I know the feeling of not having. I like being in the position to help people. This work feeds my soul. If people need someone to talk to, solve problems, we will put our heads together and help. We have resources here to help. I love my job every day,…every day.
When you sit down for one of my meals, I want you to forget that you are homeless in that moment. You are at peace with delicious food made with love. Food can be a form of meditation and healing. This is what I want for my community.”
Having worked in the kitchen with Janin, Chuck shared that Janin refuses to turn anyone away for a meal even if they show up after the kitchen closes, and she will always give them something to eat. Always. And before COVID, she could often be seen sitting with some of the shelter residents during mealtime just talking and getting to know them and building a relationship. She is truly a hero!
Visit COTS today to learn more about their programs.