When the pandemic shut down Boston’s schools in March, Food for the Soul restaurant owner Donnell Singleton made a decision.
Working with activist Monica Cannon-Grant of Violence in Boston, Singleton closed his Grove Hall restaurant to customers and turned it into a provider of free meals for the community.
He thought they would feed a couple hundred people on the first day. Some 850 showed up. The next day, 1,050. On the third day, 1,200 people came for chicken, collard greens, sandwiches, rice, and other fixings.
Unable to continue safely serving so many people out of the storefront restaurant he opened four years ago on Warren Street, Singleton and Cannon-Grant transitioned the effort to a free community food delivery service. Since then, together with other volunteers they have delivered 70,000 meals to 800 homes in Roxbury, Mattapan, Dorchester, and Hyde Park.
“When my community needed me, it only made sense for me to shut down and help those that can’t help themselves,” Singleton said recently in his kitchen while assembling sandwiches.
To support the effort, Singleton at first relied on donations. Then Cannon-Grant swung into action. “Monica is the queen of grass-roots,” Singleton said.
He got a Resiliency Fund grant from the city, as well as money from the Boston Foundation, Nike, and other funders. Singleton couldn’t pay his staff, but they stayed on as volunteers. Through her own fund-raising prowess, Cannon-Grant provided stipends to the restaurant’s staff so they could keep food on their own families’ tables.
Other volunteers from the community, having no job to go to during the pandemic, crammed into his small restaurant to cook, package food, and drive meals to families, many of whom were in need even before COVID-19. “Prior to the pandemic, my community was suffering,” he said.
Every day, potential customers peer in the windows or ask through the door for Singleton’s soul food, a mouth-watering assortment of chicken (fried, baked, barbecued, smothered, and jerk), fried haddock, beef ribs, brisket, rice and beans, and more. But they have to wait.
Singleton said he’s not worried about lost business. He said he felt it would be “almost disgraceful” not to have been there for his community.
“Sometimes you have to ask yourself what’s important,” he said.
Singleton, a 47-year-old father of three, was born and raised in Roxbury. He attended Latin Academy and was the first member of his family to graduate from high school and college, Clark Atlanta University. He has worked as a teacher, often focusing on at-risk youths, and he owns a children’s book publishing company, Origin Nile Publishing.
In early June, Singleton decided to give his staff a much-needed rest and focus on feeding senior citizens one day a week, with additional care packages available on demand for families. He plans to give the restaurant a face-lift and repair some of the appliances, and then open his doors again to customers.
“My phone hasn’t stopped ringing. They say, ‘You’ve done so much for the community and you always do. We want to make sure we come back and return the favor.’ … I think there’s going to be an onslaught.”