ROGERS PARK — A dozen people lined up outside a neighborhood food kitchen earlier this week, about an hour before they'd be served a free meal of chicken fajitas and Costco lasagna, donated by a North Shore church.
Ivory Mcmillion was one of the hungry mouths.
He says he's been eating dinner at A Just Harvest's kitchen since 1984, a year after it opened in the same location as Good News Community Kitchen.
Over the years the nonprofit group has expanded from a food kitchen that serves daily meals to a community activist organization with a mission to end hunger and poverty.
And this year, the nonprofit group is celebrating its 30-year anniversary in Rogers Park.
Mcmillion, 52, said the free food helped him save money, and sometimes it's his "only option" for a hot meal. He also volunteers his own time when the kitchen needs help.
"We're a family," he said before taking a table inside the kitchen's small seating area that feels more like a late-night diner than a soup kitchen.
A Just Harvest's Community Kitchen, as it's officially called, has waiters who take orders and plate food. They clean the tables, too.
Last year, it served 54,000 meals and 296,000 pounds of food.
Since the recession, more people are turning up at 7649 N. Paulina St. for a free meal, said Kristi Sanford, one of A Just Harvest's seven full-time employees.
"There's still a tremendous need for food," she said, and no one is ever turned away.
Rosario Valdovinos, 58, has been the head cook at the kitchen since its inception in the 1980s.
She had lived next door for 20 years. Now she lives in Niles. Her children are grown.
"Time moves so fast. Before you know it, it's so many years," said Valdovinos. "To me [the kitchen] is like my home, my family. It's such a nice feeling when they receive what they needed."
Valdovinos told the story — while waiting for the lasagna to warm in the oven — of a family that would come in every night years ago. She often sees the same faces from night to night, but for some reason that family stopped coming for meals.
Then six years ago, a man in a military uniform came in asking for Valdovinos. He asked her, "Do you remember me?"
He told her that he was one of the young children, now grown, in that family.
She was touched at the time, she said, and she cried remembering how the then-young man helped serve food that night, then bus tables afterward.
"We fed his family for a long time," she said.