Take a close look through the cavalcade of your junk mail and bills this week.
You're about to get a notice from the U.S. Postal Service that has the potential to make Christmas Eve and the last day to file tax returns seem like "easy street" to mail carriers.
The postal service will deliver notices to every postal customer in Maryland and Delaware -- about 1.5 million delivery points -- with this request: Leave donations of non-perishable food items by your doorsteps and mail boxes between Feb. 10 and 15.
Organizers have set a goal of bagging 225,000 food items during the six days. But the drive, if successfully publicized, could bring in significantly more than that -- 500,000 food items is not beyond reach, some organizers are predicting.
Your friendly neighborhood mail carriers will put donations in their trusty mail sacks or delivery trucks and take them back to neighborhood post offices. There, they'll be loaded onto 10-ton trucks and hauled to central post offices.
From there, the food will be trucked to the nearest food bank where the canned goods and other items will be used to help families and individuals in need.
That's right. Mail carriers will pick up your donation at your door.
And they'll do it right smack in the middle of one of their busiest mail delivery times of the year -- the week of Valentine's Day, Feb. 14.
"I was pretty amazed when the postal people called me and said they wanted to do this. It's going to be a pretty huge undertaking," said Bill Ewing, the executive director of the Maryland Food Bank, which operates food banks in Baltimore and Salisbury.
"This is a time of year when donations to food banks are really down. The Christmas fervor has passed and donations have dropped off so the drive will be a big boost. But people need to keep in mind that canned food drives don't solve the problem of hunger. It's a social issue that needs a lot of public debate to raise the consciousness about its roots."
Which raises the question of whether the drive will put the haves' understanding of the needs and circumstances of the have-nots at an even greater arms-length away.
Larry Adam, a Baltimore stockbroker and founder of Harvest for the Hungry, a year-round effort organizing community-based collections of non-perishable food for food banks in Maryland, says that's a risk of the project. But more likely to happen, the Fallston resident argues, is that a lot of untapped altruism in communities will be seen.
"The beauty of this whole thing is that the food collected in neighborhoods will be taken to the food bank serving that community's hungry people. The postal service is going to make it easy to help your neighbor is what it comes down to."
If the drive hits its goal of collecting 225,000 food items [about 150,000 pounds], it would translate into about 400,000 meals for those in need, estimates Mr. Ewing at the Maryland Food Bank.
"That's about a one-day supply for Maryland's needy, assuming we reached everyone who we know needs a meal. There is a lot of hidden hunger we never know of," he said.
By comparison, the annual metro-wide Bags of Plenty campaign collected 365,000 pounds of food for the Maryland Food Bank between Thanksgiving and Dec. 15. Donors to that highly promoted campaign got free grocery bags in their editions of The Baltimore Sun and could drop off the bags at Giant Food stores, Provident Bank branches and Baltimore fire stations.
Mr. Adam's Harvest for the Hungry organization collected 666,220 pounds of food in 1991.
The postal service drive has been dubbed "Have a Heart for the Hungry" as a tie-in with Valentine's Day. The food collected will be stockpiled in food banks for an average of a month before being distributed to groups that directly assist families and individuals, Mr. Ewing said.
If the food banks affected by the drive -- nine of them statewide from Oakland to Elkton -- were to buy 225,000 food items at today's retail rate -- an average of 85 cents per canned good -- the cost would be about $191,500.
What's the postal service doing getting in the business of helping food banks bolster their stocks of emergency food, anyway?
"It's been done in several other cities and has been so successful I figured, hey, let's do it in Baltimore. We have plenty of needy here, too," explained Patricia Liberto, an equal opportunity investigator for the U.S. Postal Service in Baltimore.
Ms. Liberto, who chairs a committee which organizes charity efforts by federal workers, said that she got the idea for the drive from reading a postal service newsletter about a successful drive in Albany, N.Y. That drive collected 160 tons of food in 1991.
She broached the idea of organizing a postal service food drive to Richard W. Rudez, postmaster for the Baltimore field division, which encompasses Maryland and Delaware. He approved the project, and from there Ms. Liberto went to the postal workers' unions to see if there would be objections.
"Instead of raising a bunch of legal and technical questions, they said, 'You notify the public it's going to happen and leave the rest up to us. We'll work out the details of collecting the donations and getting them delivered to the food banks.' "
Carl Sefa, manager of the Dundalk post office, one of the region's largest with almost 26,000 customers served by 80 mail carriers, said many of his workers have said to him they would volunteer free time to make sure donations are collected and delivered to food banks.
"The mail carriers see the need. They are the ones out on the streets every day. They see how people have to live and get by," he said.
Debbi Dorman, of the Westside Food Bank near Phoenix, Ariz., where the postal service has operated an annual food drive among customers for 15 years, said the drive collects between 200,000 and 300,000 pounds of food annually. "If it's well publicized, it has the potential to be huge," she said of the Maryland-Delaware project.