Sharing the harvest

Our view: Finding more free and inexpensive food so fewer will go hungry in economic hard times is a challenge that is testing the Maryland Food Bank and the many agencies it serves.

November 24, 2008

Undaunted by a fire at its homeless shelter next door, volunteers at the Bea Gaddy Family Center in East Baltimore are busy putting together the traditional Thanksgiving dinners they expect to serve later this week to as many as 55,000 needy guests. That's 15,000 more meals than last year. Economic hard times are putting significant pressure on dozens of institutions like the Gaddy center that are struggling to help feed a half-million poor families across the state.

As with so many Maryland families, these agencies are finding their food budgets won't go as far as they once did. Much less free food is available this year than in earlier years, and demand for the meals they prepare is significantly higher. Local governments and businesses need to do more to help feed these hungry citizens. And the agencies need to be creative in their search for new sources of free or inexpensive food.

Take the Maryland Food Bank, which is building a commercial kitchen so it can turn perishable foods into products with a long shelf life, like stewed tomatoes or applesauce.

It's hard to imagine, in a country with an epidemic of juvenile diabetes due to overeating, that many families lack the resources for a healthful diet. But nearly 12 million adults and children went hungry at some point in 2006, according to a study released last week by the U.S. Agriculture Department. The growing challenge of hunger is visible on the half-empty shelves of the food bank warehouse in Baltimore County.

The Maryland Food Bank supplies about 1,000 soup kitchens, shelters and feeding centers around the state. Since July, the shelter has distributed more than 17 million pounds of food to these agencies, a 20 percent increase from the same period last year. "The food goes out as fast as it arrives," Deborah A. Flateman, the bank's CEO, said last week.

Until recently, 80 percent of the food distributed by the food bank was donated. Now, half the food is purchased. The donated food costs participating agencies just 7 cents a pound. The purchased food costs 59 cents a pound, a bargain compared to supermarket prices but still a stretch for some of the agencies dishing out the meals.

To help, the city of Baltimore recently pitched in by donating $250,000 to cut by half the price of food doled out by emergency feeding operations in the city. Maryland Wal-Mart and Sam's Club outlets have increased their food bank donations of meat and dairy products that are approaching "sell by" dates.

But the food bank isn't only relying on businesses and the hundreds of thousands of brown-bag contributions from ordinary citizens. It has volunteers gleaning harvested fields and has asked a few local farmers to set aside a couple of acres to grow crops for the bank. That's being resourceful when times require it.

Sharing a bountiful harvest is a traditional Thanksgiving theme that still resonates hundreds of years after that first Pilgrim feast. The more we share, the more we feed the spirit of the day.

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