On a Tuesday morning in September, the scene at the Casa Maria Soup Kitchen is a lot like any other day. A group of men sit around a picnic table. They smoke cigarettes and sip black coffee. A few people sift through cardboard boxes filled with bags of day-old baguettes and loaves of white bread. Some of the people here slept on the streets last night, in shelters, or on friends’ sofas. Others, in their own homes. These men, women, and children mostly keep to themselves and wait in the yard of the converted South Tucson house where, for the past 35 years, the city’s neediest have come for what they need most.
And at 8:30 a.m., just as he does every day, Brian Flagg arrives in a flurry, a force field of energy. “¿Qué onda?” he shouts out with a big smile.
Flagg runs Casa Maria Catholic Worker Community, with a lot of help. There are a number of places where Tucson’s hungry can go for food on any given day, but Casa Maria is unique. Unlike most, this soup kitchen is open 363 days a year, shutting only on Thanksgiving and Christmas. People come here for coffee and food. Across the street, they can even shower.
Flagg steps through the crowd into the house where the calm of the outside yard contrasts with the structured chaos inside. Volunteers and a few staff members have been working for hours already to prepare for the day ahead.
In one corner of the kitchen, Conrad Wall stands over a giant vat of soup. “It’s got pasta, chiles, roasted chicken, vegetables, ham,” Wall says. “Whatever is left over from the day before goes in.”
Nothing goes to waste at Casa Maria.
“I started coming here four years ago after I retired,” Wall, a volunteer, says. He heard about the organization at his church, and over the past few years more people from Corpus Christi Catholic Church on Tucson’s far east side began volunteering with him. “Now every Tuesday is Corpus Christi day.”
Wall’s reason for spending his Tuesday mornings here is simple. “I think it’s just a way for people who have more to give back,” he says.
A line has begun to form outside of the window next to Wall. When all of the soup is ladled into Styrofoam cups, another volunteer slides the glass pane open and starts handing cups through, along with a chile pepper and wedge of lime.
“We like to make it as tasty as we can,” says Wall.
After getting their soup, people move on to the front door of the house, where Flagg distributes sack lunches.
“¡Llégale chavalo!” he calls out, beckoning people forward.
He’ll hand out about 500 of these brown bags today, maybe closer to 600, since it’s the end of the month.
“Business is booming,” says Flagg. That number will drop closer to 400 in a few days. He explains the fluctuation: “A lot of people get disability checks and things like that so they have money at the beginning of the month but not at the end.”
Most of today’s sack lunches came from Saint Francis de Sales. Tomorrow’s will be donated by a different group. Flagg says these contributions are vital in feeding Casa Maria’s clients.
But the vast majority of food here is donated by a few supermarkets. “For us, the sun rises and sets with Food City and Safeway,” says Flagg. He’s standing in front of a long table, piled high with produce that volunteers picked up earlier this morning from grocery stores. Nearby, boxes filled with tomatoes, bananas, cheese, roasted chickens, and tortillas are stacked precariously on top of each other, almost as high as the ceiling.
Laura Alameda (La Reina de la Cocina, as Flagg calls her) is, along with Flagg, one of the seven staff members who run Casa Maria. She and volunteer Stan Everheart navigate their way through these piles, grabbing a mix of foods, which have nudged past their expiration dates, and stuffing them into plastic bags until the bags bulge and look like they are going to burst open. Flagg hands these grocery bags to people standing in a second line just outside the front door—the one for families.
Heather Guerra has been waiting in that line. “I’ve been coming here 11 years, off and on, in times of need,” she says. Like most of the folks outside Casa Maria, Guerra heard about it through word of mouth.
Along with the packed grocery bag, Flagg thrusts a package of blueberry muffins into her arms. Pastries are abundant today so everyone in the family line walks away with muffins or rich chocolate cakes that can run $9.99 at Safeway’s bakery.
Guerra has eight children and three grandchildren. “My family’s growing,” she says. Tonight, she’ll cook dinner for the seven kids that live with her. “I get food stamps and recently got employed,” she says. “But by the end of the month I need help to put meals together.”
Setting down her muffins, Guerra surveys the contents of her bag: cauliflower, carrots, tomatoes, onions. She has two pieces of hamburger meat at home and she says she’ll make a soup out of the food that Flagg just handed her. “It’ll be a good meal today.”
What would Guerra and her children eat tonight if it weren’t for Casa Maria? “Probably a lot less,” she says. “More ramen noodles. This helps us eat a little more and a little healthier.”
Some of the food in her bag may have come from Felicia’s Farm, a nonprofit urban farm started six years ago in the memory of Felicia Ann Cutler. Cutler was committed to feeding people in need. She died in 2009 and since her husband founded Felicia’s Farm, all of its produce has gone to Casa Maria. Today, manager Sofia Montes drove about 250 pounds of vegetables and 100 dozen eggs from the farm, which is nestled behind River and Alvernon.
“We come about once a week,” Montes says. The vegetables she unloaded from her truck outside Casa Maria were harvested from the farm earlier this morning. “It’s the freshest food you can get short of having your own garden, and picking it.”
Felicia’s Farm donates its produce to Casa Maria because, Montes says, they get it directly to the people who need it the most.
“We’re fighting for a full employment economy that allows people to lead dignified lives,” he says.
“I only donate the things that you’d see at a farmers’ market,” she says. “Just because you’re not buying it doesn’t mean you don’t deserve the best.”
It’s that spirit of giving that has kept Casa Maria running since a Carmelite priest named David Innocenti founded the organization in 1981. Innocenti was a member of the Catholic Worker Movement, an activist wing of the church born in the darkest days of the Great Depression. The movement is “grounded in a firm belief in the God-given dignity of every human person.”
Casa Maria is one of the 216 Catholic Worker Communities in the United States. People who follow this tradition of Catholicism live simply, resist war and social injustice, and serve the poor.
“We wouldn’t exist if there wasn’t massive poverty in Tucson, so we really want to work our way out of a job,” says Flagg, who arrived in Tucson from California on a Greyhound bus in the early 1980s and has been with Casa Maria since 1983. “We feel that in this, the wealthiest, mightiest country the world has ever known, there’s no reason for the kind of poverty that we see here every morning.”
Flagg regards his work feeding people here day-in and day-out as one part a larger mission to, as he describes, “change the system.” He’s an activist in the truest sense, involved in a range of efforts that directly affect Tucson’s poor: he registers people to vote, started the Tucson Bus Riders Union, which advocates for affordable bus fares, and has successfully fought to keep schools open that were slated for closure.
“We’re fighting for a full employment economy that allows people to lead dignified lives,” he says. “The worst thing here is the lack of dignity. People forced to come to this door and beg me for food. That’s not dignity. Dignity comes with a job where you can go to the Safeway when you’re done with a day’s work and buy what your family needs.”
Flagg and the other six staff members at Casa Maria live across the street from the soup kitchen. In addition to their housing and bus passes, they earn $10 a week. “Enough to buy a 12-pack,” says Flagg.
Clearly, it’s not the money that’s kept him here all these years; it’s the cause. “You have to have faith that you’re doing the right thing,” he says. “You have to enjoy what you do and be able to laugh at the absurdities of things. It’s a good way to live, doing what we do. I sleep well at night.”
Volunteer Stan Everheart, who had been packing grocery bags, is now lugging in crates from a van idling at the curb outside—this one, filled with donations from Food City and the Food Conspiracy Co-op. He kneels to set the crates down and pauses for a second to wipe his brow. It’s exhausting physical work.
Everheart has spent his mornings here for the past year. “I’m a gopher. I do a little of everything,” he says. “Bag groceries, make sandwiches, sweep the floor, and take out the trash. Whatever needs to be done, I’m here.”
He says he could easily be standing in the yard outside waiting to be fed rather than hustling inside. He considers his work here as a way of belonging to a community.
“To me, this is a big family,” he says. “I want the guys outside to be comfortable when I’m making coffee for them in the morning or handing out donuts. They love to come here, to get something to eat, get a hot cup of coffee. It gives them a place to come. It’s more than food. A lot more than food.” ✜
Casa Maria Catholic Worker Community. 401 E. 26th St. 520.624.0312. CasaMariaTucson.org.
Vanessa Barchfield is a reporter and producer at Arizona Public Media.