Everyday Miracles Beans and Bread volunteers struggle to keep up with the hungry

November 26, 1996|By Laura Lippman | Laura Lippman,SUN STAFF

In the kitchen of Beans and Bread, Marie Ritz eyes chunks of cooked chicken, calculating how far she can stretch it with cream soup, peas and pasta. Sister Yvette Trentler is on the telephone, arranging help for a suicidal homeless man.

Chuck Wolferman Jr. scampers in, followed by his dad, Chuck Sr., who has eaten here since he was a kid. David Shepard and Romy Data speak softly to each other through their walkie-talkies, monitoring the flow of men and women into the Fells Point soup kitchen. Sister Eleanor Noll is a green blur, in constant motion as she supervises every aspect of the daily meal.

They have a special name for a day like this at Beans and Bread. They call it Tuesday. Or Thursday. Or Saturday. In fact, it could be any day but Wednesday, the one day the soup kitchen is always dark.

Five days a week -- six at the end of the month, when a Sunday lunch is added -- the staff and volunteers at Beans and Bread serve a hot meal to upward of 300 people. It's a labor of love and a miracle of organization, a feat that takes almost six hours and 20-plus volunteers to pull off. Similar loaves-and-fishes acts are repeated in every corner of the city, as Baltimore-area soup kitchens feed thousands every day.

Those numbers are expected only to increase as the welfare reforms approved this fall by Congress begin to take effect. Some soup kitchens are already turning people away. But no one is ever turned away from Beans and Bread. And the hot, filling meals served there are only the beginning.

8 a.m.

Some days, the line outside the door at 402 S. Bond St. stretches back to Bank Street and around the corner. Mostly men, but some women and children as well. Beans and Bread doesn't open for business until 10: 30, but some guests -- the sisters are adamant about this terminology -- arrive early for meal tickets.

Inside, Sister Eleanor, who has run the meal program for almost 10 years, is breaking up today's frozen pizza casseroles with a metal spoon and thinning them with tomato sauce. It takes 25 to 30 large casseroles to get through an average lunch, and she has enough today. Sometimes, a parish might send down only five dishes, forcing her into serious punt mode.

Then again, improvisation is a way of life at Beans and Bread. When the government butter is running low -- as it is today -- the diners settle for peanut butter. No more kale? There's potato salad and cole slaw from a party that one of the volunteers threw for her daughter over the weekend. Sandwiches from a local vending company, which has to pull them on a certain date, are handed at meal's end to tide diners over. But they're still good, Sister Eleanor says.

Strange things are precious here -- lettuce, fresh fruit, powdered drink mixes -- while pastry and baked goods are abundant. So dessert is devalued, while salad is a big, big deal. Nothing is wasted -- not even high-calorie shakes and candy bars.

"What do I tell them these are, sister?" asks 78-year-old Aurea Diaz, a former guest who now volunteers at Beans and Bread every day, arriving on her walker and taking her station by the side door to hand out the vending sandwiches.

"Donations. Just tell them they're donations," Sister Eleanor says.

9: 45 a.m.

The regular crew of volunteers has started to arrive, tying on their dark-red aprons. Each day of the week has its own volunteer staff -- retired men and women from different parishes, Loyola students -- as well as the "guest-volunteers," diners who pitch in on a daily basis.

"People envision a soup kitchen as a depressing place," says Marie Ritz, a volunteer for four years. "They ask, 'How can you stand it?' Ironically, it's a cheerful place. We just have such a happy group."

Ira Lee Harris is one of the guest-volunteers. A schizophrenic whose illness once doomed him to the streets, he moves through the large dining room with elaborate care, emptying the waste baskets. Through the social outreach program at Beans and Bread, Harris, 52, was finally diagnosed and put on medication that changed his life. He comes every day the soup kitchen is open, helping out however he can.

"Do you know the story of how Beans and Bread started?" asks Sister Yvette, the one responsible for Harris' remarkable transformation. She sketches in the history of its founder, Benet Hanlon, a priest at the time, although he would eventually leave the priesthood. Hanlon, who lived on Fleet Street, was struck by the needy people he saw on Fells Point's streets in the 1970s.

One night, he asked a man named Jimmy if he could take him into a grocery and buy him anything, absolutely anything, he wanted to eat. What would he choose? Beans and bread, Jimmy replied. Hanlon sat with him on the curb as he ate.

Beans and Bread opened in 1977 on Aliceanna Street, in a narrow rowhouse that once served as a laundry. The first day, 11 people showed up.

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