Alberto Cortes: Meals as Medicine

November 16, 2017

By Andrea Lopez-Villafaña

The motivation to support vulnerable communities for Alberto Cortes, executive director of Mama’s Kitchen, developed from witnessing the damage that the lack of support and stigmas can bring upon those with critical illnesses.

His conviction to help those individuals, drove Cortes to Mama’s Kitchen, the nonprofit organization that provides nutritious meal services to individuals whom are susceptible to hunger due to HIV, cancer or other critical illnesses in San Diego.

“Our programs are intended to target folks where nutrition can make a difference in their health outcomes,” Cortes said. “There’s a lot of research out there that shows how a consistent source of medically appropriate food can make a difference in the health outcomes in the people that we serve.”

Throughout his career, Cortes has worked and volunteered for community health centers and organizations that aim to educate on HIV and support those with AIDS.

Cortes recalls that during the 1980s AIDS epidemic, there were several stigmas attached to people who had AIDS, which harmed the gay community and made it difficult to provide them with proper services.

“Oftentimes, society made it such that it increased the vulnerability of people living with HIV because of the stigma attached to it,” Cortes said.

Because he witnessed that damage, he said it made complete sense to him that Mama’s Kitchen was the place where he needed to work.

“We take care of people that are vulnerable because of poverty, because of illness, because of social status, biases in our society, and those are the folks I want to be affiliated with and work with, and help,” Cortes said.

He began working for Mama’s Kitchen in 2000 by serving on the board of directors and was hired as the executive director in 2002.

And now, Cortes is leading the nonprofit organization during a time of expansion of their mission. The organization was founded on the idea of food as comfort and is moving toward the idea of food as medicine.

“We are moving into the concept of food is medicine and where we’re looking to have an impact on the well being and health of people that are sick by providing medically tailored meals,” he said.

Cortes said Mama’s Kitchen will start a project with San Diego County to provide nutrition for people with hepatitis A, which has claimed the lives of at least 20 individuals in the county.

And in January they will start a project with the State of California and other organizations that will target helping individuals with congestive heart failure.

Born and raised in New York City, Cortes had a love for his parents’ home of Puerto Rico, which he moved to at the age of 15.

He shares that although he loved New York City, he never really felt he belonged there and dreamed of living in Puerto Rico, but he soon realized he was not from there either after he was called a “Nuyorican,” a slang term to refer to a Puerto Rican living in New York.

However, Cortes had a strong connection to his roots and said he is grateful for growing up in a home where they he was encouraged to engage with his culture.

Cortes joined the United States Navy, serving for four years.

He said being in the Navy allowed him to learn to work in a collaborative way, which is something that has helped him throughout his life.

“Who you are doesn’t matter and what truly matters is how you contribute to the well-being of everybody that’s in your unit or your system,” Cortes said. “It was a really valuable learning experience that I think has impacted my life and my career. It provided (a) wonderful foundation.”

After the Navy, Cortes entered the nonprofit world as a volunteer and then transitioned to work full-time working with vulnerable communities and targeting the Latino community in San Diego.

He said he enjoyed it because he felt it was substantial and meaningful work.

“It had purpose and gave me a sense of doing something in the community to serve people that were being ignored, hated, were being dismissed and not served,” Cortes said.

His goal for Mama’s Kitchen is to grow the organization in a way that it remains relevant in the community and help it become the lead organization in providing nutrition to people that are sick or vulnerable.

“The work of Mama’s Kitchen is the work of many,” Cortes said. “It’s a community response and it’s a collaborative effort.”

The organization is currently holding its 2017 Mama’s Pie in the Sky Thanksgiving Bake Sale fundraiser, which will benefit Mama’s Kitchen. Pie sales will continue until Nov. 19 and are available for $25 each and can be purchased online via www.mamaspies.org or by dialing 619-233-6262 to place an order.

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