A Food Oasis Grows from the Alliance of Two Franciscan Organizations

by Candace Blase, a volunteer at the Little Portion Farm. What follows is the story of two Franciscan organizations who, together, are growing food and community by “bringing faith-infused farm-to-table dining to those in need” in Baltimore.


The Little Portion Farm (LPF) is a ministry of the Franciscan Friars Conventual, Our Lady of the Angels Province [FAN Members], located on the grounds of The Shrine of St. Anthony in Ellicott City, MD. Prior to 2017, much of the land at the shrine was leased to farmers employing traditional methods of industrial agriculture. The land was planted in a one-crop monoculture, like corn or soybean, and sprayed with abundant chemicals to ward off pests and diseases. Crops were often sold to produce food additives or ethanol. Inspired by Pope Francis’ encyclical focusing attention on caring for creation, the Friars decided to reclaim their land, and lease most of it to Mary’s Land Farm, for rotational cattle grazing. The Friars retained 3 acres (a “little portion”) to devote to sustainable, organic farming practices. The first crops were planted in June 2019.

The Franciscan Center (FC) ministry was started by the Franciscan Sisters of Baltimore in 1891. The cornerstone has always been recognizing the dignity of every human being and serving all with respect. In addition to providing necessary meals, FC offers a continuum of care that includes clothing, emergency health services, counseling, technology, and training which are all designed to help guests become as self-sufficient as possible. Under the leadership of Chef Steven Albright, the Franciscan Center is creating a food oasis where there used to be a food desert. The partnership between LPF and FC lives out Pope Francis’ call to “hear both the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor.” This article tells the stories of some of the people who are bringing this mission to fruition, illustrating the community that has formed and has embodied the project mission.

The collaborative partnership between The Little Portion Farm (LPF) and The Franciscan Center (FC) is bringing faith-infused farm-to-table dining to those in need in Baltimore City. Wardell, a guest of the Franciscan Center, said he had been used to eating “fried chicken and white rice” before Chef Steve and his team started serving the new farm-to-table menu. “I love the freshness and variety,” said Marvin, another guest. Many guests said the range of vegetables was “an acquired taste,” but they now much prefer them to the canned food, packaged snacks and leftovers served at other food kitchens.

Matt Jones is the Farm and Outreach Coordinator at LPF. He is responsible for the overall running of the farm including managing volunteers. He is a life-long Catholic whose educational background is in Environmental Engineering, Religion and Ecology. He and Chef Steve work closely together to decide the crops to be planted each season and coordinate the weekly transfer of the harvested crops to FC during the spring, summer and fall months. He assigns tasks to volunteers but also is open to input them because “they often see things that I don’t that would improve the farm.” He loves being outdoors and says his faith is “alive in the mindfulness of paying attention to the plants, insects, and birds.”

Broadfork

At LPF, Brian is one of the “broad forkers.” What is board forking you may ask? Shown here, broad forking is a manual alternative to rototilling. It is a strenuous task used to aerate the soil, while preserving the soil structure rich with nutrients and growth enhancing organisms. Brian grew up in St. Mary’s County and always liked farming and gardening. His Lutheran faith is the center point of his life. He starts each day with spiritual reading and brings a steady, calm, and warm spirit to LPF. “I see God in nature. My faith is what happens outside the doors of the church. Aren’t we all being asked to be the hands of God?”

For weed control between beds, cardboard is laid down and wood chips are put over the cardboard. LPF receives many donations of cardboard, but often the cardboard has non-degradable plastic tape on it, which needs to be removed before it is laid between the beds. Ginny, who has been a practicing Catholic all her life, is a master at removing the tape. A retired vocational rehabilitation counselor who loves gardening, Ginny says “my faith is to do good works. When I come here I forget everything. I feel happy and involved.” Ginny is also a keen observer of beauty and often calls everyone’s attention to the beauty of the wildflowers and other flowers that are planted at the farm to attract beneficial insects.

Once the rows are ready, planting begins. Rusty, a life-long Catholic, came to LPF to volunteer with her gardening-loving mother. She brings an infectious enthusiasm to the farm and this season has planted a variety of crops including kale and squash. “I cannot imagine my life without LPF,” she says, but admits, “I have gotten so much more out of LPF than it has gotten out of me!” Rusty’s family has always believed in doing good works, and her mother was so inspired by the good that FC was doing that she donated much of her late husband’s clothing to FC to help men who needed business clothes for job interviews.

Plants need fertilizer, and Jim is the man who typically volunteers for this task. Jim loves gardening, being outdoors and being with other people. He was attracted to LPF after he retired and was looking for something constructive to do. He is often seen walking up and down the rows, carrying a plastic container of ground fish remains and seaweed on his back, quietly and methodically spraying the crops with the natural, though foul-smelling, concoction. His positivity and congeniality are mixed with his serious thoughts about how LPF can do more to meet the needs of the poor. He echoed other volunteers’ feelings about Matt’s “earnest, diligent and non-dictatorial” style of managing volunteers, which he feels creates a warm community.

Weeding is a constant task at LPF. Everyone weeds at LPF. But not everyone would brave a rainstorm to finish a weeding task! That distinction applies only to Stella and her husband, Patrick. Stella, another life-long Catholic, loves being outdoors and getting her hands dirty. Patrick recently retired as head of the Franciscan Action Network. Stella was attracted to volunteering at LPF for “something totally different to do.” She remembers being mesmerized by the beauty of the brilliant orange that emerged as freshly picked carrots were washed.

Harvesting is, of course, one of the major tasks at the farm and everyone pitches in. One of the most prolific crops has been the cherry tomatoes, which have grown so much they seem like a jungle. Many shy away from entering this jungle and doing the meticulous time-consuming picking. Not Melvin, who was born and grew up in a fishing community in India and is used to chopping down banana trees and other tropical plants. He dives right in. Melvin came to the US when he was 22 inspired by his brother, who came to America through Catholic sponsored college scholarship. Melvin became a successful engineer, but never forgot his childhood poverty which became severe after his father died when he was 7. He always went to Catholic church. He says of the Church “it helped me, you don’t know the importance of it until you live in a desperate situation and you have nowhere else to go.” Once the crops are harvested, they head off to the Francsican Center.

The FC provides food to many who have nowhere else to go. While guests interviewed for this article said they have always been grateful for the meals at FC, they unanimously agreed things have radically changed since Chef Steve Albright came to FC a year ago and started a food revolution. Chef Steve’s enthusiasm for all things culinary is infectious. He believes passionately in cooking and serving the best. Chef Steve developed a passion for cooking while serving time in prison for a domestic violence charge. Chef Steve, raised a Presbyterian, was introduced to Catholicism in prison. He acted on his passion for cooking after his release and went to culinary school. And he is now combining his faith and culinary passion at FC. The Center serves between 200-300 guests each day during COVID. Whether guests are served in person at FC or with “to-go” containers as during the pandemic, Chef Steve emphasizes the plating of the food. He and his team do everything from chopping to cooking to plating while focusing on serving beautiful, nutritious meals to their guests each day.

Kesha, one of the assistant chefs, says she always loved cooking. She was working as a medical biller which she didn’t like and after her 3 girls left home she decided to go to culinary school. She loved it but found it too expensive. She was able to complete a free 12-week culinary program at the MD Food Bank. Her Baptist faith was a part of why she wanted to work at FC because “we have the same Christian values.” She is excited about her job and all she is learning. You can see her enthusiasm in her warm and joy-filled smile. She loves how guests’ palates are expanding as they are exposed to fresh food. She says “mouths are being trained.” She is happy to be creating beautiful, good and nutritious food for guests who comment “it is like a gourmet restaurant.”

The influx of fresh vegetables from LPF is changing some of the chefs’ eating/cooking habits as well. Brenda, who has worked as a chef in the FC kitchen since 2012 said “I didn’t know what half of the vegetables were.” Now she is roasting beets at home as well as at work. Brenda said she had a difficult life and being hired at FC, after volunteering for a year, has changed her life. And, Chef Steve is enhancing that change. “Fresh food was new to me. With Chef Steve we get more experience.” Among the dishes she has enjoyed cooking are roasted beets with garlic, butternut squash soup, tomato soup and mashed turnips and potatoes. She said the guests used to leave the canned vegetables on their plates. “Now they eat everything.”

Will, who used to be a guest and is now an assistant chef, says, “I look forward to coming to work.” Since he was in high school, he has had a knack for picturing things and putting them together and he enjoys applying this skill to cooking. He grew up a Jehovah’s Witness and spoke highly of his parents. He said he has had a “crazy history” but has come back to his roots at FC. Chef Steve is helping not just with cooking but with his recovery program as well. “The world is rough. It is dog-eat-dog in Baltimore. But, this is my new home.” He too wasn’t familiar with many of the vegetables from the farm but has now developed an interest in vegan cooking.

All this cooking couldn’t be done without Jeffrey. He has been washing dishes at FC for 21 years. COVID has cut down on the number of plates he has to wash … “now it’s just pots and pans! I like that!”

And what do the guests say? Wardell said he had been used to eating “fried chicken and white rice” before Chef Steve Albright and his team started serving the new farm-to-table menu. “I love the freshness and variety,” said Marvin, another guest. Many guests said the range of vegetables was “an acquired taste,” but they now much prefer them to the canned food, packaged snacks and leftovers served at other food kitchens. “This is healthy eating and I love it,” added Marvin. Darrell commented that he feels better since eating the fresh food at FC. The partnership between LPF and FC is a community effort that is changing lives as it “hears both the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor.”

Candace Blase is a volunteer at the Little Portion Farm. She has worked in the fields of social justice and counseling in the US, Cambodia and South Africa. She is committed to the human, social/racial justice, environmental, and spiritual impacts of the LPF and FC partnership.

Published in: on October 26, 2020 at 2:30 pm  Leave a Comment  

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