Small town, big helping Food: Stepping Stones in Cecil County illustrates how the war against hunger in rural America is waged -- largely by church groups and volunteers.

November 28, 1996|By Debbie M. Price | Debbie M. Price,SUN STAFF

ELKTON -- Darlene Ford stands in the kitchen of her neat-as-a-pin mobile home rattling off prices like a human bar-code scanner.

Twenty-five cents for canned corn. (Almost half the grocery store price.) Two pounds of bacon bits for 62 cents. (Compare that with $1.39 for a 3.6-ounce jar at the supermarket!) And the deal of deals? A case of six raspberry pies for $1.69.

The 16 turkeys were bought for 63 cents a pound in September (on sale) and farmed out to friends' freezers for keeping.

In Ford's world of small-town hunger relief, such savings are the modern-day equivalent of the miracle of the loaves and fishes, stretching a thin patchwork of government grants and private donations to feed the poor of Cecil County.

The Thanksgiving meal that Ford and a loose-knit group of volunteers will serve today to an expected 180 people at Elkton United Methodist Church is, of course, the piece de resistance. But it is only one day's feeding in a year-round effort to put macaroni in the pantries and hot meals on the tables of a growing number of hungry and homeless people in the largely rural northeastern corner of Maryland.

On this day when America celebrates and gives thanks for its bounty, beggars hoisting "Will Work for Food" signs at busy city intersections are an obvious jab at the collective conscience. Less obvious are the rural and small-town poor, whose needs, no less dire, are increasingly being placed in the hands of church groups and volunteers such as Ford.

"We're a relatively small county, and because we're relatively small, we don't have a lot of the bells and whistles attached to county government that a Prince George's County or a Baltimore City has," says Margaret Diem, coordinator of human services for Cecil County. "In a rural area, we really have to count on the churches and volunteers."

Cecil County is not the only place where volunteers will slice turkey and load paper plates with the trimmings today. In Hagerstown, the task falls to the Salvation Army and the Union Rescue Mission; in Salisbury, volunteers at the Christian Shelter expect to feed 150 people. And so on.

But as the county with the state's highest unemployment rate -- a staggering 10.8 percent, more than double the state's average of 4.9 percent -- Cecil County has particularly urgent needs this year. Recent layoffs in the automotive industry in Delaware, where many Cecil County residents work, have sent families who had been living one paycheck from the edge in search of help.

The county of 78,000 people has three homeless shelters, and these days they are frequently full and occasionally overflowing. The demand for food from the eight emergency pantries Ford helps stock is expected to be three times greater than the demand last year.

"We're getting requests for food from people who have never had to ask for help before, and many of them are very embarrassed," says Ford, the director of Stepping Stones, a volunteer organization formed to feed the hungry. "I'm not sure why we're getting such an increase; I just know that we are."

Unlike the massive feeding operations of Baltimore City, where soup kitchens fill 300 bowls a day, Ford's operation is a study in the way that the war against hunger in rural America is waged -- in the trenches, on a shoestring.

Ford's title, "director," and Stepping Stones' status as a registered nonprofit charitable organization, suggest a formal organization.

In reality, Ford is unpaid, and Stepping Stones, while supported by a network of volunteers and churches, is mainly Ford and her part-time assistant, Darlene Shrewsbury. The two Darlenes do almost all the cooking themselves in the 14-by-21-foot kitchen of the mobile home Ford shares with her husband, Ken.

For Thanksgiving and other major meals, Ford's mother, Mary Henderson, is pressed into service to cook turkeys. Even this year, when Ford's 74-year-old father has been hospitalized with what appears to have been a mild stroke, Mary Henderson is helping out.

The stuffing is made from scratch -- a Herculean task demanding six pans of corn bread, 10 loaves of bread, dozens of celery stalks, quarts of chicken broth and many cups of chopped onions. It's a lot of work, but with only scant funds remaining, store-bought stuffing mix is too much of a luxury.

Ford and Shrewsbury shop for bargains on staples at grocery stores run by the Amish in Pennsylvania -- scoring 1,200 cans of crushed tomatoes for 15 cents each or a 100-pound bag of NTC oatmeal in a gunnysack. Their major source of meat is venison, donated by hunters who take the deer to be processed free at the Cecil County School of Technology.

The feeding has become her life's work, a calling Ford says is spiritual and derives from her religious beliefs and membership in the Faith Southern Baptist Church. A former jail chaplain, she said she became aware of the hunger problem in Cecil County when she noticed the prisoners often lived more comfortably than did their families outside the walls.

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