When they opened a soup kitchen in 1981, the volunteers at St. Rita's Church in Dundalk figured they'd be needed for a year or so, just until the economy got better. But as the years passed, there was never any change in the number of people asking the church for a free meal -- until last month.
As economists continued to debate whether Maryland was entering a recession, more men, women and children were seeking food from St. Rita's than at any time in the program's history.
There were similarly gloomy reports yesterday from many local feeding programs as the Maryland Food Committee launched its annual winter food and fund-raising drive, Bags of Plenty.
A Food Committee survey of 30 Baltimore-area soup kitchens found they are now collectively feeding more than 18,000 people a week -- an increase of nearly a third from this time last year.
"They're seeing people laid off from GM, Western Electric and Sparrows Point. They're seeing young men who can't find work. And they're seeing more and more families," said Linda Eisenberg, the Food Committee's director.
To help such families in the months ahead, the Food Committee is hoping to collect 650,000 pounds of food for the Bags of Plenty program within the next three days.
Some of the food will be used to provide Thanksgiving grocery baskets next week to more than 5,000 needy families in Baltimore. The rest will be distributed by the Maryland Food Bank to soup kitchens and food pantries throughout the metropolitan area for use later this winter.
The Food Committee also is hoping the drive will raise at least $150,000 in cash contributions. Ms. Eisenberg said some of the money will be used to buy additional food, including fresh chickens and hams for the Thanksgiving baskets.
But this year, she said, the donations also will be used to finance vocational counseling and other programs attempting to help the chronically poor to break the cycle of poverty.
Ms. Eisenberg noted that many non-profit feeding programs are especially short of funds this year. Though they set out a decade ago to help people with emergencies, the programs since have become a routine source of food for families who seek their help month after month.
Now those families are being joined by an influx of the newly poor, and it is likely the demand will increase as the economy worsens. "These programs were already stretched to the limit, and now they're being asked to do more," Ms. Eisenberg said.
At St. Rita's, which for years has served Monday night dinner to about 170 people, the number soared last month to 250. "We never thought we'd still be doing this in 1990," said Mary Catherine Haines, a parishioner who helped found the program nine years ago. "We certainly never thought we'd see this many people."
The length of the growing lines has been even more dramatic at Our Daily Bread, a soup kitchen on West Franklin Street downtown. Over the past four months, the number of people showing up each day for lunch has grown to more than 650 -- an increase of about 125.
"We're not sure why except for the economy. There's no other reason to explain this," said Angelo Boer, who helps run the program for Associated Catholic Charities.
Ms. Eisenberg urged people wishing to donate groceries to Bags of Plenty to do so by Saturday morning so the food can be distributed before Thanksgiving.
She said all the money raised will be used for food or other programs that directly serve the poor. Administrative costs associated with the fund-raising effort are being paid by its corporate sponsors, which include The Baltimore Sun, WMAR-TV (Channel 2), Giant Food, Provident Bank, and radio stations B-104 and 92 Star.
How to help
To contribute food to the Bags of Plenty campaign, fill a shopping bag like the one accompanying today's editions of The Sun and The Evening Sun with non-perishable groceries such as canned meat and vegetables. The bags should be delivered by Saturday morning to a Giant Food store, Provident Bank office or Baltimore City fire station.
Checks payable to Bags of Plenty can be mailed to the Maryland Food Committee at P.O. Box 23709, Baltimore, Md. 21203.