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Meet the woman cooking free meals every week for downtown Gainesville residents

Mel and Cec Wood-Barron, one of her frequent volunteers, pose with a finished black bean quesadilla. (Sarah Henry/WUFT News)
Mel and Cec Wood-Barron, one of her frequent volunteers, pose with a finished black bean quesadilla. (Sarah Henry/WUFT News)

Melanie Rodriguez-Martinez has done a little bit of everything around Gainesville: security at the University Club and Vecinos downtown, events with How Bazar and Fluidity Fashion, and volunteer work at food pantries.

Now, she’s added one more thing to her roster. Rodriguez-Martinez, 23, has always loved cooking but it wasn’t until this February that she saw how she could use her passion to fill a need in the community.

Rodriguez-Martinez was working at the UC, Gainesville’s only LGBTQ+ night club, after moving to Gainesville during the height of the pandemic when she found herself without a place to live.

She relied on the generosity of the friends she had only recently made to house her.

“I was bouncing from place to place and depending on my friends for a lot. The one thing that I really didn’t want to depend on them for was food for myself and my pets,” she said.

She didn’t want to be a burden on her friends, so she started volunteering at food drives around town to clear her mind, she said. They would often have boxes of food that would get thrown out or given to volunteers at the end of the day.

It got her thinking about food in a new way.

“I didn’t know any of these resources existed until I looked for them,” she said. “The biggest thing I took from that was not being scared to ask for help and even more, not being scared to provide it.”

One day in February, after the Gainesville Free Grocery Store had received a surplus of squash and bell peppers, she saw an opportunity.

“I asked them if I could take as many boxes as possible and they said yes,” she said. She left the free grocery with eight stacks of vegetables and made stuffed bell peppers.

This would mark her first Free Food Friday, an initiative that provides hot meals to those in need every week for free. They are available for delivery or pick up from her apartment.

“From that week forward, I realized this was something I really wanted to do,” she said.

Cec Wood-Barron, 21, has volunteered with Martinez-Rodriguez on Fridays and at pop-ups like the pride market at CYM Coffee in June.

“Mel has such a deep passion for community, you can really tell. Everything she makes is made with love,” Wood-Barron said.

Rodriguez-Martinez said she usually buys the ingredients for the meals herself, but sometimes she reaches out to the Free Grocery Store if it has a surplus of produce.

Every week, she cooks about 60 meals in her tiny apartment kitchen, barely big enough for her and her dog, Bruno. Since she started, she’s made lemon garlic fettuccine, black bean quesadillas, and coconut curry among other dishes. She tries to provide a vegan option as often as possible for those with allergies or dietary restrictions.

“A lot of the time, people who need help don't really have a say in requesting those things,” she said.

Day Peak, 21, is a friend of hers and a loyal patron of Mel’s Kitchen.

“I think it’s very important what she’s doing. It tackles the real issue of hunger and food deserts in Gainesville,” Peak said.

While Rodriguez-Martinez said she will still be doing her weekly Free Food Fridays, she has put together a made-to-order menu for her newest endeavor: Mel’s Kitchen.

Mel’s Kitchen is open seven days a week and runs out of her apartment. The meals are priced between $5 and $9 and can be picked up or dropped off on request.

As for what’s on the menu? Tostones, mofongos, sorruos, piononos and yuca frita. Rodriguez-Martinez said she draws on her Puerto Rican roots to inspire her dishes. She spent much of her childhood on the island before moving to Miami, then Sanford, and finally, Gainesville.

“My family doesn't really have a lot of traditions, but we do have traditions in the dinners and things that we cook when we’re all together,” she said. “The menu that I have in place for Mel’s Kitchen couldn’t be more Puerto Rican, more me.”

That’s why Peak keeps going back for more. “Mel always puts 110% into herself and into the meals that she makes. The meals are so robust and full of flavor."

Rodriguez-Martinez, who is also a student at Santa Fe College studying sonography, said it's hard to imagine where she’ll go from here. She said she’d like to finish her degree in the next three years. But in an ideal world, she’d like to buy or lease a multipurpose space that could serve as a restaurant, club, bar and community gathering spot.

“I’d like to continue growing so a space like this could not only fund my dreams but kind of give back to everybody little by little,” she said.

Sarah is a reporter for WUFT News who can be reached by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing