Md. Farmers Help Feed the Hungry

12/14/2013 7:00 AM
By Ann Wilmer Maryland Correspondent

The Old Testament “Book of Ruth” tells of a prosperous farmer who allowed the widows and poor in his community to go behind the workmen gathering his ripened grain into sheaves to glean stalks of grain left behind.

Operating on the same principle, Amy Cawley, food solicitor for the Maryland Food Bank, works with farmers who have left food crops in the field after harvest. It might be odd-shaped produce that, while not picture perfect, is still good to eat.

Cawley arranges a second harvest for the food bank, coordinating the collection of more than 800,000 pounds of fresh produce last year — food that might otherwise have rotted in the field.

“I spent 20 summers working at a produce stand,” she said.

What she learned there has been helpful for what she does now. It gave her perspective on the basic logistics of the produce business, and having grown up on a farm, she knows how quickly fresh produce can become unusable.

Cawley attended college and worked in the Carolinas before returning home to Caroline County. Thanks to her sister-in-law’s introduction, she soon had a whole new career opportunity pop up in 2011 in which she helped develop the Farm to Food Bank program on the Eastern Shore. A period of hardship made her acutely aware that food shouldn’t be wasted and that people are working hard to make ends meet.

“Minimum wage isn’t enough,” she said.

John May, Maryland Food Bank’s chief operating officer, has been developing the program in western and southern Maryland.

“Statewide, we have 51 farms, but more significant than the growth in the number of farms is the growth in acreage,” he said.

First Fruits Farm has been with Maryland Food Bank since 2006. Rick Bernstein farms 68 acres for the program. Echoing other farmers, he said he doesn’t like seeing good food go to waste. Bernstein has also created a partnership with the Catholic Charities retreat center near his Baltimore County farm to plant acreage around the retreat for the benefit of the food bank. Church members who go to the retreat spend part of their time working the land and harvesting produce. It’s their way of giving back.

The food bank has also enjoyed a partnership with Farming 4 Hunger’s Bernie Fowler Jr., a developer and landowner in southern Maryland. Fowler started working with the food bank two years ago, setting aside six acres the first year and 40 acres the second. He has since sold his farm and is partnering with Serenity Farms to create the Southern Maryland Community Agricultural Park, a 240-acre preserve that will function as a public education center for food nutrition and help alleviate poverty.

People can eat their lunch on the farm or visit a petting zoo. Fowler said a lease has been signed for two working hydroponic greenhouses — 20,000 square feet of growing space — that will yield 10,000 heads of lettuce each month for the food bank. The center will operate year-round as a living classroom in cooperation with the local school system.

Last year alone, the Farm to Food Bank program collected 1.7 million pounds of fresh produce, a large chunk of the 5 million pounds of food collected and distributed statewide. This year, May said they are working toward a goal of 3 million pounds of produce through the program out of a total goal of 8 million pounds of food. To feed every Marylander who needs it, it would take 25 million pounds of fresh produce each year. May said he’d be satisfied if the organization reaches the 25-million-pound mark.

He said Cawley was a golden hire because of her farming background, which makes her a natural at recruiting farm partners.

Thanks to Cawley, “we’re now starting to have an understanding out there about what we do so they can minimize waste and get a tax write off, but also help us with what we do,” said Jennifer Small, managing director of the Salisbury branch of the Maryland Food Bank.

Agriculture runs in Cawley’s blood. Her grandfather, Wayne Cawley, was Maryland secretary of agriculture from 1979 to 1991 — the longest serving agriculture secretary in the state’s history, serving under Harry Hughes and William Donald Schaefer.

Cawley lives in Denton, right in the middle of what is billed as one of the “greenest” counties in Maryland because of all its produce farms. But Cawley admitted she “didn’t realize how many produce farmers there were in Caroline County” until she returned to live there. She said “more farmers contribute fresh produce to the food bank from Caroline than any other county.”

She never goes anywhere without her cellphone and a pad of paper.

“A farmer will call and say they have finished their harvest, but there is still food in the field,” she said.

Cawley then arranges for inmates from the Maryland Department of Corrections to harvest what remains and supervises the work herself.

Sometimes a farmer will call if they’ve harvested a crop, but their sale has fallen through. In that case, the farmer might not be able to line up another buyer before the produce spoils. All Cawley has to do is arrange a pick-up. The goal is to collect and deliver the food within 24 hours.

She said farmers are also sometimes hesitant to have inmates brought to the farm. That’s when she needs volunteers. Cawley is working on “natural partnerships” with agriculture students and farming operations. She said time spent helping to glean produce for the food bank would help to fulfill Maryland high school students’ community service requirements.

West of the Chesapeake Bay, the Magnet Gleaning Project is made up of volunteers willing to glean food that becomes available. Cawley would like to see something similar on the Eastern Shore.

The busiest time of year is May through November, when she’s often in the field from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. gathering fresh produce.

“May to November is nonstop and time flies,” she said.

Other months she “plants seeds,” recruiting participating farmers. She also spends a lot of time preparing and delivering presentations to farmers about her program.

“I give presentations to farmers across the state and tell them about the Farm to Food Bank program I try to recruit them to come on board to help,” she said.

But even in the typically quiet months of 2013, she’s been getting additional donations of sweet potatoes. It’s hard to imagine a holiday meal served on the Eastern Shore without sweet potatoes baked or prepared in a casserole with brown sugar and marshmallows.

Cawley said she has overseen the collection of 1.3 million pounds of food from the Eastern Shore alone since she joined the food bank in 2011. Small said it equates to 1 million meals, using a formula the food bank uses to convert pounds to meals. It means an additional 250,000 families of four received a meal as a result of Cawley’s efforts.

In 2012, 44 farmers and gardeners from the Eastern Shore contributed sweet corn, watermelons, sweet potatoes, squash, cantaloupe, turnips, collards, cucumbers (pickling cucumbers), banana peppers, cauliflower, strawberries and even a few tomatoes, although those are harder to come by. The food went to feed hungry people with the help of 145 partner agencies.

Henry Oakley, a Wicomico County farmer who donated tomatoes for the first time last year, said: “We hate to see any of our produce go to waste. So often there is some produce that doesn’t make the grade for market, at least not for our picky customers. But the food bank doesn’t care as long as it’s edible. Even though it’s not a perfect product to look at, they’re happy with it.”

Cawley said she’s thankful for her job and glad it can help others.

“I love what I do. I love being out in the field and getting food, which would spoil otherwise, to people who are hungry. I like going to bed at night knowing I have done something to improve someone’s life,” she said.

Since many people outside the farm community are largely clueless about how food is produced, Cawley thinks “agritourism is a great thing. Children need to learn about more than counting calories; they need to know how seeds go into the ground and, after a lot of hard work, produce the food we eat.”

For more information, contact the Maryland Food Bank at 410-737-8282 in central Maryland; 410-742-0050 on the Eastern Shore; or 301-733-4002 in western Maryland.

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