As he looked across the sea of faces seeking free groceries from his church in West Baltimore, the Rev. Eugene Belcher realized something was wrong.
Some of the people had just lost jobs or faced other emergencies. But others were coming to the church's food pantry month after month -- indeed, year after year. They didn't see the food as someone's charity. They expected it to be there.
"I began to see that we had become a crutch," Mr. Belcher said. Starting Monday, his First Emmanuel Baptist Church will attempt to teach people to walk on their own.
The church, with help from 30 other West Baltimore feeding programs, has put together an eight-week series of classes aimed at helping people who rely on the pantries learn to get by without them.
The classes will teach basics such as budgeting and planning low-cost meals. But there also will be motivational sessions designed to encourage participants to enroll in training programs that could lead to jobs.
The concern that prompted Mr. Belcher to arrange the classes is beginning to spread among Maryland's vast network of food pantries and soup kitchens. After giving out free food for nearly a decade, some are beginning to wonder if what they're doing makes sense.
The discussion is being spurred by the Maryland Food Committee, the non-profit anti-hunger group. Ironically, it has been the Food Committee's fund-raising and publicity efforts that helped spawn the growth of such programs over the past 10 years.
But at the organization's annual meeting today in Columbia, the theme is helping the poor to break the poverty cycle. Several groups running what the committee calls "self-sufficiency programs" will offer workshops explaining what they do and how they got started.
Linda Eisenberg, the Food Committee's director, said the message isn't new, but she admits the organization is giving it much more emphasis now.
"We've recognized for a long time that giving out bags of food or a hot meal is not enough. It's pretty much a bottomless pit. Some effort has to be made to interrupt the cycle of disadvantage that people are caught up in," Ms. Eisenberg said.
She said the committee has for several years encouraged the groups that run food programs to consider expanding their role.
The committee's fund-raising campaigns were developed in the early 1980s, when the "new poor" were losing their jobs and the federal government was cutting food stamps. "The tack that was taken was that the money would specifically be used to feed people. That was an excellent solution to the problem back then. But it meant that we couldn't use the money for anything else," she said.
So last year, Ms. Eisenberg asked some contributors if she could use some of their donations for other efforts. They agreed, and the committee awarded $58,000 to four groups to develop self-sufficiency programs.
The money is small in comparison to the $230,000 the committee raised and distributed last year to help finance 120 soup kitchens and food pantries across the state. But Ms. Eisenberg hopes to raise more money for non-food programs this year.
She stressed that she does not foresee reducing the amount the committee gives pantries to distribute food. "Certainly the demand is too great to think about doing less for direct feeding," she said. But she said that if food programs are to have enough resources to cope with increased demand should the economy worsen, they must help some of their patrons learn how to do without their help.
In Baltimore County, the 16 churches that support the Catonsville Emergency Food Ministries pantry already have made that decision. "We realized that we were raising families on the pantry. And we can't continue to do that," said Alice March, a member of the group's board.
Ms. March last winter developed a self-sufficiency course, called "Super Pantry," which is similar to that being tried in West Baltimore. The group has continued to offer the course, and a new session began yesterday. Ms. March said the results have been encouraging.
Of the 27 women who went through the first three courses, only five have again sought help from one of the Catonsville area's two pantries.