Denise Jones and C.L. don't know each other and will probably never meet. But the two women share an intimate relationship. They sustain each other through food.
Jones and her colleagues cook it, and C.L. and her family enjoy the results.
They are part of a new collaboration between the Salvation Army and Project Angel Food in training welfare recipients such as Jones for jobs in the food industry, while providing hot meals to people like C.L. with HIV or AIDS.
The project is also the latest effort to expand AIDS awareness and programs into South Los Angeles and other minority communities where the disease is spreading rapidly.
And with the training subsidized by Los Angeles County, it is part of the welfare-to-work reforms that give people strong incentives to get new occupations.
"It's good to know there are people in the program trying to get their lives together but willing to help me," said C.L., a soft-spoken but friendly woman whose face wears a trace of fatigue around the eyes.
For years, Project Angel Food, a Hollywood nonprofit organization, has prepared meals at its Sunset Boulevard kitchen for delivery to hundreds of men, women and children with AIDS in Los Angeles. But it has been difficult to effectively deliver hot meals in some more distant areas.
The group recently opened a satellite kitchen at the Salvation Army's Compton community center and delivers hot meals to homes in Watts, Inglewood and Compton, as well as to AIDS clinics at Martin Luther King Jr./Drew Medical Center and UCLA Harbor Medical Center.
Next month, services will expand further with delivery of hot meals to Long Beach, Carson and other South Bay communities from the Compton kitchen.
"This is a much more efficient way for us to operate," said Robert Boller, Project Angel Food's dispatch manager. "It's a 45-minute drive here from Hollywood, and by the time our volunteer drivers got the food out to people, it might end up taking three hours."
He was standing outside the Compton center, waiting to gather food for a delivery run. The smell of marinara sauce and hot pies wafted from the kitchen. Inside, Jones and colleagues Barbara Wright, Jamie Drear and others in the welfare-to-work culinary program were whipping up the day's menu of pasta pillows with turkey marinara, ratatouille, green salad and oatmeal cookies.
Cooking, for most of these women, is like prattling with an old friend. It comes easy because they learned it at their mothers' knees. But the ability to transform this chore into a craft, a means of supporting their families, is for them a dream.
"I've been cooking since I was 12 because my mom had to work," said Jones, 43, whose serious demeanor is frequently broken by a warm smile.
The students in the culinary program spend 20 hours in the classroom and 12 hours working in the kitchen. The county's welfare system pays the Salvation Army tuition fees for each student, as well as for supportive services such as child care and uniforms. The students continue to receive monthly cash benefits and are paid minimum wage by Project Angel Food for the 12 hours they work in the kitchen, said Michelle Caiquo, project director for the Salvation Army.
Jones had been on and off welfare for several years while working as a nursing assistant in convalescent homes. She was laid off from her last job nine months ago, and at about the same time, her mother died. But Jones has struggled back to her feet. Now, she said, she uses her 24-year-old son, Da'Juan, and 13-year-old daughter, La'Star, as guinea pigs for her culinary experiments, which include lots of Mexican recipes and, more recently, Chinese fare.
Born and raised in Watts, Jones said she is grateful to be able to give something back to her community.
"With this program, we're not only able to sharpen our skills, but to help others who can't do for themselves," she said.
In a corner of the kitchen, John Gordon, a Project Angel Food chef, is supervising preparation of meals, which are packed into tin and plastic containers, for delivery from about noon to 3 p.m. The kitchen can also alter the menu for diabetics and for those who are lactose intolerant, suffer from kidney problems or have other special needs, Gordon said.
In addition, Project Angel Food prepares frozen food packages, which many clients prefer because they can be used over a longer period of time.
Two drivers are assigned to the Compton kitchen, and Project Angel Food is hoping to recruit more volunteers in the area to shorten their routes, which can wind from Willowbrook to Nickerson Gardens to Inglewood. The group delivers about 75 meals in the area each day.
"You get to know a lot of people, and we have a real good rapport with clients," said Hernan Rivera, one of the Compton drivers. "I've made some real friends. It's just unfortunate when you get to know somebody and they pass away."