Less talk, more action drives free Curbside BBQs in Southeast Fort Wayne

It’s a drizzly day in mid-May, but outside a closed Barber Shop on Oxford Street next door to the BBQ hut Big Momma’s Kitchen, the smell of turkey tips sizzling on the grill drifts down the sidewalk in puffs of white smoke.

Vehicles pull over, one-by-one, and rolling down their windows to greet mask-wearing volunteers offering them bags of to-go meals, handmade masks, and other pandemic supplies.

The Curbside BBQ takes place at 1313 Oxford St. in Southeast Fort Wayne.
Mask-wearing volunteers deliver to-go bags to vehicles.

In warmer months, it’s not unusual for friends and neighbors to gather at BBQs in Southeast Fort Wayne. So during the COVID-19 pandemic, when everyone could use a hot meal, the company of friends, and some semblance of normalcy, community leaders and volunteers are stepping up to make it happen.

Sunday, May 17, from 2-4 p.m. was the third Curbside BBQ on Oxford Street since the pandemic began and a makeshift group of Southeast organizations came together to meet their neighbor’s needs. It’s only the start of what many hope will be an ongoing collaboration for future BBQs and pandemic relief efforts.

Sheena Greene is one of the organizers of the Curbside BBQ.Greene hands out bags of food and supplies at the Curbside BBQ.

Sheena Greene, Founder of the Black Women of Excellence, says they’ve figured out a good system to keep the lines of cars from blocking traffic now, and although it’s a rainy day and there are fewer people than usual coming out for meals, for those who do venture out, there’s a lot of good, free food to be had.

Derek Taylor has been passionate about cooking for as long as many of the volunteers have known him. Since he opened Big Momma’s Kitchen about nine months ago in what was once a candy store, customers have flocked to his walkup window to order saucy plates of turkey tips or brisket nachos and tacos.

Big Momma's Kitchen is located at 1307 Oxford St.
Derek Taylor, right, owns Big Momma's Kitchen.Turkey tips sizzling on a patio grill at Big Momma's Kitchen.

For the Curbside BBQ, Taylor is grilling up food on a grander scale than usual, serving his regular customers and making extra for the free event. And make no doubt about it, free meals in Southeast Fort Wayne make a big difference, says community leader Ty Simmons.

Simmons doesn’t preach, but he’s been telling people about food insecurity in Southeast for more than five years now.

Ty Simmons, right, carries boxes of to-go meals to deliver to residents stuck at home.

For decades, food supplies in the U.S. have been outsourced from local farmers, butchers, and distributors to national corporations, and while this shift has made the price of goods cheaper in some ways, it has also contributed to disparities in the distribution of healthy food—and prevented grassroots people from having the knowledge and means to support themselves.

So, as Director of the Human Agricultural Cooperative, Simmons has been working to fill gaps in this broken system by raising up young, urban farmers in Southeast Fort Wayne to tend community gardens. The nonprofit cooperative began four years ago and has since certified 25 youth farmers and donated thousands of pounds to food, like fresh tomatoes and squash, to its Southeast neighbors. It’s also been an instrumental partner in the effort to launch the Utopian Community Grocery Store in Southeast Fort Wayne, which will give residents a hub for nutritious, local food, as well as a local restaurant, and business incubator for small business.

The HANDS Center is in an accessible and highly walkable location at the corner of Oxford and Monroe Streets in Southeast Fort Wayne.

While the grocery store project is still going, slowly but surely, during the pandemic, Simmons says, his organization is now teaming up with others in Southeast to meet the community’s most urgent needs.

Even before COVID-19 hit Fort Wayne, the city’s 46803 and 46806 Southeast zip codes were among the top five poorest places in all of Indiana, and pandemic conditions are only exacerbating pre-existing challenges that asset-limited residents face.

In many ways, giving families a free meal during COVID-19 gives them hope, Simmons says.

“People don’t understand that when a family of four gets a $10 meal per person, that’s $40, and that’s a huge lift off a lot of these families’ shoulders,” he explains. “On top of that, you’re getting masks and toilet paper and some positive words.”

Volunteers chat with residents in their cars to provide them with community during COVID-19.Vehicles line up on Oxford Street for the BBQ.

What’s great about the group organizing the Curbside BBQ is that there’s not really one leader, Simmons explains. Everyone is working together on equal terms to make the meals happen. The event has been made possible by the Human Agricultural Cooperative, Black Women of Excellence, Big Momma’s Kitchen, Utopian Community Grocery, Sweetwater, Faith United Methodist Church, and Sistarz Sistarz.

In addition to providing Southeast Fort Wayne residents with food and water, the goal of the Curbside BBQ is to promote health safety during the pandemic. Since Gov. Eric Holcomb lifted the stay-home order, Simmons says he’s seen a drop in the number of Southeast residents wearing masks, from what was once about 30 percent to now only 5 percent.

The Curbside BBQ is intended to remind residents that while the governor’s orders have changed, the threat of COVID-19 has not—particularly for the black community, which has been hit hardest by the disease. And by the numbers, the events are making a difference in getting supplies into residents’ hands.

“As of last Sunday, we’ve distributed more than 1,000 meals, more than 700 masks, and more than 500 rolls of toilet paper,” Simmons says. “We’ve also distributed 350 hand sanitizers so far, and God willing we get more bottles, we’ll be able to pass out another 250-300.”

Volunteers with the Curbside BBQ wear masks and gloves to ensure health safety.

Volunteers with the Curbside BBQ carry meals to vehicles.

To support the initiative, the groups organizing the BBQ are reaching out to their respective networks and fundraising in any way they can.

Human Agricultural Cooperative has been using its network of farmers and suppliers to get food at wholesale rates. Faith United Methodist has been donating masks from a community mask-making initiative. And volunteers with groups like Black Women of Excellence have been contributing funds out of their own pockets.

Most of the money has been donated by a handful of people and businesses, like Sweetwater, Simmons explains, crediting music retail giant Chuck Surack as being one of his personal mentors and respected friends.

The Curbside BBQ is made possible by volunteers and donations.

Other funds have been drawn from whatever volunteers can earn or give.

“I had to mow some extra lawns this week to make sure that we have everything,” Simmons says. “We do what we have to do.”

While some organizations in Fort Wayne have offered COVID-related grant opportunities for nonprofits, Simmons says individual organizations in Southeast that have applied have had difficulty getting funds. As a result, they’ve decided to ban together and start applying as a group for a common cause, and they’re optimistic about this approach.

All members of the group will be fundraising and writing grants for the next few weeks to provide additional Curbside BBQs in Southeast, Simmons says. They’re hoping to host 10 more this spring and summer along with putting together some larger gift box giveaways, he explains.

“We want to make substantial food gift boxes where we give people some meat, vegetables, and produce,” he says.

To-go bags of food and COVID-19 supplies ready for distribution.

For the time being, they’re keeping the BBQs coming, with the next one scheduled for Father’s Day, Greene says.

As Founder of Black Women of Excellence, she started the volunteer organization in 2016 as a way to promote and empower other black women giving back to their community.

“We want to make the image of black women a positive one,” Greene says.

Black Women of Excellence volunteer at the third Curbside BBQ.

For four years now, the group has been volunteering for various organizations around town, including the Rescue Mission and Charis House, doing everything from providing meals to making donations and contributing to bookbag drives.

Last fall, they donated 150 Thanksgiving meals to the Shepherd’s Hand Community Outreach Center and 140 toys to Toys for Tots.

“That’s all out of our everyday work checks,” Greene says.

After three Curbside BBQs, volunteers have distributed more than 1,000 meals.

As for herself, she works fulltime for FedEx Express and says business there has been “busier than Christmas” the last few weeks, as residents across the country resort to online shopping. But while she’s been pulling some overtime shifts during the pandemic, she still makes it a priority to keep serving others.

At the end of the day, it’s all about taking action, she and Simmons agree. While many people talk about making a difference in Southeast Fort Wayne and helping those in need for political gain, when push comes to shove and disaster strikes, the community can tell who’s standing by their word by who they see standing on the street, serving meals.

Southeast Fort Wayne doesn’t need more talk, Simmons says. It needs groups working together and taking action for the greater good.

“We are working with the full intent to utilize every resource we have to help the Southeast side of town—no if's, and's, or but's about it,” he says. “We just do the work. I say it all the time: ‘We don’t have to keep talking about this. Let’s just do the work.’”

Support BBQ pickups in Southeast Fort Wayne

Donations to Curbside BBQ can be made through the Human Agricultural Cooperative, which is a 501c3 nonprofit. Email [email protected] to learn how to make a tax-deductible donation. Donors can also give on the Cash app to FarmerTy1 (Human Agricultural Collective) or BWOE16 (Black Women of Excellence).

Read more articles by Kara Hackett.

Kara Hackett is a Fort Wayne native fascinated by what's next for northeast Indiana how it relates to other up-and-coming places around the world. After working briefly in New York City and Indianapolis, she moved back to her hometown where she has discovered interesting people, projects, and innovations shaping the future of this place—and has been writing about them ever since. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @karahackett.
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