Ballpark leftovers feed the homeless

September 15, 1992|By Laura Lippman | Laura Lippman,Staff Writer

It was 1 a.m. on the loading docks in Camden Yards. Steve Chaikin and Marc Iorio, twitching like college students deep into an all-nighter, looked over the leftovers of the ballpark's food stands.

To the workers around the stands, cleaning up after another Orioles' loss, the food was garbage. To Mr. Chaikin and Mr. Iorio, thediscarded hot dogs and pretzels were dinner for the city's homeless.

This innovative use of leftovers is known as Project Hunger, a volunteer effort the two University of Baltimore law school students began last fall by making sandwiches and giving them to the homeless.

After baseball season started, they realized that by distributing leftovers from the new ballpark they could give away hundreds of pounds of food a night instead of a mere hundred sandwiches.

Their brainstorm has been successful, filling the freezers at five local shelters. But it also has re-ignited an old debate among hunger advocates, who believe that short-term volunteer efforts make it easy for elected officials to avoid long-term policy changes that wouldend hunger in the United States.

"I see the same problem playing out in the Maryland Food Committee," said the committee's executive director, Linda Eisenberg.

"It's a steam valve, it lets the pressure off, it creates the illusion that we have solved the problem."

Mr. Chaikin and Mr. Iorio realize that they are making a small dent in Baltimore's hunger problem by distributing ballpark food. But they have found a way to use food that otherwise would be thrown away.

After each game, they recycle 300 to 1,500 pounds of cooked hot dogs, sausages, hamburgers, crab cakes, pizza slices, pretzels and open bags of peanuts.

ARA Services, which had given away food to other groups at Memorial Stadium, leaves cardboard boxes of leftovers on the loading dock about two hours after the last out. In most cases, that means 1 a.m. pick-ups and deliveries until 2 a.m.

Mr. Chaikin and Mr. Iorio, however, have managed to make every game since May, drawing on a small pool of classmates and friends. Mr. Chaikin's feverish zeal seems to be contagious.

"We are food brokers, we have to do this," said Mr. Chaikin, 25, a third-year law student. "To stop now -- I couldn't stop. Well, when the bar exam comes up, we'll stop for a month or two."

"Did you have to mention the bar exam?" groaned Mr. Iorio, also 25 and a third-year law student.

Mr. Chaikin, who grew up in Silver Spring, is a bouncy, dark-haired young man who finds everything an adventure, even the cat-size ratsscuttling through the alleys where they make deliveries.

Mr. Iorio, originally from Bowie, measures his words carefully and, frankly, could live without the rats.

It's quite a contrast to the stereotypes of future lawyers and members of so-called Generation X, the 20-somethings who can barely remember a presidential candidate who was proud to be a liberal and can't sit still for anything longer than a three-minute MTV video.

But asked if their philanthropic drive is atypical, the two just shrug.

Mr. Chaikin says he was influenced by his father, an accountant who has always been involved in volunteer work.

Mr. Iorio credits 12 years of Catholic school with inculcating him in the value of community service.

"They've got energy, zeal and the volunteer status that allows them to be more flexible than an organized institution," said Bill Ewing of the Maryland Food Committee, one of several advocates consulted by Mr. Chaikin.

"If I tried to do something like this, and the game went overtime, I'd have to pay a driver double-time to wait for the food."

But Project Hunger is becoming institutionalized.

It has applied for non-profit tax status and is working with other groups to ensure its longevity.

On Oct. 10, Project Hunger will hold a fund-raiser for the winter, when Camden Yards has no leftovers.

Annually, said Mr. Ewing, the United States wastes 137 million tons of food, equivalent to a bumper-to-bumper convoy of tractor-trailers circling the globe three times. While ballparks, restaurants and other public venues contribute to this waste, much of it happens in individual homes or on farms.

"In some ways, giving food away is easier than trying to raise money," Mr. Ewing said. "It's biblical, it's emotional, it feels right."

Advocates say that a system that solely harnesses waste could not solve the nation's hunger problem. It would become a large-scale version of crisis programs such as Project Hunger, distributing commodities to people and making them dependent charity.

Project Hunger should have a place in Baltimore for as long as it continues.

Eutaw Center, a homeless shelter run by homeless men, is especially grateful to Mr. Chaikin and Mr. Iorio, who have helped residents write resumes and taken them to a baseball game on donated tickets.

The question remains whether Project Hunger will lose momentum if Mr. Chaikin and Mr. Iorio take less active roles.

"We could be replaced, there's nothing special about us," Mr. Chaikin said emphatically.

"Necessity and opportunity placed us where we are. But that's why we're working with students at McDonogh, to make sure there's another generation."

And a year from now, if they are working full-time at local law firms, will they be cruising the city streets at 2 a.m., taking food to the Eutaw Center and other shelters?

Probably not, or at least not as often, Mr. Chaikin conceded.

"But we'll still be involved. I can't imagine not being involved on some level."

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