Food shuffle: how to fill the plates of the needy

October 17, 2001|By Rob Kasper

I TOOK a recycling tour of Baltimore recently with James Hyman. Instead of hunks of metal or pieces of plastic, Hyman was recycling food, transferring ready-to-eat dishes from the city's commercial kitchens to its soup kitchens.

Hyman is a driver for Second Helping, a program of the Maryland Food Bank. The Tuesday I traveled with him, Hyman began by filling up the back of his refrigerated 1995 Isuzu truck with leftovers from the food prepared to feed the thousands who had jammed Oriole Park at Camden Yards a few days earlier for Cal Ripken Jr.'s retirement party.

Hyman took heavy tubs of baked beans from the ballpark to the Helping Up Mission on East Baltimore Street. He ferried pans of barbecued chicken, more Camden Yards leftovers, to the Beans and Bread kitchen on Bond Street.

At Christ United Methodist Church, at Chase and Washington streets, he delivered bread, green beans, sausages, barbecued chicken and muffins. At Manna House, near 25th Street and Greenmount Avenue, he unloaded fare originally destined for the ballpark skyboxes, including a large aluminum serving pan filled with steaks.

Then, when his truck was bare, he picked up leftover London broil from Roland Park Place retirement community and 10 large, festive but frozen sheet cakes from Innovative Gourmet catering company in Owings Mills.

At each stop along the route, he was greeted warmly:

"James! Good to see you."

"James, my man!"

He, in turn, knew the names of chefs, cooks, kitchen helpers and church volunteers - the folks who give and receive his cargo. He has driven the route for five years and has memorized the schedule of each kitchen. He knows, for instance, that Beans and Bread is closed on Wednesdays, but the kitchen at Christ United Methodist Church in East Baltimore is open.

After witnessing the enthusiastic reception Hyman received on the streets of Baltimore, I suggested he should consider running for mayor. Hyman, a fit 47 years old and a native of Scotland Neck, N.C., laughed and jumped back in the truck. He had work to do, stops to make, more food to shuffle.

I tagged along out of curiosity. I knew there was a system in place to route prepared food from commercial kitchens to the needy, but I had never seen it in action. So I spent a day bouncing around Baltimore, watching the system work, occasionally carrying a tray of chicken to a church basement, lugging a sheet cake from the catering kitchen to the truck, seeing the city from a different angle.

Bill Ewing, director of the Maryland Food Bank, filled me in on the history of the Second Helping program. He said it began in 1986 at the suggestion of then-Mayor William Donald Schaefer as a program run by the Baltimore City Health Department. Four years later, the program was transferred to the Maryland Food Bank, a nonprofit corporation that collects, stores and distributes canned food, fresh produce, frozen foods and prepared foods to organizations that feed the hungry.

Ewing told me that in the overall task of feeding the hungry, programs like Second Helping are "tiny but effective." For example, he said that Second Helping accounted for about 250,000 pounds of food out of the total 12 million pounds the food bank gave away last year. In Baltimore, about 40 commercial kitchens donate food that Second Helping delivers to about 25 soup kitchens and shelters, said Ellen Saval, who oversees the program.

Even though they are small, emergency feeding programs grab the attention of the public when disasters strike, Ewing said. For example, in New York City, a program similar to Second Helping became the conduit that volunteers used to feed World Trade Center relief workers.

I surmised that the kitchens making donations to Second Helping were eligible for a tax deduction. But after trying to understand a federal government memo outlining how to figure the deduction - "the amount of the deduction is equal to the basis of the property, plus one-half of the profit the company did not make" - I steered clear of that aspect of the transactions.

The kitchen staffers I spoke with cited various reasons for donating food. Joe Tamberino, the food and beverage manager for Aramark, the corporation that runs the kitchens at Oriole Park, said giving away food that had been cooked but not served made good business sense. "This way," he said, "very little goes to waste."

Bryan Pollack of Innovative Gourmet probably spoke for a lot of caterers when he said that in addition to building good will, donating food to Second Helping also cleared out valuable space in the walk-in refrigerators and freezers.

At the other end, the cooks at soup kitchens were delighted with what Hyman brought them. "We went through that bread you brought us yesterday like it was nothing," Flo Menefee, assistant supervisor of Beans and Bread, told Hyman.

"Sometimes we boost it up, sometimes we tone it down," said Edna Williamson, a church worker, referring to the chicken Hyman delivered for the Wednesday midday feeding of 400 at Christ United Methodist Church. "We fix some rice and peas to serve with it, then I fix my own bread pudding, 10 pans of it," said Williamson, who is 77 years old.

Early in the day, Hyman was worried that a 70-pound tub of baked beans would be hard to give away. But when Phillip Brisbon, a cook at Helping Up Mission in East Baltimore, saw the beans, his eyes got wide. "Baked beans!" he said, "With plenty of sugar in them, our fellas will love them to death. They'll be gone by tonight."

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