As demand for its services continues to increase around the state, the Maryland Food Bank launched its annual Harvest for the Hungry food drive Friday, an initiative that has collected more than 30 million pounds of food for Marylanders in need since 1987.
Organizers hope the campaign, which starts Saturday and runs through Feb. 19, will net more than the 300,000 pounds it collected for the state's hungriest residents in 2010.
"With more than 448,000 Marylanders needing food assistance, help is needed now more than ever," said Deborah Flateman, CEO of the Maryland Food Bank. "Many of them never before imagined they would need assistance getting food."
More than half a million people are living below the federal poverty level in Maryland, according to recent census reports, an increase of about 12 percent since 2008. Demand for food donations has jumped 50 percent during that time, according to Amanda Knittle, a Maryland Food Bank spokeswoman. More than 30 percent of those in need are children younger than 18.
"The faces of [the hungry] are noticeably changing," Knittle said. "We're seeing people who would have been called middle class a year ago, people who have lost jobs or who have been hit by health care expenses."
The fastest-growing segment of those needing food assistance have full-time jobs, she said.
Those wishing to donate may leave food items at their mailboxes for their carrier to pick up or leave them at participating Safeway stores or Coldwell Banker offices during the drive.
Safeway, Coldwell Banker and the U.S. Postal Service are among the corporate sponsors of the campaign, the 25th by the food bank since Larry V. Adam, a retired broker who worked at Morgan Stanley Smith Barney, founded Harvest for the Hungry.
Members of the Girl Scouts, another sponsor, will pick up donations and deliver them to food bank headquarters. Donors may also make monetary contributions at mdfoodbank.org.
Organizers ask for nonperishable items only and say the foods they most need are canned tuna, pasta, peanut butter, canned vegetables or fruits, oatmeal and soups — foods with a lot of nutritional value that are relatively easy to prepare.
The food drive is held this time of year for a reason, according to Knittle. There's usually a lull in giving after Thanksgiving and Christmas.
"People tend to think of the hungry before holidays, and we appreciate that," she said. "But good, nutritious food is always a basic human need. Hunger is a year-round thing."