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It is lunchtime at St. Vincent Charity Medical Center, and the hospital’s kitchen is eerily calm. The pots and pans rattling in the dishwasher create a faint symphonic hum that echoes through the giant halls of the hospital’s ground floor. Prep stations for breakfast and lunch service have been sanitized. Daily catering rounds and patient food deliveries have been completed, and the kitchen staff who remain are slowly slipping away to enjoy their mid-day break.
Three chefs, Jay Williams, Andy Cooper and Nate Pratt, are crowded around a stainless steel table, puzzling over today’s challenge: how to transport an 80-pound tub of baked sweet potatoes and loose BBQ canisters to the back of Williams’ minivan.
“I know it’s just a mile down the street, but doing this step right is important,” chuckles Williams, Director of Food and Nutrition. “Or it’s going to smell like BBQ for the next six months in your car if things go awry.”
“Decisions, decisions,” banters Cooper, Executive Chef, back at Williams. “Let’s make a note to always include BBQ sauce in our dishes for the sake of your anxiety.”
The three are in the process of packaging up food for this afternoon’s free communal meal program at Friendly Inn Settlement, a social service agency in the Central neighborhood. Every second Wednesday of the month, Williams, Cooper and Pratt prepare a special gourmet dish for residents in need of a warm meal.
On today’s menu: a roasted half-sliced sweet potato topped with smoked shredded chicken, a scoop of blended corn poblano shallot salad sprinkled with house-fried buttermilk onion straws, and Ohio Maple Chai BBQ sauce drizzled on top of it all.
This meal will be different from previous meals as it will be the last one before the big transition.
Two months ago, St. Vincent Charity announced it would discontinue inpatient and emergency room services in mid-November. The hospital said in an earlier statement that it is transitioning “from acute care to ambulatory care as part of adaptive reuse of the campus.” This drastic shift in healthcare poses a new obstacle for residents in Central and surrounding communities who relied on the hospital in an area with some of the city’s lowest life expectancies and health outcomes.
The medical center also provided another service to the neighborhood: Mission Kitchen, an affordable, healthy meal program, one of the only sources for freshly cooked food in the area. Now, amidst the big transition, staff and residents are worried about whether this program will end.
“There’s definitely a strong demand for food here,” said Williams. “Not having access to it is such a hindrance to this community and those who need it most.”
“We decided we’ll be more proactive”
When the first surge of coronavirus cases arrived in March 2020, safety protocols limited who could enter the hospital, including the cafeteria. For residents who lived in the Central neighborhood and frequently visited the hospital for a hot meal, it created a barrier for food access that weighed heavily on Williams and his culinary staff.
At the same time, doctors and nurses were overwhelmed and exhausted from working long shifts and didn’t have time to wait in line for meals.
“[My chef and I] often wondered how to continue to feed people both in the hospital and outside of the hospital under these new constraints that we’re facing for months,” said Williams.
Mission Kitchen at work
“Instead of being reactionary, we decided we’ll be more proactive about how we go forward,” said Cooper.
In February 2021, the team launched Mission Kitchen, an online menu platform for caregivers and patients who had the option of ordering grab-and-go meals or specialty gourmet dishes that differed from the daily food items. The price for gourmet dishes was higher than regular food options sold on the hospital menu, and the revenue funded free meals for neighborhood families who faced food insecurity. Caregivers and patients who completed their orders on the platform also had the opportunity to add donations, usually $10 or more, to provide a free gourmet “mission meal” that would feed a family of four in the community.
“The average everyday meal you can get for lunch with a drink is well under $10 here,” said Pratt. “But [Mission Kitchen] meals and the prices defintely didn’t deter anyone from ordering.”
Cooper, who also has a background in graphic design, began creating flyers and promotional materials to post on the elevator doors and staff-wide emails to call attention to Mission Kitchen’s order platform.
The first Mission Kitchen meal debuted during a two-day pop-up event, which sold Beef & Fresh Herb Pho, Banh Mi & Chips and Peanut Salad dishes at $8. The option of all three food items as a family dinner was priced at $35. The goal was to create a healthy dish that you couldn’t otherwise get in the neighborhood.
When the weather broke that spring, the team began experimenting with larger pop-up events on the hospital’s front lawn, like BBQ cookouts and pig roasts. In the summer they introduced Caribbean salads, garden wraps and sandwiches and even classic Cleveland staples such Polish boys and pizza-flavored dishes.
“It was a way to have fun, break the monotony around here, and to get outside,” Cooper said. “COVID was a stressor for everybody, and this seemed to be the thing that got people out of it.”
Success builds partnerships
Within the first few weeks, the success of the program caught the attention of many in the hospital’s organization, including Sister Miriam Erb, Vice President of Mission and Ministry. Erb and the community outreach team saw an opportunity to build upon the budding relationship with Cuyahoga County Metropolitan Housing Authority residents across the street. Erb, along with Leslie Andrews, the Diabetes Coordinator, and Cathy Kopinsky, Director of Community Outreach, worked to identify families who were food insecure and began delivering weekly meals to them.
“They were often so glad to have a warm meal and something that’s different that maybe they couldn’t afford on their own,” said Erb. “It was also an opportunity for us to let them know that our doors are open to them and we welcome them here for any kind of their health needs.”
While Mission Kitchen provided an opportunity to give back, the preparation started taking away from daily retail operations. The hospital’s community outreach team suggested a partnership with Carl Cook, founder and director of Project Save. Cook’s organization, which serves as a home base for transient and unhoused families and residents in the Central, Fairfax and Kinsman neighborhoods, hosted a weekly “Hot Meal Hospitality” every Wednesday at Friendly Inn Settlement. Cook, who had lost a grant during the pandemic to continue his meal program, saw St. Vincent’s extension of a partnership as a chance to collaborate and connect, which is the spirit of his organization’s mission.
“Of course I embraced that [partnership] with open arms,” said Cook.
Over the next few months, the collaboration turned into another opportunity to support senior and homebound residents who weren’t able to attend the Wednesday meal events. St. Vincent and Project Save began delivering meals to neighbors in Skyview Apartments while also maintaining the meal program at Friendly Inn.
The collaboration eventually became a monthly staple, offering not just meals but also blood-sugar and blood-pressure checks.
“I was never surprised by the generosity of everyone who wanted to get involved in the program,” said Williams. “That added experience of education and wellness really lends itself to the core of this program.”
“A glue for this community”
When Constance Spikes first heard about St. Vincent Charity closing, she was heartbroken. Since 2018, Spikes and her family have lived in Carver Park, a public housing complex in the Central neighborhood just a few miles away from the hospital. The medical center had always been a reliable source for healthcare, and if emergencies occurred, she knew it was walking distance for her and her children.
“[St. Vincent] is kind of like a glue for this community,” said Spikes. “[The hospital] has been here for years. People in my neighborhood only know this place.”
That wasn’t Spikes’ only worry. Since Dave’s Supermarket left the area, shopping for groceries and healthy food within the area has been a challenge, said Spikes. Public transportation isn’t always reliable, and if they do have the option of a ride through a relative, it takes a lot of coordination and time. It’s a 20- to 30-minute walk to the nearest store for her and her four children, and their purchases are limited to what they can carry.
“We’re always fussing and arguing with each other about it,” said Spikes. “It just makes it easy to choose unhealthy options.”
Cleveland’s Central neighborhood struggles with what health advocates call “food apartheid,” an area with limited access to affordable healthy food choices. In a 2019 assessment by the Cuyahoga County Board of Health and the Cuyahoga County Planning Commission, roughly 35 percent of county residents and 59 percent of Cleveland residents lived in areas with limited access to healthy food options in 2018.
These areas are highly concentrated on Cleveland’s East Side, where historically redlined neighborhoods are dealing with some of the highest poverty rates in the city. Nearly 68 percent of Central residents live just below the poverty line, and nine out of 10 residents are eligible for Food Bank benefits, according to 2021 statistics from the Center for Community Solutions.
Burten, Bell, Carr Development (BBC), the community development corporation (CDC) that serves the Central neighborhood, has sought a supermarket that can benefit the community, but negotiations with chains have fallen short. For Spikes and many residents in the neighborhood, the need for healthy and hot food options is desperate.
“They really have to bring something back,” said Spikes.
Spikes has been attending Friendly Inn’s hot meal dinner since 2019 with her daughter, Jayla, and grandson, Matteo. The community dinners have become part of their weekly routine, a source of homestyle meals and a chance to hear updates and announcements about their community. It’s where she has signed up for healthcare benefits, learned about daycare options and social services for Matteo, and connects with her neighbors and family.
“We never really get to have sit-down meals like this because our lives during the week are just so busy with school and stuff,” said Spikes. “So in Friendly Inn days, it just allows for all of us to pause and do that with each other.”
“We’ll keep going one way or another”
One by one, families from the Central, Kinsman and Fairfax neighborhoods enter the multipurpose gymnasium of the Friendly Inn Settlement. Headed toward the stage, they’re given a ticket for the kitchen that asks the number of adults, children or toddlers at the table and the number of plates to be fixed for a given table. Williams, Cooper and Pratt bustle away, fixing their sweet potato dishes as volunteers happily help residents.
“Once they come, they just stay,” said Cook. “We serve them, and we want them to feel at home.”
Residents wonder how a program that brought so much good to the community could leave so quickly. It’s a question that Cook often asks when he plans out his meals for the month and how his budget to continue the program is a huge support for Williams and his team at St. Vincent Charity.
“We always talk about what we are going to do next and how we can build upon it all,” said Cook.
In an October Cleveland City Council Health and Human Services Committee meeting, Janice C. Murphy, President and CEO of the Sisters of Charity Health Centers, outlined the health-campus transition that began this month.
Part of the transition to a health campus will focus on food access, highlighting food and nutrition in the community. For Williams and the team, expanding this service and providing food-education programs has often been a part of their greater plan with Mission Kitchen.
The team also aspires to add a pilot program where basic grocery items such as bread, milk and eggs could be provided with the hot meals from the cafeteria. Eventually they also hope to accept SNAP and WIC, through partnerships with local nonprofits
“Mission Kitchen has sort of been this extra service provided to the community,” said Williams. “So it is kind of nice to feel like we’ve been ahead of this transition since food and nutrition will [have] such a big emphasis on the new health campus.”
Though the long-term future of the Mission Kitchen program is unclear, the hospital said for now it remains committed to serving meals to the community.
“I’ll admit, it’s been hard coming in [to work] the last couple of weeks and finding the motivation,” Pratt said. “So on Friendly Inn days, it’s really nice because I have something to look forward to outside of the daily routine. It just lets me know we’ll keep going, one way or another.”
Signal Cleveland receives funding from the Sisters of Charity Foundation of Cleveland, a part of the Sisters of Charity Health System, which includes St. Vincent Charity Medical Center. See all of our donors here.