BALTIMORE – Stacked pallets of food, drinks and condiments line the aisles of an 87,000-square-foot warehouse — bread loaves and dinner rolls, frozen goods, dented and disfigured cakes.
It may look like a Costco Wholesale store, but there’s a major difference — everything here at the Maryland Food Bank is free and available to needy and hungry Marylanders.
And as enormous as its food holdings are, it is not enough to feed the growing numbers of the state’s hungry.
More Marylanders need emergency food assistance, according to recent study by the Maryland Food Bank and Feeding America, a national hunger-relief charity.
The study released Tuesday indicated more than 261,000 people in the Maryland Food Bank’s jurisdiction receive emergency food each year, an 11 percent increase since 2006.
This finding does not include the Montgomery and Prince George’s counties, which is serviced by the Capital Area Food Bank.
The food bank is purchasing more food, as well — about 60 percent of its products now, while the rest is usually donated, said Audra Harrison, Maryland Food Bank communications manager. In earlier years, more was donated than bought.
“It’s a travesty to discard any food,” Harrison said.
The food bank tries to salvage as much food as possible to feed the increasing number of hungry Marylanders.
“We’re seeing a lot of first-timers,” said Paula Tolson, spokeswoman for the Maryland Department of Human Resources. “Because of the economy, because people have been out of a job for a long period of time, their normal safety nets are being strained, and we’re seeing more people come to our doors.”
The state of the economy has added to the growing numbers but it’s more than that, said Maryland Food Bank CEO Deborah Flateman.
More working people are going to food shelves, she said.
“These people are not reflected in the unemployment numbers but the rising expenses in their day-to-day lives…have caused them to turn to food assistance,” Flateman said.
For example, 32 percent of those receiving food aid said they had to choose between paying for food and paying for utilities, according to the study. A quarter of the respondents said they had to choose between going hungry and paying their rent or mortgage.
In fiscal 2009, the Maryland Food Bank distributed 18.6 million pounds of food, a 27 percent increase over the previous year.
“We need about 84 million pounds of food a year to end hunger in Maryland,” Harrison said. “We’re only a quarter of the way there.”
To achieve that goal, Flateman said public, private and independent agencies need to work together and spread awareness.
“We are encouraging people to apply… to the food stamp program,” Tolson said. “A lot of times people are resistant, but come into our doors and seek it. Come in and see.”
When Flateman first came to the Maryland Food Bank in 2007, distribution was at 10 million pounds of food a year. The bank is on target to distribute 20 million pounds this year.
To end hunger in the state, Flateman said, they need more food, funds and volunteers.
Three of those volunteers are nearby, cleaning a conveyor belt where cans of tomato sauce, juices, and other items are sorted, packaged and stored.
All stay-at-home-moms, the volunteers said helping at the Maryland Food Bank gives them a sense of personal satisfaction.
“In this day and age and in this economy, if you can, it’s important to give back,” said Julie Humphrey, 45, of Crofton.
The volunteers are friends and try to come to the food bank every Thursday. They started there after they saw their children volunteer at the bank, they said.
“We’re carrying on the tradition of our kids,” Lynn Alfano, of Crofton said.
Volunteers keep down staff costs. Last year, volunteers clocked in 19,000 hours of service.
However, Harrison emphasizes the need for food and funds.
It doesn’t happen quite often,…but sometimes we have to send volunteers home because we have no food,” Harrison said.
More than 70,000 minors are in need of food assistance, the study showed.
There are 456,321 Marylanders living at or below the federal poverty level, according to the Census Bureau, with almost one-third being children.
Somerset County ranks highest with 23 percent of its residents living under the poverty line. Baltimore City follows with 19.9 percent and Allegany County with 14.2 percent, according to 2007 Census data.
Between 2007 and 2008, Anne Arundel County saw the largest percent change, 26.3 percent, in participation in the Maryland food stamp program, or the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.
Baltimore City had more than 133,000 residents enrolled in the food aid program in 2008, according Maryland Food Supplement county data.