For much of Wednesday, the air in the city’s Old Goucher neighborhood was filled with the aroma of roasted Cornish hens, homemade butternut squash soup and — perhaps most notably — barbecue beef brisket.
In the kitchen of the Franciscan Center, a nonprofit outreach organization, 28 volunteer chefs from Baltimore and D.C. labored in staggered shifts beginning at 1 a.m. Wednesday and throughout the day, cooking huge amounts of food for homeless people, the hungry and front-line workers like police officers and emergency room staff.
Outside, the chefs tended to more than 300 pounds of brisket cooking in a smoker affectionately named “Big Boy.” Volunteers manned a warm tent festooned with wreaths, garlands and stuffed snowmen, where they handed out the boxed meals, as well as winter hats and gloves.
It was all part of the center’s first-ever “Serving ‘Round the Clock” food marathon. From 8 a.m. Wednesday until 8 a.m. Thursday, the team of roughly 80 volunteers aimed to serve 2,500 meals. They ultimately delivered 1,986.
“COVID has robbed us and given us a lot of pain, but doing something like this, it shows that there is hope, and that we as a community, we’re not going to let COVID rob us completely of everything,” declared an emotional Jeffrey Griffin, the center’s executive director, between shifts Wednesday night.
The Franciscan Center on 23rd Street near Maryland Avenue provides food, clothing and other services for people who are struggling or in crisis.
At a time when so many across Baltimore lack food, organizers hoped to meet some of the need, at least for one day this holiday week.
“This is a tough time. Restaurants have shut down, and people have lost their jobs. It’s a way to provide people with a dignified meal,” said chef Steven Allbright, the center’s culinary director.
Jeremy Smith, 31, stopped by the tent in search of a warm meal. Smith said he was working for a tow truck company and painting homes on the side, but was laid off in the throes of the coronavirus pandemic, and work has been hard to come by. The Franciscan Center has been a big help ever since, he said.
“I give these people my heart. I love them,” Smith said. “You can never go hungry in Baltimore.”
Don Kelly, who also stopped by the center Wednesday evening to grab a bite, said staff members there helped him obtain identification documents he needed to access aid. The 66-year-old said he was recently placed in an apartment close to the Johns Hopkins Hospital.
“It’s fantastic, even just to come down and socialize during the day and stuff, when you see everybody,” Kelly said of the center.
City officials say one in three city residents are considered “food insecure,” an increase from roughly one in four before the pandemic hit.
More than 20%, or some 38,000, of the Baltimore residents who relied on SNAP have lost that government benefit, said Holly Freishtat, Baltimore City’s food policy director. Some recipients lost jobs during the pandemic, and their unemployment benefits put them over the SNAP income threshold.
At the Franciscan Center this year, the need has been crushing. The center, which served 131,000 meals in 2019, has already served 350,000 this year, mainly thanks to the help of generous donors. Griffin said they’ve started deliveries every day to four homeless encampments, to low-income seniors and to squeegee kids.
Wednesday, they made deliveries to those places and others with a coordinated effort from volunteers who came from as far away as Montgomery County, some high-fiving, others moved to tears. By 1 a.m. Thursday, some of the crew began making deliveries of individually wrapped, warm “brunch” meals of eggs, bacon, brisket and ham. They drove through the night to leave 50 meals each at seven city police stations, and to each of roughly a dozen hospital emergency rooms, including the convention center, where about 100 patients are being cared for, Griffin said.
The center’s leaders were inspired to launch their holiday marathon after the work they did over Thanksgiving, when the center served 992 people in a five-hour span.
“I wanted to serve 1,000 that day,” Allbright said. “That day I had the idea of having a food-a-thon.”
Chef Mashaye Barr, of DeaconChef, a faith-based Baltimore group that feeds and serves the homeless, helped run this week’s event. She recruited the chefs, some of whom are out of work. The team of cooks had never met before, but Barr organized a Zoom session for them to prepare.
Part of the meal marathon’s goal was also about stepping up the idea of the soup kitchen.
“When people think of a soup kitchen, they already have a concept in their mind,” Allbright said. “My chefs and I are changing the mindset of how we eat — especially for the population living on the streets who need nourishment.”
The chefs cooked all the meals from scratch, and they included higher-end menu items.
“Most people can’t afford brisket as an average meal created with gifted hands,” said one of the chefs, William Scipio, of DeaconChef.
“It’s a hard time for people in Baltimore,” Scipio said. “Our mission is to be kind to [God], his people and continue to be kind to those in need at this time.”
They have their fans. Earlier this week, Griffin said, several of the center’s regulars showed up one morning to thank the staff. They had taken up a collection to buy Christmas cards, and one beautiful bouquet of flowers.
Tatyana Turner is a 2020-21 corps member for Report for America, an initiative of the GroundTruth Project, a national service program that places emerging journalists in local newsrooms. She covers Black life and culture. Follow her @tatyanacturner.