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, celebrity chef and author of The Meat Lover’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 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.