On a brisk January morning I woke up at 6:15 a.m. to cook breakfast for my boys. We had eggs and home fries before I scooted them out the door into the cold darkness to catch the bus. The wind caught the door as I tried to close it and I thought to myself: “At least they have a warm meal in them.” Such is not the case for many people around the world, in the United States and in my hometown. You see, this also happened to be the morning I was to help at the Scott’s United Methodist Church in Trappe with their monthly food distribution, and I was already thinking about world, country and community hunger.
I found out about the monthly distribution from my good friend Donald Brown. For many years, he and his wife have distributed food to hungry people throughout Talbot County. Eager to help, I layered my clothes, drank some hot tea and headed to the other end of town just as the sun was coming up. I pulled in the parking lot at 7 a.m. and was amazed at the hustle and bustle already in progress. The Maryland Food Bank truck had already arrived, and pallets of food taller than myself were being unloaded.
As I approached, I was greeted by Naomi Diane Thomas with a bright smile and immediate directions to “carry a case of canned goods on my way in.” I obliged and for the next 15 minutes I was part of a chain of workers moving vast amounts of canned foods out of the cold and into the warm church. I was then directed to help fill the 113 large empty cardboard boxes that were laid out on banquet tables. After distributing 113 cans of beef stew, I helped with the other canned items including collards, corn and chicken noodle soup. Carts whizzed and buzzed around these tables of boxes while a team of hard working men and women filled them with boxed mac and cheese, yogurt, and drinks.
About an hour into it, I’ll admit, my arms were feeling it, but no one stopped – everyone just kept on moving. It was about this time that Naomi Diane reminded us that we only had an hour to complete the job. Pick up was at 9 a.m. We then moved onto assorted frozen foods, frozen chicken and eventually, many loaves of bread. Sure enough, by 9 a.m. we had distributed 6,000 pounds of food into 113 boxes. In addition to the boxes, people could also pick up sweet potato pies, frozen pizza and other baked items. As people came to pick up their heavy boxes of food, men with hand carts helped load the food into cars. And, as soon as it began it was over; by 10 a.m. the crowd had thinned.
What happened in those three hours was nothing short of remarkable. Black and white, old and young came together for the sole purpose of helping each other. There were plenty of laughs, amusing stories, and plenty of helpers. One man said he had been there to help “Every month for six years and had only missed a few.” And I could see why, the warmth of feeling in that room was contagious.
After the dust had settled, I had a few minutes with Naomi Diane, a retired school teacher of 30 years from Caroline County, and she was kind enough to answer my questions. “How long has this been going on?” She reminisced about her humble beginnings in 2006 when she provided food for 10 people out of a station wagon, the lectures she went to at Chesapeake College where she learned about the Maryland Food Bank mobile pantry, and the time they set up outside of White Marsh Elementary in the elements. I sensed her journey in this endeavor had been a rewarding one. She gave credit where credit was due citing the biggest contributors to the Scotts Mobile Pantry as: the Maryland Food Bank, the Queenstown Bank, Shore United Bank, and “Empty Bowls” (held at the Immanuel Lutheran Church in Easton every February). She was quick to invite me to another food-based program they had through the Maryland Extension of Talbot County – free cooking classes. Every third Tuesday of the month neighbors are invited to learn how to prepare healthy meals that includes ingredients to make the same dish at home for a family.
Scott’s United Methodist Church is one of many food pantries in Talbot County and it is a shining example of what can be accomplished when a group of people come together to help the community in which they live. I wondered, with so many pantries throughout the county, were they matching the need and how do you measure that need? I got my answer from a nifty interactive map on the Feeding America website (feedingamerica.org). When I clicked on “map the food gap,” you can click any state and in turn, any county within that state and it provides you with data on the average cost of a meal, and the food insecurity rate. In Maryland, the average cost of a meal is $3.03 and the food insecurity rate is 11.4%. For Talbot County, the average cost of a meal is $3.53 and the food insecurity rate is 10.1%. How do they come up with these numbers? A complete methodology is available.
Defining food insecurity is paramount to understanding the tough choices people make every day. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) defines food insecurity as a lack of consistent access to enough food for an active, healthy life. One does not have to be homeless to experience hunger, many people have to choose between electricity and food. From the voices of those who have experienced hunger (one.mdfoodbank.org), “When it comes to the end of the month, there’s more month there than money.”
While soup kitchens have been around for centuries, the idea of a food bank is relatively modern. “The concept of food banking was developed by John van Hengel in Phoenix in the late 1960s. John Van Hengel, a retired businessman, had been volunteering at a soup kitchen trying to find food to serve the hungry. One day, he met a desperate mother who regularly rummaged through grocery store garbage bins to find food for her children. She suggested that there should be a place where, instead of being thrown out, discarded food could be stored for people to pick up – similar to the way “banks” store money for future use.
With that, an industry was born. John established St. Mary’s Food Bank in Phoenix as the nation’s first food bank. In its initial year, he and his team of volunteers distributed 275,000 pounds of food to people in need. Word of the food bank’s success quickly spread, and states began to take note. By 1977, food banks had been established in 18 cities across the country. As the number of food banks began to increase, John created a national organization for food banks and in 1979 he established Second Harvest, which was later called America’s Second Harvest the Nation’s Food Bank Network. In 2008, the network changed its name to Feeding America to better reflect the mission of the organization (Our History, Feeding America, 2018).
People have always gone hungry, but hunger is now on the rise globally and in the United States, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. Hunger is indiscriminate at its basis, we all experience it, but not everyone has the resources to satiate it. In the words of Jules Verne, one of my favorite authors, “Man’s constitution is so peculiar that his health is purely a negative matter. No sooner is the rage of hunger appeased than it becomes difficult to comprehend the meaning of starvation. It is only when you suffer that you really understand.”
Cathy Schmidt writes from Trappe where she and her husband Chef Brian Schmidt own Garden and Garnish Catering. Their family lives with multiple food allergies and intolerances, including: gluten, tree nut, peanut, fish and shellfish. Cathy loves to garden and cook from scratch.