Rescinding an action by former Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young, Mayor Brandon Scott will let a West Baltimore nonprofit that distributes food in the area continue using a city-owned facility.
Scott nullified a termination of use notice issued to U Empower of Maryland, which runs The Food Project out of a former schoolhouse. The group has distributed thousands of meals throughout the coronavirus pandemic and produces an original snack item, Seedy Nutty, in the kitchen.
In a November letter signed by Young, U Empower of Maryland learned that it would have to vacate the space by the end of the year because its agreement with the city had expired and would not be renewed.
“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 notice came as a shock to The Food Project’s executive director, Michelle Suazo, who said she was negotiating a long-term lease to remain in the facility with the city’s Department of General Services when she received it.
“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?” Suazo said last month.
She said 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. The decision would kill the group’s momentum, she said, because it would take at least a year to find another space with a commercial kitchen and get up and running. The Food Project also employs several young people and provides volunteers with culinary and food service training as well as mentoring.
Now, Suazo’s organization can stay in Carrollton Ridge.
“Mayor Scott’s quick action has saved all the work and jobs that The Food Project has created in the Carrolton Ridge community,” Suazo said in a statement Monday. “We look forward to continuing to work with the City of Baltimore to serve the southwest district’s youth and families. And together we can help redefine the narrative of Baltimore’s youth by allowing them to empower their community one meal at a time here at The Food Project.”
In a letter sent to Suazo, Scott said the group no longer has to vacate, and will have a lease negotiated with the city within 90 days. He said he made the decision “after further review of the situation.”
The city’s termination notice likely stemmed from reported tensions between members of U Empower of Maryland and I’m Still Standing, another nonprofit organization headquartered in the building. Councilman John T. Bullock, who represents West Baltimore, said he knew of “friction” brewing between U Empower of Maryland and I’m Still Standing, which helps veterans and ex-offenders with job training and life skills.
James Bentley, a spokesman for Young, said the U Empower ’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 nonprofit, which has been operating in the area for several years, provides an essential lifeline to people struggling with food insecurity.
The schoolhouse acts as a key community gathering site, she said, and losing it would have been a blow to The Food Project, forcing it out of the neighborhood and jeopardizing its employees and volunteers.
“The message the eviction sends the young men that made the choice to come off the streets to serve their community is that they don’t belong in the kitchen either,” Suazo said. “So, where do they belong?”
An online petition organized by Suazo in response to the termination notice garnered close to 5,000 signatures.