From Market To Meal

Dimpled and dented. Wilting and ripening. Fresh produce races time in a journey unimaginable to supermakert shoppers -- and vital to the truly hungry.

March 12, 2001|By Kate Shatzkin | Kate Shatzkin,SUN STAFF

Their journey begins before sunrise, in a breezeway of the Maryland Wholesale Produce Market in Jessup. It ends in the stomachs of people like Rosella Pinkney in Baltimore.

Spinach leaves, just starting to droop. Slightly distressed tomatoes. Granny Smith apples with brown frown lines.

They are the outcasts of the produce economy most people see - the one that puts perfect yellow bananas in coffee shops, lusty red tomatoes in the sauces of Italian restaurants, unblemished broccoli in perky rows at supermarkets.

They are part of a very different food chain - one that carries fruits and vegetables from the early morning darkness of frigid market docks to the pantries of hundreds of tiny churches to the dinner tables of hungry people. In this enterprise, no money is exchanged. Desire is the currency - desire to help, desire to have.

And at the very end, when even these edible outcasts have been picked over, what is left finds a home, too, in the most unexpected of places: With people who are not hungry, but who are learning to eat only when they are hungry.

For years, the Maryland Food Bank and other advocates for the hungry have tried to get produce into the hands of the poor. The benefit is better nutrition, particularly for growing children.

But the obstacles to something that seems so simple can be surprisingly complex:

Most food donations come from corporations more likely to give Pop-Tarts than pineapples. Food stamp rules allow those who use them to buy high-calorie snack foods that take less time to prepare. And some people just aren't used to cooking or eating produce, no matter how hungry they are.

So the daily journey - a race that pits the fragility of that spinach against the speed and powers of persuasion of those who carry it - creates its own underground drama. It's a drama unseen by all the people who think picking up the makings of a salad is as easy as running to the corner store.

This food's first courier is Bob Kinney, who is on the hunt for a truckload of fresh fruits and vegetables before most people have eaten breakfast.

It's a Wednesday morning at the Maryland Wholesale Produce Market. On most days, these dank corridors would be crowded with buyers examining case after case of colorful produce. But today, Kinney seems to be the only one looking. And he wants the stuff for free.

The food bank, along with the Capital Area Food Bank and a smaller group in Annapolis, hired Kinney last year to seek donations at the market. Together, they form a program called "Produce People Care."

Slowly, it has been working. The Maryland Food Bank distributed 700,000 pounds of produce in the last six months. The bank used to have to dump about 29 percent of the produce it brought in, casualties in the race against rot. Now that number is down to 10 percent, an improvement due largely to Kinney's keen eye for quality and his ever-evolving sense of what people want to eat.

That doesn't mean it's easy. Kinney depends on the kindness of virtual strangers - no-nonsense, grizzled men who drive forklifts through the night, loading and unloading their fragrant cargo for the highest price they can. With volumes down and prices high, the dealers don't have much to give him.

Maryland Fresh Tomato, a steady donor, has 25 cases of slightly scarred tomatoes in cheery white and green boxes. The imperfections take them down a grade from restaurant quality - to what is known as a "No. 2" - but cut around the marks, and they're fine, Kinney says.

At L. Holloway & Bros., Kinney walks to a back room, hands in pockets. Supervisor Alan Mozal is the man to see. After a little small talk, Kinney, a self-effacing guy in a baseball hat and jeans, makes his quiet entreaty: "I didn't know if you had anything for us this morning or not."

Mozal has both hands wrist-deep in a case of green beans that are awaiting government inspection. They'll only last a couple of days, though. "Come see me tomorrow," he tells Kinney; by then, they might be past their prime - and prime for the food bank.

Kinney thanks him anyway, before heading to the other side of the market. To get there, he picks his way across a parking lot strewn with smashed tomatoes, torn heads of lettuce and lime peels.

J.L.W. Produce has a few brussels sprouts on the rough side and some cases of good-looking carrots and broccoli. At J.C. Banana, Kinney discovers some competition: Two nuns in full habits, gathering food for the Little Sisters of the Poor. But today there are enough bananas to go around, and Kinney gets 50 cases.

It takes just an hour for Kinney to finish his rounds. Back in his tiny office in the market breezeway, he sighs and picks up the phone to call the Hagerstown food bank. When his load is full, the Hagerstown folks send a truck down to take a share. Today, he tells them not to bother. Not worth the trip.

No sooner has he hung up the phone than the gifts begin to arrive.

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