Professional furloughed chefs prepare free food at Houston United Methodist Church
By Lindsay Peyton
Picture a pop-up restaurant with a mission, serving up plates of hot meals, packing them to-go and loading up cars for neighbors in need of food. In the midst of the pandemic, St. Stephen’s UMC in Houston has opened Furlough Kitchen Houston. Senior pastor Rev. Nathan Lonsdale Bledsoe invites other congregations to follow this model.
On Tuesday and Thursday evenings, St. Stephen’s UMC, 2003 W. 43rd St, is almost transformed into a restaurant. Chefs are hard at work, the oven is fired up and pots are bubbling on the stove.
There are some differences, however, from the typical diner. No dine-in option is available. All of the customers wait outside for curbside pick-up after making a reservation. Volunteers fill their trunks no questions asked.
And in this kitchen, the menu is different each time. Anyone who has been furloughed or laid off during the COVID-19 crisis, and who lives in the Greater Heights or Near Northwest Houston area is welcome.
Furlough Kitchen Houston was the brainchild of Bledsoe’s friend Lucas Marr, who is also his cooking buddy.
The first Furlough Kitchen started in Dallas, and Marr heard about it. “He saw what they were doing and sent me a text saying, ‘Can we do this here?’” Bledsoe recalled.
The pastor was already aware of the rise in unemployment and resulting increase in food insecurity. Creating a Furlough Kitchen Houston would be a novel way that the church could help.
“Everybody knows someone that’s in need,” Bledsoe said. “Everyone knows someone who could really use a good meal. And it’s one night that they don’t have to spend money or worry about dinner. Peace of mind is helpful.”
St. Stephen’s had a pastor who could cook, and a kitchen ready to go. All of the ingredients were there. “Sometimes, the Holy Spirit moves in amazing ways,” Bledsoe said.
He also recruited Christian Catalan and Alex Snook, who run Morsel and Crumbs catering company, to work on Tuesdays. The church is able to provide the husband and wife team a small stipend for the work. Helping out chefs during this trying time is also important, Bledsoe said.
The pastor and Marr cook on Thursday nights. Recently, they prepared barbecue baked potatoes. Catalan and Snook made chicken verde enchiladas earlier in the week, complete with their grandma’s help.
“A big part of our vision is to make good food,” Bledsoe said. “When the people cooking are excited, it makes for a better meal. It also helps people know that you actually care about them.”
The neighborhood has been showing its support as well. Artisana Bread donates about 100 rolls to the church for each meal. The local Hartz Chicken and Rainbow Lodge restaurant have also donated food. A packing company gave the church to-go containers. Texas Methodist Foundation gave the church a loan for operations
Donations can be made online to help the church continue preparing meals. St. Stephen’s has also partnered with the Common Market, a mission-driven distributor of sustainable, local farm foods, to provide a unique fundraising opportunity. Families can purchase a box of fresh produce, and the proceeds go to the Furlough Kitchen.
Furlough Kitchen Houston serves about 120 meals every time its opened. So far, the church has provided about 1,400 free meals to the community.
The church also partners with a local elementary school, which in turn, distributes meals to families that are food insecure.
The Furlough Kitchen Houston project puts into action the church’s mission, Bledsoe said. “God is in our neighborhood, not just in our building,” he explained.
Bledsoe said he available to help other churches interested in replicating the project. “We had the right combination of skills to pilot this,” he said. “But there are other churches with kitchens and equipment.”
Feeding the hungry simply makes sense for the church, the pastor added. “Jesus clearly says to ‘feed my sheep,’” he said. “It’s not an accident that a lot of His stories happen at a dinner table. Good food is a huge part of discipleship.”
During this time of economic challenge, the call to provide food is even greater. “Giving people peace of mind and food security right now is exactly what the church should be doing,” Bledsoe said.
For more information, visit furloughkitchenhouston.org. To sign up for a box of produce, go to stsumc.churchcenter.com/registrations/events/432410.