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A Prince Frederick nonprofit is harvesting locally grown produce to stock local food banks.

The organization, Farming 4 Hunger, has been harvesting produce from local farms with the assistance of volunteers and nonprofits in the area.

Bernie Fowler Jr., the son of former state Sen. Bernie Fowler Sr., founded Farming 4 Hunger and is leading the organization’s charge.

The younger Fowler said that, as a homebuilder, he saw the effect of the economic downturn and was “almost spiritually driven” to do what he could to help out.

“The more I got involved in this, the less I thought about my problems and focused on helping other people,” Fowler said.

Fowler owns Bernie Fowler Homes, based in Prince Frederick.

The harvest is the first for Farming 4 Hunger, he said.

End Hunger in Calvert County, a Huntingtown nonprofit that now partners with Farming 4 Hunger by distributing produce to pantries in Calvert County, hosted a similar harvest last year that brought in slightly less than 200,000 pounds of produce, according to Farming 4 Hunger’s website — www.farming4hunger.com

Fowler said he ran and managed that harvest also, but established Farming 4 Hunger to grow produce on a larger scale.

“There were too many people who needed help in our area,” he said.

Brenda DiCarlo, director of the Southern Maryland Food Bank in Hughesville, wrote in an email that the food bank’s 28 member sites have reported an increase in the number of families requesting assistance, and produced 36 percent more food in July than in the same month the previous year.

Currently, the food bank and its member sites are serving more than 5,500 families each month, DiCarlo wrote.

Fowler said he projects the nonprofit will bring in a little less than 500,000 pounds of fresh local produce, including potatoes, green beans, sweet potatoes and other produce, to local food pantries.

DiCarlo said the food bank usually suggests 5 to 8 pounds of produce for a family of three to five people, although families are not limited to that amount.

The food bank sites also give produce by its availability, family size and each family’s situation, DiCarlo added.

Based on that estimate, this year’s Farming 4 Hunger harvest could provide enough food for each of the 5,500 families that Southern Maryland Food Bank serves 11 to 18 times, assuming a three-to-five-person average per family.

The harvest will go to several food banks, specifically End Hunger in Calvert County, the Southern Maryland Food Bank, Maryland Food Bank in Baltimore and Capital Area Food Bank in Washington, D.C., although the focus of Farming 4 Hunger is to provide produce for hungry people in Southern Maryland.

“My heart and vision was to help Southern Maryland,” Fowler said.

Serenity Farm in Benedict was one of the participating farms, playing host to harvesting days on Sept. 12, 15 and 22.

Theresa Robinson, the farm’s owner and manager, said the work has been rewarding.

“Bernie came to us to say what he’d like to see happen and was looking around for help,” Robinson said, adding her brother, David Robinson, really got the farm involved in the food effort.

David said he and Fowler attended the same high school and church.

“It was a call to faith and it was about helping people out — the needy — first and foremost,” Robinson said.

The farmers also received reimbursement for growing the crops, Robinson said, adding that the income has helped the farm.

Donations from individuals, businesses and churches have funded the farming operation, Fowler said, adding that the nonprofit staff is comprised of volunteers.

Fowler called the effort a “win-win” for farmers, in that they receive income for growing crops while providing fresh produce for food banks.

Twenty-three fifth-grade students from Barstow Elementary School came to Serenity Farms to help with the harvesting work Sept. 12. Students detached green beans from stalks and sorted potatoes by size.

The day was geared toward giving students the experience of learning about harvesting and providing for the hungry, said teacher Kelli Short.

“I don’t think the kids understand how much work goes into harvesting and how many people are in need of food in the area,” Short said.

Students also had fun helping with the harvest.

“It’s fun,” said Sophia Santoyo, 10. “It’s hard work but it’s for the hungry, so it’s good.”

Bernie Fowler Sr. praised the children’s efforts.

“I’m overjoyed with the children today,” he said. “While they are working hard, they’re putting food in the bellies of needy people.”

Volunteers from the United Way of Calvert County, Big Brothers & Big Sisters, local businesses and parents also helped out on the Sept. 12 harvesting day.

Local churches, businesses and nonprofits have assisted on previous harvesting days, Fowler Jr. said.

Fowler hopes to grow the output of produce donated, the outreach effort and community involvement.

“My goal is to be able to grow and produce a million pounds of fresh produce every year,” Fowler said.

Another possibility is to have a missions and retreat center for high school and college students to stay and work at Serenity Farm, Fowler said.

Renovating greenhouses and growing food year-round is another goal, Fowler said, as is educating people about sustainable agriculture.

Fowler said he hopes the experience teaches children to give to others and to grow their own food.

“We’re all supposed to serve others and by serving others first, it’s fed me as much as we’ve fed others,” he said.

pwarner@somdnews.com

How to help

Farming 4 Hunger will have one last harvesting day Saturday, Oct. 13, at farms owned by Spider Hall Farm, 3915 Hallowing Point Road in Prince Frederick.

Interested volunteers should click “Help Out” on the organization’s website, www.farming4hunger.com. Volunteers should fill out a release form and email Farming4Hunger@hotmail.com, or call 443-771-0336 to say how many volunteers will be coming.

Donations to Farming 4 Hunger are welcomed and can be sent to Farming 4 Hunger, P.O. Box 2348, Prince Frederick, MD 20678.