For five years, the staff at the Catonsville Emergency Food Ministry saw the same people coming in for help.
Instead of being a service used only in dire circumstances, the food pantry had become a monthly stop for some clients, coordinator Alice March recalled. A short-term solution had become a crutch.
"We kind of enabled this to happen," said March, falling back on current self-help jargon for those who encourage others in self-destructive behavior. "Now we're going from enabling to empowering."
Inspired by a Philadelphia program, March and her staff went through their files and compiled a list of regular clients. These women then got invitations to Maryland's first-ever "Super Pantry," a weekly course that touched on nutrition, money management, domestic violence and child-rearing -- in other words, every aspect of their lives.
Today, this concept is lauded as one of the nation's "Ideas that Work" with the release of "Hunger 1992," the second annual report from the Bread for the World Institute on Hunger & Development, published in connection with World Food Day.
"Spending time on the front line increases awareness that a few grocery bags of donated food cannot pull people out of poverty," the report notes. "Food assistance programs can bring people and communities dignity, hope and positive change."
Before 1975, food pantries did not exist in the United States. The number steadily grew in the 1980s, peaking in 1988 and dropping off slightly in the past two years.
Although the Maryland Food Committee has not tracked the number of pantries in the state, a survey of soup kitchens last year indicated these sites were serving more meals to more people than ever before.
The food committee provided the grants that helped the first super pantry get started, in a church kitchen in Lansdowne. A year later, when its "graduates" discussed their experiences at the committee's annual conference, other groups clamored to try it.
Now there are a dozen groups statewide, including the first super pantry for men. Alice March has left the Catonsville ministry to become the food committee's super pantry coordinator.
With classes of eight to 12 people, the Super Pantry may reach only a small number of the 714,000 Marylanders considered at risk for hunger, the report noted. "But preliminary results show tangible results with the people they did reach."
Of the 32 women involved in the first classes, 28 no longer need emergency food supplies. Three found jobs; one is in college and 10 joined Project Independence, the state's welfare-to-work program.
In southeast Baltimore, a new super pantry started just two weeks ago. Its participants began by setting their short-term and long-term goals.
What Michelle Brown has learned so far is simple: "I learned how to cut up a chicken," the young mother said.
Knowing how to cut up a chicken means Brown can buy a whole bird, which is cheaper by the pound, instead of relying on parts or costly prepared foods. It is one of dozens such skills she will learn throughout the course.
Once women agree to attend the first session, March said, few drop out. Each pantry provides day care, so the program functions as a "mother's day out" for many of the women.
The super pantry also becomes a support group for the women, who encourage one another in various ways.
"It's not always the food that's the problem -- that's what we're finding out," March said.