As of June, employment in Houston remained at 217,700 jobs below the pre-Covid numbers recorded in February, according to the Greater Houston Partnership. Layoffs and furloughs have become our reality over the past five months.
To help address the nutritional and budgetary concerns among this cohort of the population in the Greater Heights and Near Northwest area, Lucas Marr and the Rev. Nathan Lonsdale Bledsoe in April co-founded a Houston extension of Dallas-based Furlough Kitchen.
Located at St. Stephen’s United Methodist Church, where Bledsoe serves as senior pastor, Furlough Kitchen Houston serves hearty meals out of its commercial kitchen facility twice a week to unemployed locals. It provided its 3,000th meal on July 16.
“Nathan has a facility and was able to host us, and it started from there,” says Marr, who after learning about Dallas’ Furlough Kitchen in April, inquired with the organization to open a Bayou City satellite. “We do large-scale food projects all the time, so it seemed like a really good fit.”
Marr, an engineer by trade, and Bledsoe enjoy catering parties, Rice tailgates, and weddings on the side. They make between 300 and 400 pounds of sausage annually, so the scale required to establish a Houston Furlough Kitchen outpost serving Greater Heights and Near Northside residents was already familiar.
Meals are available from 4:30 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. Tuesdays and Thursdays and require a reservation via the website for contactless curbside pickup. Furlough Kitchen complies with all masking, sanitizing, and social distancing protocols as outlined by the Centers for Disease Control. They serve about 125 meals per week, with another 15 or more available daily with the addition of the church’s accompanying elementary school as support.
“We can make really good food that our chefs are inspired and excited to make, that people are proud to serve to their families, and utilize the gifts and skills that only the cooks we have can provide,” says Bledsoe.
Menus vary based on available ingredients, some of which are purchased with donated money and others from contributions by Tiff’s Treats, Hartz Chicken Buffet on Pinemont Drive, Rainbow Lodge, Artisana Bakery, Frenchy’s, Common Market, Phoenicia Market, and others. St. Stephen’s also seasons some of its offerings with herbs from its own garden, as with a recent chickpea salad dish beloved by Bledsoe.
Meals are conceptualized and prepared by the founders and by church volunteers; guest chefs from Houston restaurants like Saigon House and Rainbow Lodge; and catering company Morsel and Crumbs owners Christian and Alexandria Catalan.
For Bledsoe taking part in and organizing Furlough Kitchen reflects a core value of St. Stephen’s: that God asks followers to serve others, and that means being good stewards of the people and places around you—even if circumstances prevent attending church in person.
“So much of the news and press around communities of faith right now in the midst of the pandemic is about how they’re doing everything they can to skirt the rules or force themselves open to do the things they’ve always done,” Bledsoe says. “The way I interpret the call of the Christian faith is to love God and serve your neighbor.”
As the initiative grows, Marr and Bledsoe hope others will open their kitchens and prepare tasty meals in service of their neighbors as well. Unemployment continues to concern Houstonians who have either lost their jobs or worry that layoffs loom imminent. Furlough Kitchen’s ability to expand into other outposts will provide peace of mind to thousands of individuals and families concerned about making ends meet and staying fed.
“We feel like the model is something that can be replicated around the city pretty easily,” says Bledsoe. “There are churches or community centers or other places in all sorts of different neighborhoods in Houston that have kitchen facilities that they’re not really using right now.”