Chef Traci Calderon makes it her mission to serve those in need
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Chef Traci Calderon makes it her mission to serve those in need

May 15, 2023

From the fish market to produce stands to countless specialty shops, there's a lot of food at Seattle's Pike Place Market.

But there's also a place that shows you how to turn that food into a meal. Atrium Kitchen has been providing market-to-table tours and cooking classes for years. It's also a place where the community comes together and people are fed, for free.

Hundreds of meals are made each week by one chef — Traci Calderon, who is on a mission to give back, connect people and serve those facing food insecurity.

On the first Thursday in May, just down the stairs from First Avenue in Pike Place Market, Calderon busily prepared a meal of salad and spaghetti and meatballs inside Atrium Kitchen.

Glass paneled doors stood open between the kitchen and the atrium. Below a giant squid sculpture, tables covered with brightly-covered table cloths waited at the ready.

"Hi there! Hungry? It's a free lunch today," Calderon called out cheerfully.

These monthly community lunches, served by Calderon or a solo volunteer, are part of Atrium Kitchen's Nourished Neighborhood program. Anyone who wants — or needs — to fill their plate is invited inside, and even encouraged to come back for seconds.

People lined up with plates in hand. Seated together at tables, they start out strangers but, after sharing a meal, leave as something more.

That fellowship brings Robert Gouhin back every month. He is one of more than 500 people who live in one of the Market's eight residential buildings.

"It's like there's a lady over there that I didn't know until I met her here. And I talked to her and we’re both, you know…grateful," Gouhin said.

Sitting near Gouhin was fellow Market resident Debra Jones.

"You can feel the love coming from her with these meals. You can just feel it. So you know she cares about people," Jones said.

Calderon said the community meals started six years ago, as a way for her to give back. She was inspired by her parents.

Her mom was diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer's at the age of 58.

"About a year after the diagnosis, I became her caregiver. And, in caring for her, I was preparing meals for her and my dad. That way, my dad wasn't stopping for fast food on the way home from work. And I realized that's a service that other families needed," Calderon said.

She made a career change, becoming a personal and private chef. She kept saying "yes" to things she hadn't done before, and eventually ended up at Atrium Kitchen.

After watching Calderon interact with the community lunch crowd, it's clear she's right where she wants — and needs — to be.

Calderon believes food connects people and one particular connection has stayed with her. A man named Callie was living on the street and heard about her free lunch:

"I was working the line and I looked up and I have this very vivid memory of Callie standing there and he had a little pit bull mix with him - Miha was her name - and there was almost a vacancy in his eyes.

"And I motioned for him to come into the kitchen. I filled up his plate and I’m like, ‘If you’re hungry, you come back for seconds.’ And, at that time, I think it was between his second and third plate of food, I told him about the services here in the Market - at the Pike Place Market food bank.

"So, fast forward the following week, we were doing another community meal - it was breakfast on Friday mornings called Kindness in the Kitchen. He came to breakfast. He was a different man. There was color in his face, his eyes were brighter. He was so excited to tell me about the meal that he had picked up from the food bank. He just ate so well!

"And I was just so excited to see him and I had hoped that I would see him again. And I never did. But, that just gives me hope that he's somewhere out there in the world doing good things."

At that time, Nourished Neighborhood was going strong with in-kind and monetary donations. Calderon was also finding success with catering jobs and cooking classes.

But then, March 2020 happened — COVID. Everything came to a halt.

Overnight, Calderon started to lose all of her catering business. She felt devastated.

"I was working in my garden, feeling sorry for myself. ‘Why is this happening to me?’ Uh, like, ‘Open your eyes, girl. This is happening to everyone.’ Once I had that realization, I was like, ‘Well, how can I be of service?'" Calderon said.

At the same time, seniors who had been coming to her lunches were being told to shelter in place. They didn't have enough food. They asked Calderon for help.

She answered the call with the food and donations that she had on-hand. Chef friends with shuttered restaurants also helped, welcoming her into their walk-in freezers and pantries.

With a small team of volunteers, Nourished Neighborhood began providing weekly meals to those in need.

At the height of the pandemic, Calderon was making around 900 meals a week with help from volunteers. These days, it's down to about 250. She does most of the work herself. Making a week's worth of meals for each person on her list.

Every Tuesday, Calderon packs the meals into microwavable boxes, loads them into shopping bags and heads out to make deliveries to seniors all around Seattle. Most of them came to her through word of mouth.

Judi Hepburn Hunt connected with Calderon two years ago after moving into a new apartment.

"She had used all of her savings to pay first and last month's rent. Here she is in a new place; she has no food," Calderon explained.

Hunt reached out to a social service program, but they didn't have anything available. They reached out to Calderon to see if she had extra food from her weekly meals.

"I went and bought Judi bread, butter, milk. I had frozen meals I was able to deliver and I have been cooking for her ever since," Calderon said.

During one of her delivery days last month, Calderon parked in front of Hunt's apartment. Hunt waited outside her lobby door, wearing a mask. As Calderon handed her a bag filled with this week's meals, Hunt said "Chef Traci" has been her lifeline.

"So, my health was failing. And then Traci started bringing me meals. And my doctor said, ‘You’re in really good shape.' He said, ‘What are you doing differently?’ I said, ‘It's called Chef Traci.’ So, yeah, she has literally saved me," Hunt said.

Calderon worries about Judi and other seniors on fixed incomes. She said there's a flaw in the system.

"I’ve had a couple different seniors tell me this scenario where they’ve had a birthday, which then increases the amount of social security and benefits they received. However, that put them over an income bracket that then disqualified them for their food benefits. And, I still don't understand how that can even possibly happen," Calderon said.

"That is a reality for our aging community and that's one of the reasons why there is food insecurity."

And that's the reason Calderon said she will keep doing what she's doing.

"For me, when I am cooking for someone, it's an extension of my heart. They’re wrapped up in my love. So, I do care about them and I think that, to be of service to people, especially people later in their life when maybe they haven't known kindness, and to be able to share that kindness with them … that's one of the best gifts."

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