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Baltimore nonprofit that distributes food loses city-owned space during coronavirus pandemic

Michelle Suazo, executive director of U Empower of Maryland, which runs the The Food Project, is worried the program's services will be disrupted if the city follows through on plans to remove the nonprofit from the former Samuel F. B. Morse Elementary School. In addition to fresh food giveaways twice a week, U Empower provides jobs and training, education, social services and mentoring in the Carroll Ridge community. Seated at the table stocked with fresh soup and rolls is Jerel Wilson, on staff at The Food Project.
Michelle Suazo, executive director of U Empower of Maryland, which runs the The Food Project, is worried the program's services will be disrupted if the city follows through on plans to remove the nonprofit from the former Samuel F. B. Morse Elementary School. In addition to fresh food giveaways twice a week, U Empower provides jobs and training, education, social services and mentoring in the Carroll Ridge community. Seated at the table stocked with fresh soup and rolls is Jerel Wilson, on staff at The Food Project. (Amy Davis)

A Baltimore nonprofit that organizes food donations and coordinates other services to low-income city residents will be forced out of its city-owned Carrollton Ridge facility at the end of this year.

U Empower of Maryland, which runs The Food Project out of the former schoolhouse and trains young people culinary arts and food service skills, received notice last week that its agreement with the city has expired and will not be renewed. In a notice dated Oct. 29, Baltimore Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young gives the organization a Dec. 31 deadline to vacate the property.

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“After further deliberation by various City agencies, the Mayor’s Office has made a decision that is in the best interest of the City to reclaim the portion of the Property which U Empower of Maryland, Inc. is currently occupying,” the notice reads.

The decision came as a shock to U Empower’s executive director, Michelle Suazo, who said she had been negotiating a lease in the building with the city’s department of general services and the mayor’s office. The facility, which has a built-in kitchen, a large parking lot and a playground, also houses the Samuel F.B. Morse Recreation Center as well as another nonprofit organization called I’m Still Standing, which helps veterans and ex-offenders with job training and life skills.

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Suazo said U Empower has a strong network in the community and cannot relocate easily, and had become an important resource during the coronavirus pandemic in providing food to vulnerable residents.

Its kitchen also serves as the site of Seedy Nutty, a snack produced and marketed by a group of Baltimore youngsters. Suazo said losing the kitchen would be a setback for the burgeoning enterprise.

“If you’re going to evict us, why not give us a year to get into a new location so you don’t pull out the rug from underneath us?” said Suazo, adding that the mayor’s office acted “recklessly” and with “complete disregard” for the community, which has one of the largest concentrations of blight and violence in Baltimore. “It would take a year to set up in another space.”

Of the city’s 290 reported homicides in 2020, at least 27 of them have occurred in Carrollton Ridge’s 21223 ZIP code, Baltimore police data shows.

James Bentley, a spokesman for Young, said the group’s agreement with the city to occupy the space expired in June 2019. He also said U Empower acknowledged earlier this year that the building no longer suited its needs.

But Suazo said she had asked the city for more space in the facility so the organization could continue to grow.

The Food Project organized an online petition last week that has since garnered more than 3,700 signatures. In it, she argues that the pandemic has intensified the need for a food access program with a presence in Southwest Baltimore.

The organization has served more than 15,000 meals during the pandemic, Suazo said, and delivers hundreds of meals per week to families as well as distributes fresh produce. The young people have stepped up to deliver, she added.

Suazo acknowledged tensions that have flared up between some U Empower members and another group at the South Pulaski Street site.

A January police report describes an assault by a 24-year-old U Empower worker on a 69-year-old training coordinator at I’m Still Standing, ending with the young man threatening to get a gun. He was later sentenced to unsupervised probation, online court records show.

Lawana Perkins, the director of I’m Still Standing, said her group plans to stay in the building. She declined to comment further on the situation.

Suazo confirmed the details of the incident, but said the mayor’s office did not cite the altercation as a reason for the termination notice. She described it as an isolated incident.

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“For these young men, what is left? Do you want them on the street?” Suazo said. “Our work speaks for itself and the community will tell you. The kids in the community being able to have a voice — I think at the end of the day, that’s most important.”

Councilman John T. Bullock, a Democrat who represents the area, also said “friction” existed between the nonprofit groups. He said he hopes the organizations and the mayor’s office can reach a compromise before the December deadline.

“I do really appreciate the work The Food Project does in providing nourishment for the community, for folks who are food insecure, and what it’s doing for young people,” he said. “I am hopeful something can be worked out. Should they be looking for another facility, I would hope the city would make it happen.”

Bullock said he did not receive advanced notice about U Empower’s loss of space.

Cyndi Tensley, president of the Carrollton Ridge Community Association, said The Food Project had been “a blessing” for the neighborhood as well as for residents of nearby areas that flocked to it regularly for support.

To lose it would hurt the young people on the payroll and cut off a vital source of food in the neighborhood, she said.

“To shut the doors like that, that can leave a very negative, and even a destructive, message to young people when you look at the progress, especially to those on the streets,” Tensley said. “I know our kids aren’t perfect, some are rough around the edges, but it takes time and patience."

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