Market helps out the hungry Produce given to food bank

June 20, 1993|By Mark Guidera | Mark Guidera,Staff Writer

Before most of us have even thought about morning coffee, Norman "Moe" Mozal has rounded up 20,000 pounds of free fresh fruits and vegetables at the Maryland Wholesale Produce Market in Jessup.

Mr. Mozal had the haul, valued at about $4,200 on the wholesale market, loaded and whisked off in a tractor trailer to Baltimore.

By day's end all of the produce, from cherry tomatoes to iceberg lettuce and string beans, will be given away.

No one will have paid a dime for the goods.

The immediate beneficiary of the haul is the Baltimore-based Maryland Food Bank, the nonprofit organization that distributes donated food statewide to more than 400 organizations that help the needy.

"This is what I always imagined food-banking to be like," said Bill Ewing, director of the Maryland Food Bank. "The amazing thing is the sheer quantity of the food coming in. This has really changed the nutrition for a lot of people."

All of the produce that Mr. Ewing glows about is donated by 23 wholesalers operating out of the food distribution network that serves five states.

The collection program, dubbed "Produce People Care" by the wholesalers, was launched in February and modeled on efforts in California and Texas.

During the winter, the program averaged 40,000 pounds of donated produce. During the summer, program organizers expect to average 25,000 to 30,000 pounds weekly. The drop in donations during the summer is because some of the wholesalers aren't able to sell to groceries and other large order operations is bought by independent street-side vendors.

The program works this way:

At about 5:30 a.m. every Tuesday and Thursday morning, Mr. Mozal, who worked for produce wholesaler L. Holloway & Bros. for 30 years before retiring in January, makes the rounds of vegetable and fruit wholesalers at the market.

He asks each if they have any produce they don't think they'll be able to sell. If they do, he takes a close look at what the wholesaler is offering to donate.

If the produce passes Mr. Mozal's muster, it's salvaged for donation and loaded onto a tractor-trailer for shipment to the food bank at around 10:30 a.m. The wholesaler is given a receipt for the donation, which can be used for tax deductions.

Meanwhile, clients of the Maryland Food Bank are waiting at the food bank headquarters on Franklintown Road in Baltimore to pick up shares of the shipment for use in soup kitchens or for distribution to the needy.

"There's really nothing wrong with any of the produce being donated," said Mr. Mozal, who was hailed out of retirement by the Jessup produce wholesalers. He was chosen for the job of selecting produce for the program because of his experience and trustworthiness.

"Usually it's just that it's past the point of having the shelf life the grocery stores want," Mr. Mozal said. "Most of the stuff we send up to the food bank has a day or two shelf life before it has to be eaten."

The wholesalers decided to pull the program together at the suggestion of Susan Keilholtz, a public relations consultant for the market. She became interested in a produce donation effort after reading a story in a trade journal about Mickey Weiss, a Los Angeles philanthropist who organized a program among Southern California wholesalers.

Ms. Keilholtz eventually was able to get Mr. Weiss to come explain to the Maryland wholesalers how the California program works. "That very day everyone agreed we had to do this," Ms. Keilholtz recalled.

"This program makes sense economically and ecologically," said George M. Maroulis, market manager for the Maryland Food Center Authority, the operator of the food distribution market.

Before the program was launched, wholesalers dumped most of the produce that went unsold to retail customers, Mr. Maroulis said. The food center authority charges wholesalers $15 a ton to collect and dump food they can't sell. Aside from paring wholesalers' dumping costs, the program saves landfill space, Mr. Maroulis noted.

"The beauty of this program is that it takes a product that is very usable and instead of discarding it, puts it to good use," he said.

Aside from donating the produce, wholesalers organized a dinner dance to raise $8,500 to pay Mr. Mozal a salary.

Also, wholesalers chip in trucks and drivers to ensure produce gets to the food bank quickly.

A critical link in the program's success has been transportation of the produce to the food bank by the wholesalers, said Mr. Ewing, the food bank director.

"In the past we've had wholesalers call and say they had a load of produce they were willing to donate, could we come pick it up right away. The problem we ran into was we didn't really have a truck we could spare to get out there that quick. So we'd have to pass it up," he said.

Keith Callis, owner of Callis Produce, Inc. and Callis Trucking, says he was sold on participating in the program when he drove a load of the donated produce to the food bank himself.

"It was way too wasteful just throwing the produce away," said Mr. Callis, who often donates produce and his trucks for the program. "I've never seen people so grateful in all my life for doing something."

Among the charitable organizations seeing the benefits of the program is the Greater Zion Apostolic Church in West Baltimore.

The church is using donated produce to bolster its food pantry, which helps 50-100 people in the community each week.

"A lot of the people we are helping with food just can't afford to buy produce. It's too expensive," said Viola Lyons, a trustee at the church.

"Fresh produce is a big difference in their nutrition," she said.

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