Connie Johnson, one of the leading cooks at UMMC's Midtown Campus

Connie Johnson, one of the leading cooks at UMMC’s Midtown Campus, prepares meals to be served at her first annual “All Walks of Faith Summit” senior feeding summit. UMMC COMMUNICATIONS

With overwhelming support from local religious institutions and community organizations, Connie Johnson, a notable chef with the University of Maryland Medical Center’s Midtown Campus, successfully arranged the first annual “All Walks of Faith” Senior Feeding Summit on October 24, 2020.

Though the summit was geared primarily to Baltimore’s senior citizens, it welcomed community members of all age groups. Held on a warm, cloudy Saturday on the campus of Baltimore City Community College, the feeding summit provided 3,000 healthy cooked meals for senior citizens in the city at no cost.

The Baltimore All-Stars Marching Unit

Demetrius Dillard The Baltimore All-Stars Marching Unit delivers an exhibition during the senior feeding summit.

The global pandemic has substantially limited the access of healthy meals, particularly for the elderly— many of whom can’t leave the confines of their home on a regular basis for safety purposes.

Furthermore, many seniors are unable to cook nutritious meals for themselves and, as aforesaid, have been particularly vulnerable during the global health crisis. Consequently, the “All Walks of Faith” summit brought together religious leaders from churches, mosques and synagogues for a unified purpose while highlighting a major national issue affecting the elderly population.

Johnson, known locally as “Chef Connie,” got inspiration to prepare heart-healthy foods from her late grandmother, Dorothy “Dot” Dougherty. Because Dougherty had to modify her diet in her latter years, it prompted Johnson to cook more nutritious, heart- friendly meals for her grandmother.

“This is important because this is designed to feed the elderly. My grandmother who died at 94 had pancreatic cancer [and] one of the reasons we had to change her diet was because of her cancer,” said Johnson, who serves as the supervisor of dietary patient services at UMMC.

“She was a salt freak, so I was able to redesign the meals with no salt and we saw it helped her. She gave them out to her friends, next thing you know I was feeding two-to-300 elders a week with this new recipe.”

Community members, most of whom were senior citizens, wait in line

Courtesy Photo Community members, most of whom were senior citizens, wait in line to receive hot meals at the “All Walks of Faith Summit” at Baltimore City Community College on Oct. 24, 2020.

After seeing how popular her meals were among the elderly community, Johnson partnered with the University of Maryland to create “Dot’s Simple Meals” in honor of Dougherty. She hopes to have Oct. 24 designated as a special day.

“I’m going to ask government officials to designate October 24 as ‘Dignity Day,’ a day we give honor to our seniors,” she said. “I’m hopeful that this event will get the attention of funders… so we could do this maybe once a month, or get some government grants and do it all year-round.”

Meal recipients were welcome to either walk up and receive meals from volunteers, or by drive-up service. Walk- ups had the option of getting a hot meal along with a bag of fruits and vegetables, while drive-ups could only get fruit and vegetable bags. The food was prepared at nearby Forest Park High School, and was transported to BCCC throughout the afternoon.

The meals, delicately flavored with fresh herbs and seasonings, contained no salt or butter in accordance with nutritional guidelines for seniors. Over this past summer, Johnson partnered with local nonprofit Liberty Village Project to provide 1,000 meals a week to seniors during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a UMMC release.

UMMC supported the summit by lending valuable health resources to seniors and information on access to important health screenings and services.

Tee Daniels of Greeky Attire, Inc. was at the summit to help transport meals to elders residing at senior living facilities.

“When we had our customer Connie say that she was trying to get meals out to the elderly, we jumped on board to say ‘OK, well let’s get them out to Belvedere Towers, let’s get them out to Bernard E. Mason [senior apartments],” Daniels said. “All those people don’t have the means to get here, so I’m just the man in-between getting meals to where they need to be.”

The event had a few special appearances, namely from Baltimore City Police Chief Michael Harrison and a local band named the Baltimore All- Stars Marching Unit, Inc., who put on an exhibition about midway through the summit.

Liberty Village Project, which serves disadvantaged residents of the Forest Park, Garrison and Howard Park neighborhoods, sponsored the summit along with K.E.Y.S. Empowers, a mentoring and youth development organization based in Northwest Baltimore, and the Mayor’s Office of Children & Family Success.

“Today’s summit is funded by K.E.Y.S Empowers, but this is an extension of the work that we do. We continued to do this since the pandemic started,” Mujahid Muhammad, founder and president of K.E.Y.S. Empowers. “Today is a day of dignity for Baltimore, and we show our dignity by taking care of those who put us in a place to be able to do what we do today.”