September 27, 2012
Today marks the official two-year anniversary of the Healthy Monday program launch at the Franciscan Center, an emergency food assistance and outreach agency in Baltimore City. I realized this last Saturday evening while sitting in the beautiful Legg Mason Tower listening to my sister-in-law and opera sensation, Emily Righter, perform a benefit concert for this incredible organization. A sold-out inaugural event with nearly 225 attendees, Voices from the Heart was an inspiring celebration of the people who have supported and been supported by the Center since it was founded by the Franciscan Sisters of Baltimore in 1968. Reflecting on my own involvement with the Center over the past two years in both personal and professional settings, I felt proud to have played and to continue to be playing just a small role in helping the Center fulfill its benevolent mission of assisting the poor and homeless community in Baltimore City build sustainable lives and realize their self-worth and dignity as people of God.
When Ed McNally took on the position as Executive Director of the Franciscan Center in 2010 and reached out to us at the Center for a Livable Future (CLF) for help improving the quality of food served to their clients, I was a research assistant with CLF’s Baltimore Food & Faith Project and just starting my Master’s degree. Hearing Ed speak so passionately about the importance of serving fresh, nutritious foods to a population at highest risk for diet-related chronic diseases not only struck a chord with me personally as a soon-to-be dietitian, but also deeply aligned with the mission and values of CLF. It was a natural partnership, and one that would only continue to blossom and strengthen over the next two years, even despite many challenges along the way.
The first step in this journey began by connecting the Franciscan Center with a regular source of fresh, local produce to use in their meals in place of many canned and processed food products. And it just so happened that, simultaneously, the Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) project at JHSPH was looking for a place to donate all the unclaimed produce at the end of each week’s pick-up shift. Thanks to this perfect timing, the Center immediately began receiving dozens of crates of Maryland-grown kale, collards, tomatoes, squash, peppers, and the like, every Tuesday evening throughout the growing season. Other connections made with gleaning programs, such as the Campus Kitchens Project at Johns Hopkins University and First Fruit Farms, also resulted in a sudden increase of fresh, locally grown produce.
Being inundated with all this produce might have been exciting for many trained chefs and food enthusiasts, but for the Franciscan Center’s cooks, who had little experience working with fresh produce, it was very intimidating. Instead of giving up, the Center brought in local chefs to visit regularly and help train the cooks on how to prepare produce they may not have used before. And to help with the time-consuming processing of all the vegetables, a volunteer shift of enthusiastic “Veggie Choppers” was started on Tuesday evenings. I became one of the early pioneers of this chopping shift because of my own love of food and cooking, and I proudly continue to volunteer every Tuesday at the Center with a core group of equally enthusiastic “foodies” and self-proclaimed professional veggie choppers.*
In an effort to highlight these new, healthier foods and to encourage healthy food choices among clients, the Franciscan Center launched its own Healthy Monday program in partnership with CLF, starting with the introduction of Meatless Monday. During the kick-off event two years ago today, celebrity chef and author of The Meatlover’s Meatless Cookbook, Kim O’Donnel, helped the cooks serve up a delicious and nutritious vegetarian option to more than 500 clients, and she also taught the cooks a few extra tips and tricks for how to prepare other popular meatless dishes. The event was such a success that the Center welcomed Kim O’Donnel back for a special “Healthy Heart and Soul Monday” Valentine’s Day event in February 2011 to celebrate American Heart Month and promote heart-healthy eating. Both of these highly publicized and well-received events created an enormous amount of excitement and momentum for the Franciscan Center to continue being an innovative leader in healthy food initiatives among other emergency food service providers.
The Center has been able to continue offering a nutritious, meat-free option every Monday with considerable success, while also striving to improve the overall nutritional quality of all meals served everyday. Kim Gregory (pictured in the photo), who is now the sole cook and Director of Food Services at the Center, has learned how to overcome challenges of serving healthier and often unfamiliar foods to a population used to eating primarily high-fat, high-sugar, high-salt fast and processed foods. I have worked with Kim on a few occasions since officially becoming a Registered Dietitian in early 2012 to offer additional recipe ideas and strategies for making the meals healthier, and I am always amazed and inspired by her dedication, open-mindedness and enthusiasm. She has even helped extend these efforts to the Center’s food pantry, which distributed over 6,000 bags of groceries in 2011 and now offers clients more healthy non-perishable items, in addition to fruits, vegetables and fresh, lean meats. Kim tirelessly works to make nutrition a priority at the Center, and she is currently working toward incorporating recipe cards with cooking tips and nutritional information into the pantry bags given to their clients.
The journey towards these amazing accomplishments has not been without its fair share of twists, turns, bumps and bruises, along the way. A difficult economic environment, changes in staffing and leadership, and Ed’s sudden and continued battle against stage IV lymphoma may have led any other organization to fold; but with perseverance and faith in God, the Franciscan Center has only grown stronger.
This became evident to me in a powerful and emotional way during the Voices from the Heart event last weekend. And I’m sure everyone in attendance was equally moved after a very special evening enjoying the beautiful views of the Inner Harbor; being served delicious food and cocktails; watching a professional video about the Franciscan Center’s work; hearing inspiring words from several speakers and former clients; listening to beautiful music song by my sister-in-law (who volunteered at the Center while staying with my husband and me last summer when she was home from Europe between shows); and participating in a live auction that, in about five minutes, raised over $8,000 towards purchasing a generator to protect their food supplies.
I commend all that that the Franciscan Center has done over the past 44 years to improve the lives and health of those in need, and I look forward to continuing with them on the exciting and challenging journey that lies ahead.
*Have you always wondered where the leftover CSA veggies go? Come find out by volunteering for the Tuesday night chopping shift at the Franciscan Center. Contact Donte Taylor at firstname.lastname@example.org, or call 410-467-5340 ext. 113.