- The Enterprise
- The Recorder
A pilot program for the rest of the state is linking Southern Maryland farmers and hungry folks while benefitting both.
The Hub and Spoke program connects farmers with the “hub,” Farming 4 Hunger, a nonprofit that grows produce — mostly sweet corn, green beans and potatoes — to feed hungry families in the region. Farmers donate produce that Farming 4 Hunger then distributes, along with its own veggies that it grows at Serenity Farm in Benedict, through the “spokes,” churches, food pantries and nonprofit groups.
The spokes set up times when people who need the free food can come and collect it and are responsible for publicizing the dates and bagging the produce for hungry people to take away.
Bernie Fowler Jr., the founder of Farming 4 Hunger, said there are 46 church spokes alone, in addition to nonprofits like LifeStyles of Maryland in La Plata, and the program has scheduled 128 produce distributions in Charles, Calvert, St. Mary’s and Anne Arundel counties, and a few in southern Prince George’s beginning late this month.
“In P.G., it’s the southern end only,” Fowler said. “It doesn’t make sense to be in everybody else’s backyard,” he said, referring to other food banks that cover the northern parts of that county.
Fowler said each food distribution receives about 6,000 pounds of produce to give away. Last year, Farming 4 Hunger grew and distributed 1,655,000 pounds of food — “Don’t forget about that last 55,000 pounds,” he joked. “We had to harvest it and pack it up.” — and the plan is to grow slightly less this year.
“We plan to do about 1.5 million,” Fowler said. “We cut back on potatoes a bit so we wouldn’t have to find places out of state to take them.”
Farming 4 Hunger has grown and distributed food for several seasons but in seasons past has had to rely on the Maryland Food Bank for distribution, which caused problems with freshness and flexibility.
Christine Bergmark, the director of the Southern Maryland Agriculture Development Commission, which administers the program, said the new situation, with farming SMADC scheduling the distributions, works better.
“When it was the food bank, they would send a truck down here, and then take the produce back to a warehouse in Baltimore, where it would sit for a couple of days,” she said. “There were problems with freshness, obviously, and with scheduling, too.”
Through a grant from the Town Creek Foundation and money appropriated for SMADC to run the program, SMADC bought a truck for Farming 4 Hunger to use to deliver to the spokes on distribution days and also funded a food program coordinator position, occupied by Priscilla Wentworth, a Farming 4 Hunger volunteer.
Though she’s happy to be able to help serve the hungry folks around the region, Bergmark said the main goal of SMADC’s involvement is to help farmers.
“Our focus is on economic development and gain for our farmers,” Bergmark said.
A bill to provide a tax credit to farmers who donate vegetables to the program failed in the General Assembly last year. Bergmark said the bill would have provided a credit of 50 percent of the wholesale value of the produce to farmers, with a cap of $5,000 per farmer and $1 million for the whole state.
Del. Sally Y. Jameson, who sponsored the bill in the House last year, with Sen. Thomas “Mac” Middleton the sponsor in the Senate, said she and Middleton (D-Charles) still are working to get the credit passed.
The bill sailed through the Senate, 46-0, but foundered in a House committee in the waning days of the 2014 session.
Jameson (D-Charles) said she and Middleton are proposing to make the credit retroactive, so farmers who donate this year can get the credit on their taxes next year.
“The main thing is, we want the farmers to be aware they need to save their data, and to start doing that so when the bill does pass, they’ll be ready to go, and we won’t have to reinvent the wheel,” Jameson said.
She said it’s a “reasonable expectation we can get it passed this year,” but the provision to make the credit retroactive is not so certain.
“If the retroactive part becomes a problem, then maybe we do a deal,” Jameson said.
Despite the give and take of the legislative process, Jameson is a firm supporter of the program.
“What a marriage,” she said. “It really is a unique opportunity. I’ve been fairly involved as a member of [SMADC], and it’s just amazing to watch the way this program has taken off. It took off like wildfire. There’s a tremendous need [to feed people who are hungry], and there are farmers who are willing to donate or get paid a small amount to do that, so we want to bring them together.”
She said that the many churches and volunteers who have spent time on the project is heartening.
“It’s just amazing how people have taken it to heart,” she said. “Volunteering, picking produce for the distributions, really working to make this special.”
Corae Young, the assistant director of LifeStyles of Maryland, a nonprofit in La Plata that addresses homlessness and poverty issues, said the program is good for the individuals the organization serves.
“We distribute the fresh produce through our food pantry, and we hold food distributions two or three times a month around the region,” Young said. “We try to serve as close to 200 families as possible, as many as 700 individuals.”
Young said the last food distribution LifeStyles did, Saturday in Lexington Park, served 216 families and 670 individuals.
LifeStyles relies on volunteers to help with the distributions.
“Our volunteers are great,” She said. “We get some through the court system. We have teen volunteers, and we use churches as sites for the distributions, and the church members are already members of the community helping members of the community.”
The fresh produce is especially welcome for the poor folks who rely on the distributions.
“A lot of our individuals are not able to afford fresh produce in the grocery store,” Young said. “It’s a great asset for them.”
As for Fowler, getting the distribution of the food more local and more flexible helps him do more of what he feels God calls him to do.
“I do it because I know what it’s like, at a point in my life, to feel down and broken and hopeless,” he said. “My faith brought me through that, and I feel faith can bring us all through that. ... It’s been amazing, all the faces, the thanks from people, because we’re doing so many more distributions, reaching so many more people. There’s a lot of meaning and purpose there.”