In the fall of 2020, Susan May felt like the world was falling apart.
The Mount Washington resident had spent months isolating at home to help limit the spread of the coronavirus. And even though things were slowly reopening, she still felt helpless and disconnected from the community around her.
One day, without much thought, the 51-year-old whipped up a few pans of homemade macaroni and cheese and drove to the Penn North neighborhood in West Baltimore. While the food was gobbled up within 15 minutes, May knew the connections she made would last much longer.
“People stuck around talked and we had these great conversations about what they grew up eating, what their moms made, what I should make next time,” she said. “And I’ve come back every Saturday since.”
And so, Love & Cornbread was born.
The group has grown from May and a handful of her friends to dozens of volunteers and a Facebook group of hundreds. This year alone, May estimates they’ve fed more than 5,000 people.
While dispensing food is a part of its mission, Love & Cornbread’s main focus is ensuring that everyone who stops by feels welcome — and most importantly loved and valued. Everything that is served is always fresh and based on Southern cooking that volunteers say warms the heart and feeds the soul.
Each Saturday between noon and 1 p.m., May and a group of volunteers head to North Avenue outside the Phase 2 Barbershop to dole out the homemade food to about 100 people. The menu varies each week, from breakfast burritos to fresh pulled pork and all the fixings — but cornbread with a slab of butter is always served.
“It’s a way of showing that it’s food made for you, made for and with love, just the same way you’d make it for friends and family,” May said. “Food has always been the love language of my family.”
While it may only be an hour, it’s one filled with laughter, hugs and plenty of conversation. There are mini fashion shows for people to try on and make sure they like the style of donated hand knitted and crocheted hats and scarves. On one recent Saturday, volunteer Gina Foringer dressed in a blowup unicorn costume and handed out sugar cookies “because we have to believe in Baltimore, rainbows and unicorns.”
Since beginning the initiative, May has wondered more than once if it even helped the West Baltimore neighborhood.
But week after week, she hears from people — including Brandon “Coach” Campbell, who works at the barbershop they serve food beside — who say she is making a difference and that continuing to show up is what counts.
Campbell, 37, has lived in Penn North his entire life and been working at Phase 2 for about six years. Never before has he ever seen an outsider show up week after week and prove to a community that they matter like May has. The barber said he’s even seen the residents in the area more upbeat and more positive than normal.
“Everybody is always down. The buildings are sad and nobody has something to smile for between the violence and disinvestment in the neighborhood,” Campbell said about Penn North. “But ever since they’ve been rocking and rolling, its been a ray of sunshine in our little community.”
The Love & Cornbread volunteers station themselves just around the corner from the CVS Pharmacy that burned to the ground during the 2015 unrest sparked by the death of Freddie Gray from injuries suffered while in police custody.
Campbell said he first started working with May a few weeks into her initiative in the fall of 2020. He wanted to make sure her and the other volunteers were safe. In Penn North, a group of outsiders, particularly white strangers, were not always welcome on neighborhood corners already occupied by drug dealers and existing cliques, he said.
As soon as Campbell found out what she was trying to do, he had one question: How can I help?
“We can use all the help we can get,” he said. “And it’s my community. I like giving back to people and it makes me feel really good. The world runs smoother when everyone is positive and helps each other out.”
A few months ago, the Rev. Keith Bailey, a chaplain for the Baltimore Police Department was driving down North Avenue when he saw a group of people dancing and handing out food. He’d never seen them before so he stopped to find out what they were doing.
Bailey, president of the Fulton Heights Community Organization, where Gray had 100 hours of court-ordered community service, said the neighborhood lacks services to connect people with the resources they may need like a drug-treatment program or how to safely secure medication. But Love & Cornbread helps fill that gap, he said.
“They have the spirit,” Bailey said. “They show the love in what they’re doing. It’s not just being out there, it’s showing the love too.”
Daryl Smith, 58, said he lived in the neighborhood for about four years up until 1991. And when he volunteered with Love & Cornbread for the first time a few weeks ago, he said it looked exactly the same as it did 30 years ago.
Smith, who now lives in Brooklyn and works as a production manager at a concrete company, said he first began to use drugs when he lived in Penn North. Had an organization like Love & Cornbread been in the neighborhood back then, he said, may have made a difference for him.
“When I was young, I used to think nobody cared about me,” said Smith, who’s now been drug-free for seven years. “I think having outsiders brought in, it shows that people living here are not forgotten. It’s all about giving them love, and planting that seed showing that they matter.”
City officials have said they have a broader vision for the neighborhood and plan to include it in the effort to build the city and state’s first Black arts and entertainment district. In November, officials also announced the development of Baltimore’s first “zero-energy” multifamily project in hopes of bringing more affordable housing and commercial storefront units to the area.
Barbara Zadek, 59, first came across Love & Cornbread after seeing a post earlier this year on the Nextdoor app.
After volunteering once, she was hooked. She’s made countless friends, referring to her fellow volunteers as her “posse,” and said she looks forward to Saturday afternoons all week.
“It’s so gratifying, but it’s also so much fun,” the Roland Park resident said. “We know everyone’s names and they know ours. We’re not institutionalized and are able to offer so much love. And that’s what makes us different from any other group out there: the love part of it all.”
Those who flock to devour the food are called “guests,” a term May insists upon using because she says it gets to the core of Love & Cornbread’s mission.
“We wanted the experience of people being able to come to their favorite table at their favorite cafe and the waitress just recognizes and jokes with you and remembers your usual,” May said. ”It makes you feel good not just from the food but from the warmth of the welcome.”
May, a full-time higher education recruiter, and other volunteers find time in their busy lives to cook food for Saturday’s meals inside Denise Whiting’s kitchen at Cafe Hon.
May and Whiting became friends during the past five years as May frequented the Hampden restaurant. And when Whiting learned what May was doing, she decided to help by offering the group a space to cook the large meals.
“I have a big kitchen and I have a gigantic refrigerator and I’ve got the space,” she said.
Whiting, who’s owned her restaurant for 30 years, called Love & Cornbread “heartwarming” and said “it’s an unbelievably beautiful way to bring people into the community to support those that are in need.”
Love & Cornbread recently secured nonprofit status through the Players Philanthropy Fund, a foundation set up by former Ravens place-kicker Matt Stover and philanthropy expert Seth McDonnell.
The partnership will allow May to expand Love & Cornbread’s footprint and offer more fundraising opportunities, including seeking corporate sponsorships while the foundation focuses on the legal details of operating the nonprofit, Stover said.
“The heart of the whole partnership is giving them the ability to get out into the community and do what they love the most,” Stover said. “They’re bridging the gap and using a good opportunity to help bring people together, which aligns perfectly with our foundation.”
May hopes one day her grassroots effort will be able to build a permanent community center in Penn North — not only offering delicious food but other services centered around helping people find work or gain education.
But for now, May is enjoying the slower life that COVID brought her, one with less travel but more shared meals with loved ones and new friends.
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“There is something really intimate and special about our experience and it ends up being bigger than the food itself,” May said. “It was a gift of the pandemic that we were able to come together when we normally wouldn’t have crossed paths.”