He's a general in the war against hunger in Maryland

Champion of Hope: Bill Ewing and volunteer groups fill empty cupboards and stomachs.

May 06, 2001

TWENTY-TWO years ago, Bill Ewing was deep in the doldrums. His first marriage had ended, and the former banker and schoolteacher desperately needed a purpose.

Mr. Ewing, now 58, found his calling in hunger.

From his misery came not only direction in his life but also a mission to reduce the misery quotient among Maryland's homeless and hungry. His work began when a friend, civic activist Peggy Waxter, told him about an operation to collect food for shelters, pantries and soup kitchens.

"She knew that I cared about people and she knew that when I was a banker, I liked taking risks and being entrepreneurial," Mr. Ewing said.

He joined Ann Miller, a former nurse and member of the Maryland Food Committee, which had the motto: "There would be no hungry children in Maryland."

Ms. Miller and Mr. Ewing set up shop in a 10,000-square-foot building on Fairlawn Avenue in Northwest Baltimore in 1979. Mr. Ewing became executive director of the Maryland Food Bank 15 years ago.

His work continues in a 52,000-square-foot building on Franklintown Road in West Baltimore, where his Maryland Food Bank collects, stores and distributes 1 million pounds of food a month to organizations who feed the hungry.

William G. Ewing is among those who make life a little better for Maryland's needy. He couldn't possibly count or even estimate the number of people he has served through good and bad economic times. Most of his beneficiaries likely wouldn't know his name or recognize him on the street.

He is unassuming as well. He points out that he earns a salary as executive director. The real heroes in the battle against hunger, he insists, are the 900-plus volunteer organizations -- churches, shelters and kitchens -- that use the food bank and directly feed the hungry.

He's wrong and right. Few people can match his record of fighting hunger over the last two decades. But he hasn't done it alone. The army of volunteers is with him on the front line.

The need remains persistently high. Welfare reform has gotten many families back to work, but often without enough pay for child care, transportation, heat and food.

On a recent walk through the supermarket-sized warehouse, Mr. Ewing greeted five new enlistees. Three are volunteers at area churches, and two volunteered for a secular nonprofit organization.

Mr. Ewing welcomed them to the battle amid cans of soup, spaghetti sauce, rice and flour. The bank also stores and distributes nonfood items, such as cleaning supplies.

The food bank director's work is never easy. Food drives require one beg-a-thon after another. Mr. Ewing depends on his media savvy, glib conversation and relationships with partners such as the U.S. Postal Service to get his message out. He gets mixed results when begging grocery chains, private organizations and individuals for donations.

Headlines in The Sun over the years attest to the successes and failures.

Nov. 26, 1990: "Food drive lags behind '89 effort."

Dec. 12, 1994: "Harvest for Hungry donations grow."

March 14, 1997: "Postal Service food drive drops in donations over past 2 years."

Jan. 14, 2000: "Food bank enriched by blue-collar giving."

Mr. Ewing has had to adjust to major changes. He once cornered the market on area grocery store throwaways. When he got into the hunger business, grocery chains customarily wasted plenty of good food. Just threw it into the Dumpster, he recalled.

"We found, in talking to the A&P, Pepsi and other companies how much food they were routinely throwing away because there was nothing else to do with it," Mr. Ewing recalled while sitting in his second-floor office that was cluttered with paper, books and food cans.

He said stores and distributors were glad to find a taker for large quantities of food in cans, boxes, bags, jars and bottles. He remembered getting 38 tractor-trailer loads of canned goods from an Eastern Shore distributor.

Now he has competition for such goods. Many deliveries that once went to the food bank are ending up in dollar stores, according to Second Harvest, a network of 188 food banks, including Mr. Ewing's.

The food bank executive director doesn't mind the competition because those places help low-income consumers buy food and other household products.

"All of us would love to throw away the key," Mr. Ewing said, "but we've institutionalized poverty at a much higher level." That becomes obvious when he taps into food bank discussion groups on the Internet. He was planning a meeting in Baltimore of colleagues from across the country, just to brainstorm.

On this day, he was thrilled to receive thousands of pounds of potatoes from Idaho that arrived, mysteriously, in bags labeled "Onions." "We lose food from the grocery industry and we gain it from the fields, we gain it from the restaurants," he said.

The fight to fill empty stomachs is necessarily flexible.

Hunger in Maryland shows no sign of going away. What a wonderful state this would be if we didn't need a food bank, a Bill Ewing, pantries, shelters or soup kitchens. But with hunger still among us, they are indispensable heroes whose work eases suffering.

About this series

This is one in an occasional series that will highlight the achievements and contributions of area residents who have little in common except this: Their lifetime commitments to the arts, the environment, social justice or voluntarism bolster our faith in this region and ourselves. "Champions of Hope," we're calling them, though they could just as easily be defined as heroes. Many are not well-known; others you'll recognize. All bring hope in some way to the people around them.

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