It was right around noon. Director of Education and Advocacy Pedro De Velasco hustled down the stairs to the dining area of the comedor, ready to grab a quick meal before heading back to work in his office. He served himself a steaming plate of rice and beans before sitting down at an empty table.
A family approached him. They had a few questions. As Pedro began to answer these questions and open a broader conversation with the family, others began joining in. Soon, the entire table was full – mostly of families who had recently arrived at Kino. Soon they were not only exchanging information, but also laughs and memories.
“My heart was filled. It was such a great experience, I started doing it on purpose every day after that when I could,” Pedro says. Ever since he started making space to connect at the table, he has commiserated with parents over the challenges of getting kids to eat vegetables, the joys of marriage, frustrations with lackluster sports teams – the list goes on and on.
Pedro says, “Many days, we don’t even talk about anything immigration related. We get to connect as people, and I find that so beautiful. I walk away from the table feeling as if I’ve been given a really precious gift. Like not only my body has been nourished, but my soul.”
As we focus on holistic accompaniment, we know that attending to physical needs like food are fundamental. And we serve a lot of food! Over the years, hundreds of thousands of meals have been shared at Kino. This year alone, we have already served 123,594 meals to people at the comedor.
We are proud to offer nutrition at scale, especially when the number of people who need food is so immense. At the same time, we want the act of sharing food to go far beyond sustaining bodies. Food can also nurture the soul and bonds between people – both critical elements of holistic accompaniment. As we look to the next chapter, we cannot wait to make sure everyone who walks through our doors can experience what Pedro did: food as nutrition, sensory experience, and collective care.
Kino was first started around the idea of sharing food with people on the move. The mission of the Missionaries of the Eucharist states:
The Missionaries of the Eucharist, animated by the Adoring Jesus, are sent to serve and continue the Project of the Kingdom, humanizing, educating and liberating, preferably the poorest in the realities of exclusion.
Bringing this vision to life, Sister Engracia Robles started with food. In collaboration with JRS / USA, she began to offer meals to migrants in Nogales, Sonora and conduct an assessment to determine the best way to support them. Most of the people who partook were men who had recently been deported and were sheltering under the Mariposa bridge.
Engracia explains, “The people we met were disoriented. They were scared. And they were very hungry. It was when they were eating that we would ask them our survey questions. I learned clearly that what migrants needed the most was a meal.”
She organized a group of volunteers from the local parishes in Ambos Nogales to cook large meals once a month for migrants, which they served in a tiny makeshift dining hall under the overpass. Soon, the operation grew organically. Local companies, bakeries and allies from the U.S. started donating financially and goods to support the emerging ministry.
Eventually, the police said that the meals under the overpass could not continue. That’s when this mission grew into a physical and permanent space: Kino’s first official comedor.
Early days in the first comedor
“Food is always about more than food,” says Joanna Williams, Executive Director. “The team realized that sharing food together, especially ina space where we could sit down, could function as a space of community building and collective care, too.”
Over time, especially once Kino acquired more space, the connections in the comedor began to grow. This new approach opened the door for Kino to expand both humanitarian services and holistic accompaniment. When people came to the comedor for food, they also received clothing and medical care. These direct services laid the groundwork for all of the additional support Kino offers today and will offer in the future – including recreational opportunities, psychological care, and space for creativity.
Beyond the direct services, focusing on food as a place of connection touched migrants deeply. Sister Luz Elena Guzman Vargas, who has served as Food Services Coordinator since 2021, explains, “Kino offers the opportunity to clean up after a long journey, to eat, and have their stories heard by a person who cares. That is a great relief for those who come. Seeing that impact makes me happy to be at Kino. To be able to listen to people on the move, to be able to be with them, and to share their experiences. It motivates me, it gives me life, and I thank God for being here.”
Underpinnings: Food for the stomach, food for the soul.
As Luz Elena’s quote suggests, food is about far more than nourishment. Food is communication, culture, and a core element of our Catholic faith.
Latinidad and Food
In many Latin American cultures, sharing food is essential to expressing identity and forging strong bonds. Perhaps no word captures this quite like “sobremesa,” a noun that is quasi-untranslatable and refers to the time spent over the table after a meal leisurely chatting, relaxing, and savoring one’s company.
“Growing up, it was so important to sit together at family meals. Sitting together as a family is an expression of that familial love, and it deepens those shared memories and feelings of love, too. Communal meals feed the body, the soul, and our attachment to one another. That’s part of what Kino is emulating,” says Pedro.
To capture and emphasize this sense of communal enjoyment and engagement, Kino has revived the practice of praying together before meals and facilitating connections. New arrivals get to sit together at a special table with a staff member to welcome them and get conversation going, and the guests at the shelter help serve meals to the new arrivals and others who are staying at other shelters or houses and come to KBI just for the day. On certain nights, shelter guests create the dinner menus using traditional foods from their hometowns and cook them together.
Taste of Home: food as culture-sharing
People from numerous countries walk through Kino’s doors. Food has proven to be an ideal vehicle for people to both express cultural differences and celebrate them, too.
Various groups at Kino have joyfully offered to share their heritage through food. At the shelter, guests have been organizing nights where different people are responsible for cooking traditional foods from their home country. Recently, one guest from Venezuela served up mouth-watering arepas. One of Joanna’s favorite meals was courtesy of the Revolucionarios. The migrant leaders organized a meal of thanksgiving for KBI staff before they finally had a chance to start the asylum process in the US. “They served tamales. They were so delicious,” she says wistfully.
Even among the Kino team, food has served as a great means of collective care.
Joanna explains that the team appoints two people to coordinate a birthday celebration for staff each month. Usually, the staff in charge of the celebration will get creative with the food and use it as a means for sharing their own background. In July, Aracely and Jorge were responsible. While everyone expected Aracely to lead the menu, Jorge surprised his teammates with a secret recipe for stuffed chicken breasts that everyone loved.
She says that the list of celebrations and culinary delights is long. “We had an asada where we ate a traditional pechuga. At the staff retreat we fried pescado in very traditional Mexican fashion. I could list so many delicious foods we’ve gotten to eat thanks to the team. It’s wonderful, tasty, and it leaves everyone feeling like they get to know each other better in a really fun and meaningful way.”
Food features heavily in key celebrations, too. When the Missionaries of the Eucharist celebrated their 50th anniversary, the sisters invited staff, volunteers, and migrants at the shelter to participate in a mass and a specially prepared meal of pozole.
This year, we will use this model as a blueprint for our own quinceañera. The afternoon of November 3 will celebrate fifteen years of Kino with mass, memories, and a very special meal.
Food as Catholic Expression
When anyone walks into the comedor, one of the first things they see is a triptych mural of Jesus’ wide open arms. Nearby, a painting created by a migrant artist depicts Jesus eating with disciples, migrants, and guests at a table filled with food.
This imagery represents the sacred intersection of food and ministry in Jesus’ own life, and the way that food enlivens our Catholic faith. Engracia is quick to note that the very first Eucharist was part of a meal and that communing with God still happens over shared tables.
She says people ask her why the Missionaries of the Eucharist often don’t go to daily mass. “It’s true, we go to Mass every week, not always every day. But we ask ourselves every day: how did we behave with migrants, our fellow sisters, and people on our team? We must live what Jesus said by doing what he did – that’s why we break bread with people on the move. Jesus sat at tables sharing food. He showed us that doing that is one of the most important things in life. We want to share that vision and follow his own invitation to ‘do this in memory’ of him.”
While the meals we share with each other and people on the move in the comedor are not the Eucharist, doing so reminds us that while Jesus is not present in the element eaten, He sits at the table alongside us.
For for thought: Next steps for communal cuisine at Kino
Over the years, our approach to both accompaniment and food has evolved. During the years of Covid, communal meals in the comedor were largely suspended. While it is true that fostering deep interactions was harder then, the season also afforded several insights.
For example: we learned that offering people different options to get food was great and meaningful accompaniment, too.
Joanna explains, “We went back to to-go food during the pandemic. When we returned to hosting meals all together, we realized that for some people to-go food was a much better option. For others, getting a food basket with items they could prepare at home was even better. A mom with three children living in Nogales might find it a lot easier and more economically feasible for her to come to the comedor by herself and bring food back to the kids. It saves her both time and bus fare. Our emphasis has to be on adaptability – how do we meet each person where they are and come alongside them in their unique situation.”
In Kino’s next chapter, we will build on this theme of adaptability. Thus far in 2023, Kino serves an average 17,656 meals each month at the comedor. We want to make sure each person gets the meal optimal for their physical health. That means we hope to work with a nutritionist to help us craft our menu and accommodate people on adapted diets like those for people with diabetes or religious restrictions.
Most importantly, Kino aims to build on the communal element of food – using meals as an opportunity for genuine connection and human dignity. Future education groups will come to serve food and then sit down to enjoy it with migrants.
Pedro says, “That’s a moment to share and to enjoy the image of God in one another. It’s so easily lost in transitions, and I don’t want people to miss it.”
As we look to the future of food here at Kino, we savor the deep connections and sense of solidarity it has already nurtured. Let us continue to set the table, open the doors, and welcome all who come to break bread with us.
Each meal brings us a little closer to our own selves, each other, and to a world where migration with dignity is possible.