Hundreds of families across Maryland get relief for their food budgets - not manna from heaven, but discount grocery boxes from Angel Food Ministries.
The Georgia-based organization negotiates with national vendors to get bargain prices on meat, eggs, dairy products, frozen vegetables and other staples.
Each month, it designs $30 boxes that could feed a family of four for a week. People place orders online or in person and pick them up several weeks later at local host sites - mostly churches.
Although food stamps are accepted, there are no income limits or restrictions on the number of boxes anyone can order.
"They said, 'If you eat, you qualify,' " said Mel Tate-Spruill, who has been ordering Angel Food boxes at the River of Life Christian Center in Rosedale since January.
On Saturday, volunteers loaded $152 worth of groceries she and her husband, James Spruill, had bought, including a fresh produce box and two boxes of "convenience meals" - ready-to-heat meals for work lunches.
"I know I couldn't do better at the grocery store," she said.
James Spruill said he was skeptical at first and worried about the quality - expecting dented cans or other inferior products. "Now I'm like a kid, going through the bags," he said. He especially appreciates the steaks.
With three children at home, the Spruills were having a hard time making ends meet. "We have decent jobs, and it was still hard," Mel Tate-Spruill said. But with Angel Food boxes and supplemental trips to discount grocer Aldi, Tate-Spruill estimates she saves $200 a month.
River of Life's host site director, Gerri Wright, said Angel Food Ministries is a hand up, not a handout.
"They're paying for the food but getting more for their money," she said. "In these times, with high prices and gas, everybody can use a little help."
Angel Food's founders, the Rev. Joseph Wingo and his wife, Linda, first sold 34 boxes from the back porch of their Georgia home in 1994 to blue-collar workers when local mills closed. Now the evangelical Christian organization distributes nearly half a million boxes a month in 44 states through 4,800 sites.
The organization's image suffered this year after two board members alleged in a lawsuit that the Wingos and several of their children abused their positions by, among other things, purchasing $800,000 of personal items with company credit cards. Under one of several provisions of an agreement reached in June to drop the suit, son Andy Wingo was barred from working with the nonprofit, according to news reports. Angel Food Ministries conducted an audit of its accounts and brought in new managers to oversee finances, said a spokesman, Juda S. Engelmayer.
In Maryland, 36 sites distributed 6,000 boxes in October, Engelmayer said.
Angel Food Ministries buys close to $14 million in food a month from suppliers, which allows them to beat average grocery store prices, he said. "That buying power gives us the ability to get the maximally best price we could negotiate," he said. "It's not seconds."
Gina Kolb of Rosedale said her family of four saves hundreds of dollars with Angel Food Ministries. She and her husband bought a house last year, and "of course, the mortgage was a lot more than we were accustomed to paying," she said.
The only caveat is that the meals require planning. "You've got to be willing to prepare it," said Kolb.
You also can't pick and choose from the list of items in the box. "You have to be willing to compromise and try new things," Kolb said.