One man's simple idea to feed the hungry with a bike and a backpack has grown into the transformative Urban Bicycle Food Ministry. The volunteer group delivers hundreds of free burritos each week to the Memphis homeless population.
With a crew of volunteer cyclists and a bundle of homemade burritos, Urban Bicycle Food Ministry
(UBFM) delivers a warm dinner to hundreds of Memphis' homeless each week. Every Wednesday night they hand out anywhere from 300 to 400
burritos and then follow that up each Saturday morning, delivering up to 200 breakfast burritos. And the group is looking to increase its efforts in the years to come. The growing organization began as a singular effort by founder Tommy Clark, who realized how difficult it could be for the homeless to travel to find food access.
"Instead of having the homeless come to a church or a mission, we felt we could approach people better. We reach out to folks and let them know that someone loves them by going to them instead of having them come to us. So that is where the bicycle part of it comes in," says Frank Rouse, a volunteer who has been with UBFM since its early days.
UBFM started up about four years ago inside Tommy Clark's two-bedroom duplex behind Memphis Theological Seminary. Clark set out by bicycle one Wednesday night with a backpack full of burritos and bottled water and delivered 30 burritos on the first night.
The all-donation-based operation quickly grew to eight or nine cyclists, allowing for different routes through Downtown and Midtown. They were delivering up to 150 burritos per night, but it was putting stress on Clark's small kitchen, and his apartment was filling up like a storage room with various donated items and supplies.
"It got a little hot, and it got tough to make enough burritos in there," jokes Rouse. "We started taking donations for clothes, bottled water and toiletries--anything that would make somebody's life a little more comfortable and easier while they are on the streets."
Fast forward two years and the group had connected through one its riders with Pastor Andy Rambo at First United Methodist Church downtown at Second and Poplar. He allowed UBFM to use one of its kitchens as well as a Sunday school room to store all of its clothes and supplies.
"That really allowed us to increase the amount of people we could get to and increase the number of people we could send out," explains Rouse, who took over some of Clark's duties after he moved to Columbia, Tenn., to be a pastor at a small Methodist church.
Now UBFM focuses primarily on three main routes, including east-west on Poplar Avenue and Madison Avenue, along with a north-south route on Main Street through Downtown and into South Memphis. Its all-volunteer fleet, varying week to week from roughly 11 to 22 riders, hopes to use the city's new bike lanes to do something good.
"If we can get it into a backpack or on a bike trailer and pull it behind us, we will get it to the folks that need it," Rouse says.
In the wintertime UBFM even throws an Igloo cooler onto a trailer and serves hot chocolate, and in the summer they deliver chilled bottled water.
The burritos usually consist of simply beans, rice, cheese and spices for vegetarians, as well as some made with ground beef for meat lovers. Barbeque is also donated regularly by Central BBQ, and rice and beans are donated by Los Compadres at Holmes and Poplar.
"They fed me several times, and I was always extremely grateful for their help and the warm food," says Cecily B., whose struggle with mental illness over the past few years resulted in homelessness.
For Thanksgiving week, UBFM went all out to create special turkey and dressing burritos, with the turkeys smoked by Rouse himself.
"We're going to cut those up and do some stuffing, and try to get it all out to some people on a cold Wednesday night before Thanksgiving," he said.
The group also held its largest fundraiser of the year in late November with its Cranksgiving races, held at The Peddler bike shop near the University of Memphis. Two races including more than 50 riders raised more than $1,100 for the nonprofit.
"The biggest thing is letting these people know that someone cares about them," Rouse says. "We're brothers and sisters just helping brothers and sisters."
He sees the homeless population declining in Memphis over the past several years, and he is quick to point out that UBFM does not enable anyone with drug or alcohol issues by giving them money.
"We strictly give food, clothing and thoughts and prayers," he says. "One of the great joys of doing this, if there is such a thing, is not seeing someone the next week in the same place. Or finding out that they went and got help, or that they had found their way and were able to get off the streets."