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Smokin' Hope: Jonathan Jones taught himself to barbecue and is now feeding his community

Self-taught pitmaster Jonathan Jones started Smokin' Hope to help combat food insecurity in Phoenix, Arizona.
"A cookout that everyone's invited to" is Smokin' Hope's tagline.
"A cookout that everyone's invited to" is Smokin' Hope's tagline.Courtesy Jonathan Jones/Smokin' Hope
/ Source: TODAY

When he looks at the needs in his Phoenix, Arizona community, Jonathan Jones is sure of one thing: He may not be able to feed everyone, but he'll do what he can to fight against food insecurity.

And he'll do it with delicious barbecue.

Jones describes himself as a self-taught backyard barbecuer who "burnt up a lot of meat" before he mastered his passion.

"I've always been infatuated with barbecuing, since family cookouts growing up where my uncles and my dad would always cook," Jones told TODAY Food. "I spent four or five years just barbecuing and learning and reading books. I followed the different pit masters on Instagram and social media platforms and it was all really just trial and error."

"I knew I couldn't give up and I needed to master this thing," he explained. "And you never know what you’re grooming yourself for."

Through Smokin' Hope, Jones and his volunteers go into Phoenix communities and feed people in need.Jonathan Jones/Smokin' Hope

Though he didn't know it at the time, Jones was "grooming himself" for Smokin' Hope, a nonprofit organization born from his desire to feed people experiencing food insecurity in his area. After throwing a party at his home in 2018 and being struck with the idea to give the leftover barbecue to those in need, a movement had started.

"Even if it was just me doing it, it would be a way I could spread some positivity," said Jones. "There was a lot of chaos going on and, I can't remember what it was specifically, but there was just another thing in the media that was another negative big story and I decided to cook for people."

For his first 2018 "cook," a term Jones gave to barbecuing and taking his food out into the community, Jones hoped to find 30 to 40 people to feed. Instead, he fed nearly 100 people.

"I grew up in Phoenix my entire life," said Jones, who now resides in Glendale, Arizona. "You live in these areas and you get so focused on getting out of these areas. You totally forget who you’re leaving behind."

"I always tell people it's not a politician or a celebrity that's going to come save us, it's on us to save ourselves and give back to each other and love each other," he continued. "Barbecue has always been known as a community-vibe-cookout-style type of thing. It brings people together. So it's what I decided to do."

Since 2018, Smokin' Hope has fed more than 1,000 people in need of a meal.Jonathan Jones/Smokin' Hope

In 2018, Jones turned Smokin' Hope into a nonprofit, and has since received monetary donations through a GoFundMe page and financial support from businesses like the W.C. Bradley Company which owns Oklahoma Joe's Smokers.

With the funding he's received and the help of his staff and volunteers, Jones has been able to feed over 1,000 people with quarterly "cooks" throughout the downtown Phoenix area.

In some of the communities he serves, Jones is known as "the rib man." In others, people immediately recognize his Jeep and know delicious food is on the way. Jones and his helpers have served everything from pulled pork sandwiches to turkey legs, feeding the homeless population, which often overflows into city parks due to a lack of space in shelters.

Jones says approximately six to eight volunteers serve on each "cook."Jonathan Jones/Smokin' Hope

"No one is trying to turn a blind eye to what's going on, but you just don’t know what you don’t know," said Jones. "For me, coming back to these types of areas — I talk with these people and start to realize I’m not that much different. If anything, I've got more in common with some of the people down there than people in my neighborhood that I live in now."

Jones says he hopes to continue to expand Smokin' Hope, the tagline for which is "a cookout that everyone's invited to." Through the donations the organization has received so far, he hopes to start a mobile food van to make distributing the meals easier and to reach even more people experiencing food insecurity.

"I want to be able to make a bigger impact because this is bigger than just barbecue," he said. "It's about change and giving someone hope, even if it's just for a moment.

"It's hard driving away — leaving those areas and communities and wishing you could have done more — but our goal is to keep getting out there to inspire others to figure out ways they can help in their own neighborhoods."