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Baltimore’s can-do food chain is feeding 550 families amid the pandemic

From left, Rachel Brooks, lead organizer; Genell Collins, operations manager, both with BUILD One Baltimore; and Eric Skinner, site manager, with lettuce donated from City Seeds. They will deliver the produce to community members.
From left, Rachel Brooks, lead organizer; Genell Collins, operations manager, both with BUILD One Baltimore; and Eric Skinner, site manager, with lettuce donated from City Seeds. They will deliver the produce to community members. (Kim Hairston/Baltimore Sun)

The scene in East Baltimore looked like an updated version of a wagon train. A line of autos formed on a North Wolfe Street parking lot. They were soon loaded with hand sanitizer packs, face masks and a big box of groceries and meats to feed a family for a week. In less than half an hour, the site had cleared out and only empty packing boxes remained.

Enthusiastic workers in bright blue shirts filled the cars, most of them SUVs, and sent them to scores of different addresses, many of them in the troubled 21224 ZIP code, which has so many cases of COVID-19.

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As the coronavirus took hold in Baltimore this spring, two organizations, the well-established city advocacy group BUILD and the affiliated ReBUILD Metro, each began a process of rededicating their usual community development and organizing work to create from scratch a program that delivers food and personal protective equipment to at-risk families.

The group also distributes the food boxes at St. Patrick’s Roman Catholic Church in Upper Fells Point, at Koinonia Baptist Church in Hamilton and at the City Arts buildings on Greenmount Avenue at Oliver Street.

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“How do we help people who are food-insecure and are unemployed?” said Rachel Brooks, a BUILD organizer. “This works.”

“Over the last two months, small businesses and nonprofits working in East Baltimore have radically changed their operations to devise a fast and innovative response to the COVID pandemic,” said Sean Closkey, president of ReBUILD Metro.

Closkey said that Charm City Meadworks, a business in the Johnston Square neighborhood on East Biddle Street, paused its production of mead to produce vats of hand sanitizer. A neighboring business, SewLab USA turned its focus from bags and backpacks to the production of cloth masks.

Closkey said that BUILD used funds provided by the Johns Hopkins University and its East Baltimore medical campus to help the immediate area.

The group created a food delivery service for 550 families. Others joined the effort, including the Wolfe Street City Seeds operation and Humanim, headquartered at the old American Brewery.

All the delivery drivers are neighborhood residents, and each is paid to perform the door-to-door service.

Since this past spring, Closkey said, this collaboration has provided over 85,000 meals.

The group discovered the needs of neighborhood residents and, as they observed increasing COVID-19 cases, they notified Johns Hopkins.

“These deliveries only scratch the surface of what has been done to make these communities resilient to COVID,” Closkey said. “Our collective crisis response is built on a 15-year foundation of community revitalization, including the conversion of over 500 abandoned properties and lots into healthy homes for over 360 families.”

While food distribution was taking place this week, construction crews were at work on a new 60-unit midrise at Greenmount Avenue and Chase Street in the Johnston Square community.

The larger redevelopment area in Johnston Square and Oliver has allowed the creation of numerous parks and green spaces. There also has been an uptick of new small businesses as well as job training and placement for more than 600 residents. Closkey said there is a newly found feeling of empowerment of local community organizations.

He also points out that the combined rebuilding of streets with improved housing accomplished without much attention or publicity has found a generous community of givers and benefactors among affluent church congregants in North Baltimore.

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“People who don’t live here are now seeing what’s been accomplished,” Closkey said. “Baltimore is amazing in the way it gets the job done.”

Eric Skinner, who directs the loading of the groceries, said, “This has been a humbling experience. I get phone calls saying, ‘Thank you.’ I also see growth. Some people are telling me we got them through a tough time. That’s very rewarding.”

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