Feeding the hungry, in a big way

Retiring director got grocery industry involved in filling food bank's pantry

Sun profile

November 23, 2006|By Julie Scharper | Julie Scharper,Sun reporter

Bill Ewing was unemployed and living in his Volkswagen van on April Fools' Day 1979 when his aunt dragged him to a celebration marking the start of a new charity, the Maryland Food Bank.

Ewing, who had recently left his job as a teacher, was looking for something to do. The first food banks had just started popping up around the country, and the concept behind them - bringing food from big producers to small food pantries - intrigued him. He decided to volunteer for a few weeks.

Now, Ewing is preparing to step down as executive director of the nonprofit organization. During his time at the food bank, Ewing has jumped in trash bins, schmoozed with food industry leaders and whipped around the food warehouse on his scooter on countless occasions.

The food bank has outgrown two warehouses, and its operating budget has jumped from $10,000 to $3 million. Last year, the organization collected $22 million worth of food and fed more than 235,000 people.

"For me, I was always making it up as we went along," says Ewing, 64. "None of us planned in the beginning. We just knew we had a damn good idea."

The idea was simple but revolutionary: Collect edible but damaged food from factories and grocery stores and invite representatives from small charities to take what they need. The food bank could feed the hungry and prevent millions of dented cans of vegetables, lumpy boxes of cereal and stained bottles of salad dressing from ending up in landfills.

The question was how to build the organization - which started with a handful of volunteers in a West Baltimore warehouse - into meeting its mission.

"We were blessed with naivete," Ewing says. "If we had known how hard it was, we would have never done it."

At first, he figured they would be diving into grocery store trash bins hunting for salvageable food. That only happened a few times, he says.

Under the guidance of founder and first executive director Ann Miller, food bank workers realized that they needed to create partnerships with producers and retailers so that they could receive large quantities of food.

Ewing charged into meetings with food industry executives, who, he says, were hesitant to donate because of liability issues. Eventually, he convinced them that donating damaged goods provided them with a tax writeoff, saved dumping costs and allowed them to give to the community.

"Bill had a type A personality, and once he learned the ropes it was full steam ahead," says Barry Scher, vice president of public affairs for Giant Food LLC, a longtime partner of the organization. "If anything, over the years, it developed into a type double-A personality."

Ewing, sitting in his office, which is packed with antique canned food and toy food distribution trucks, explains the early days differently. "I really had the bravado of a person who didn't really know what he was doing," he says.

After volunteering for six months, Ewing was hired by the Maryland Food Bank. With the exception of a three-year stint with America's Second Harvest, a national organization of food banks, he has worked there ever since.

His business card reads: "executive director & hunter/gatherer."

Ewing, a Brooklandville native who holds a business degree from the Johns Hopkins University, had always assumed that he would work in banking or development. But the food bank fascinated him.

When Miller retired in 1986, Ewing took over as executive director. The next year, the food bank moved to a larger warehouse in West Baltimore. It handled larger quantities of food and developed new programs to meet increasing need. In 2004, the food bank moved to an even larger warehouse, an 87,000-square-foot facility in Halethorpe.

In addition to donations from the food industry, numerous food drives support the bank.

The number of people in Maryland who needed help getting food exploded in the 1980s and continued to increase steadily before leveling off in the past few years, Ewing says. Today, nearly one-fourth of the state's residents do not have reliable access to nutritious foods, and more than eight out of every 10 households with children are at risk of hunger, according to the food bank.

Over the years, Ewing says, he has seen the number of people who work but cannot afford to feed their families rise drastically. A greater percentage of children are hungry today than when the food bank began, he says.

"We don't see ourselves as a solution. We don't think we're going to end hunger," he says. "We see ourselves as a Band-Aid."

To charitable organizations, the food bank can be a lifesaver.

"It really is an asset to have them on our team," says Derrek Nelson, assistant program manager for Aunt Hattie's Place, a group home for troubled boys. "These young men grow every day, and their food needs are enormous. If it weren't for the Maryland Food Bank, we'd be begging."

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