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Montgomery County Strives To Connect Food With Families

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University of Maryland student volunteers package up leftovers from a campus dining hall. They then drive the food to a women's shelter nearby campus, as part of the Food Recovery Network.
Emily Berman
University of Maryland student volunteers package up leftovers from a campus dining hall. They then drive the food to a women's shelter nearby campus, as part of the Food Recovery Network.

In Montgomery County, one of the most affluent counties in the country, there are still many families without the food they need. The number of residents receiving SPAP benefits has nearly tripled since 2008. In 2012, more than 33 percent of kids qualify for a reduced-price lunch. Yet, every day tons of food is being thrown away.

To combat both these problems at once, the country is gearing up to launch the U.S.'s first county ride food recovery program, which will link unwanted food and groceries with organizations and families who need it most.

The idea for a food recovery project came from a project launched at the University of Maryland, by a group of students concerned that all the leftover food in the dining halls was being dumped. So, every weekday night, around 8:30 — when many of the campus dining halls close — student volunteers pack up left-over cake, pasta, baked chicken, pizza, and anything else available.

The Food Recovery Network has chapters on 27 college campuses across the country, and expects to triple that by the end of the year.

When Montgomery County Council member Valerie Ervin found out what Simon and the Food Recovery Network had been doing, she saw the potential to take this idea countywide.

"There's a tale of two Montgomery's," Ervin says. "There's the very well-to-do community here, and then there's a growing number of residents living paycheck to paycheck."

Ervin presented the issue to the County council, which voted unanimously to set aside $200,000 for the initative and form a work group of restaurant owners, catering companies, hotel managers, and food bank organizers. The work group met consistently over the course of 8 months to exchange ideas and come up with a set of recommendations.

Jacki Coyle, long time Executive Director of Shepard's Table, chaired the group. "I think making it a county wide project helps to open eyes to the potential." Coyle says more than three- quarters of the food served at Shepard's Table is donated from places like Safeway, Giant, whole foods, KFC, Panera, and local farmers markets. But, not every non-profit gets donations, and not every business knows who to call or how to give away their unused food.

The work group's first step was to create a map of who has extra food, and who needs it. For the places with excess, the group asked them--how can we make it easy to donate? Hotels and restaurant owners asked for one phone number, a hotline, they could call to offer food and know it would be picked up.

Potential donors alsoneeded reassurance that giving away food wouldn't create liability for food-bourne illnesses. The Good Samaritan Act passed in 1996, makes it clear that food donors are not responsible.

The third element of the initative is planning what to do with food that's no longer edible.

Montgomery County tested the waters this summer with a composting pilot program in Takoma Park, joining the ranks of Howard and Prince George's counties, which are both also working on municipal composting.

The Montgomery County network would have a lot in common with the DC Central Kitchen, City Harvest in New York City, and similar efforts around the country. According to everyone involved, a program like this has never been attempted countywide.

Jacki Coyle says once the program gets up and running in January, she's hoping others can benefit from donations just like her organization. "That's my dream. Get the food out there. don't let anything be wasted, and be a witness to the rest of the country that this is possible."


[Music: "Starving" by Burd Early from Magnetic Mountain]

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