Helping supply food banks keeps former nurse busy well into her retirement

July 13, 1994|By Dolly Merritt | Dolly Merritt,Special to the Sun

From the time she was 16 years old, Ann Miller, now 78, has been concerned for those with nothing to eat.

"During the Depression, before there was welfare, my mother and I used to put together food packets for the hungry," recalls Miss Miller.

Later, when she became a public health nurse, working for a year at Bellevue Hospital in New York City, she saw yet another side of the world -- and it made a lasting impression.

"You learn very fast that it's a different world when you don't have money," Miss Miller said.

Prompted by that lifelong concern, Miss Miller in 1979 began the Maryland Food Bank, a nonprofit organization that distributes surplus food to agencies that feed the needy. For seven years, she served as director of the food bank, the first of its kind on the East Coast, retiring in 1986.

The idea grew from the Maryland Food Committee, a nonprofit hunger advocacy group that Miss Miller joined in 1969, a year after she left her nursing career. Miss Miller said that the goal of the original, four-member committee was that "there would be no hungry children in Maryland."

The committee had become alarmed by health department reports that 50,000 school-age children in Baltimore were anemic and only 3,500 children in the state were getting free lunches. At that time, their eligibility was determined by school principals and social workers, rather than by family income, she said.

"If the children were clean and well-behaved, it was decided that they couldn't possibly be poor," Miss Miller said. "We set up a system where people could apply for school lunches, and the numbers in creased to 35,000 that first year."

Through the committee's efforts, the federal school lunch program became available in all schools statewide, and low-income families were informed of their eligibility.

Ultimately the activist's involvement in hunger issues led her to spearhead another project.

"There were 37 million tons of food in the United States that used to be thrown out every year, and a lot of it was perfectly edible," Miss Miller said.

She led a campaign for state grants and support from community action agencies for a warehouse that would store donated surplus food for distribution to nonprofit agencies that would pass it along to soup kitchens and other emergency food programs.

In the beginning, the state provided the money to buy the warehouse on Wabash Avenue in Baltimore.

Starting with 38 nonprofit agencies and a volunteer staff, she worked as a volunteer director for one year and asked food distributors, wholesalers and supermarkets to donate surplus food.

Seven years later, the warehouse was distributing 450,000 pounds of food each month to 600 programs throughout the state.

Today, eight affiliated programs of the Maryland Food Bank operate around the state. The warehouse in Baltimore, now directed by Miss Miller's successor, Bill Ewing, is located on Franklintown Road and occupies 50,000 square feet. Slightly more than a million pounds of food per month is distributed from the Baltimore location, Mr. Ewing said.

"We had always expected we would be out of business eventually, but it gets worse instead of better," Miss Miller said.

Perhaps that's why she never seems to be able to retire completely. A year ago, she moved from Baltimore to the Vantage House Retirement Community in Columbia, and soon became involved in the Howard County Coalition to End Hunger, an offshoot of the Maryland Food Committee.

Her current project is a telephone survey of 144 churches in the county.

"I was interested in finding out what the churches are doing," she said. Questions were asked about services provided to the needy, and the information is still being processed.

Miss Miller continues to study ways that food can be distributed to people in the county who have no transportation to reach a centralized location.

"I have to do it now while I still can," she said of her continued activity. "As you get older, you realize the time you have is much shorter and you have to work much harder and much faster in

order to do what needs to be done."

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