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Lines form at Camden Yards — not for baseball, but for chef José Andrés’ food relief effort in Baltimore

Six months ago, 18-year-old Kamrin Brown was one of the so-called squeegee kids asking motorists at North Avenue and Howard Street for spare change. On Saturday, he was at Camden Yards handing out bags of free food to people who might need it even more than he does.

"They always offer a bag of food to us, too," Brown said as he loaded and unloaded trucks on behalf of a new food relief effort organized by World Central Kitchen.

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“I don’t always take it,” Brown said. “There are people out there who who really need it. I wish I could be giving away boxes of food, instead of just bags.”

World Central Kitchen is the Washington, D.C.-based charity started in 2010 by celebrity chef — and 2019 Nobel Peace Prize nominee — José Andrés.

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Many of the 50 Baltimoreans who unloaded the trucks, placed a week’s worth of meals in bags and directed traffic on Saturday were volunteers. But Brown and the other dozen teens who were part of the Mayor’s Squeegee Alternative Plan were paid $75 for six hours of work.

The mayor’s plan aims to create a source of income for youngsters who had been trying to scrape up cash by cleaning the windshields of motorists stopped in traffic.

Brown never thought of himself as homeless, just as a high school senior who moved around a lot from spare couch to spare couch.

“A lot of times I stayed with my mom,” he said. Then, gesturing to the trucks filled with boxes of frozen food, he added:

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“I honestly never saw myself doing something like this.”

The food giveaway was launched Saturday at Camden Yards after Democratic Del. Brooke Lierman of Baltimore learned that people in her district were having a hard time securing food on the weekends.

“I heard from many, many of my constituents that they could get food from Mondays through Fridays at schools and recreation centers,” she said. “But most of those places are closed on the weekends. When people are hungry, they’re hungry. They need to eat.”

She contacted Republican Gov. Larry Hogan’s office, which reached out to the Maryland Stadium Authority (the organization operating Camden Yards) and the Baltimore Orioles. Both organizations sprang into action and organized the massive relief effort in just 10 days.

“This is not the way that, ideally, we’d be wanting to be using Camden Yards right now,” said Jennifer Grondahl, the Orioles’ senior vice president of community development and communications.

“We’d love to be playing ball and have it be business as usual. But this is the next best thing. This is an opportunity to use our facility to support the community. We wanted to be part of this relief effort.”

Chef José Andrés, founder of World Central Kitchen (WCK), and Baltimore Mayor Jack Young distribute food in Lot H of Camden Yards. WCK is launching this effort that will take place on Saturdays with 25,000 individually packaged meals. April 25, 2020.
Chef José Andrés, founder of World Central Kitchen (WCK), and Baltimore Mayor Jack Young distribute food in Lot H of Camden Yards. WCK is launching this effort that will take place on Saturdays with 25,000 individually packaged meals. April 25, 2020. (Kim Hairston/Baltimore Sun)

Nate Mook, World Central Kitchen’s chief executive officer, said his crew planned to distribute 25,000 total meals on Saturday, with each of about 2,500 families receiving 10 meals.

Long lines of cars snaked between traffic cones that had been set up in parking lot H, creating a distribution system designed to maintain social distancing protocols.

As motorists neared the pickup point, they rolled down their passenger-side windows or popped open their cars’ trunks. Many wore face masks.

Gloved volunteers — including Andrés himself and Democratic Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young — handed out black plastic bags containing precooked and frozen meals of lasagna, chicken and vegetables, barbecued ribs, and macaroni and cheese.

Andrés said he isn’t surprised that former squeegee kids such as Brown seemed to thrive on the chance to give back to their fellow Baltimoreans.

“We go around the world and we see the same thing everywhere,” Andrés said. “People want to be generous. They will never take what they don’t need.”

Mook said that Americans aren’t accustomed to seeing lots of other Americans patiently waiting in long queues to obtain food. It brings to mind images from the Great Depression or Europe after the world wars.

Earlier this week, World Central Kitchen launched a similar giveaway program on Wednesdays and Fridays at 10 Baltimore schools that have been shuttered during the coronavirus pandemic.

“People were standing in line in the cold and rain,” Mook said. “If you don’t need a meal, you’re probably not going to do that.”

The situation now is bad. Mook is bracing himself for what’s just down the road.

“We haven’t seen the worst of it yet,” he said.

“We want our federal government to recognize that we’re in a food emergency. We should be looking at this as a national security crisis. When people can’t put food on the table, that’s a really dangerous place to be in as a country.”

Details are still being worked out, but Mook said he hopes World Central Kitchen will continue to operate the food giveaway program at Camden Yards on Saturdays between 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. as long as community need remains.

Brown hopes to return as one of the workers on the other side of the table, one of the people who is giving food away rather than accepting it. It makes him feel capable, generous and strong.

“When I’m helping someone else,” he said, “it makes all of my stress go away.”

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