WASHINGTON – Potomac Boy Scouts Peter Fairbanks and David Bjorklund of Troop 706 are looking to bag some 340 tons of food.
The two will be among 20,000 area Scouts collecting canned goods, rice, peanut butter, oatmeal and other non-perishable foods on Nov. 12 in the annual Scouting for Food drive, which helps feed the 600,000 Washington-area residents that Capital Area Food Bank says could go hungry this year.
“It’s one of the single-most-important things Boy Scouts do,” said Mario Wawrzusin, assistant Scoutmaster for Troop 706 and site coordinator for the Scouts’ food collection at the U.S. Postal Training Center, Bolger Center. “They really do stock the shelves of these food banks.”
Overall, food pantries are struggling to feed more people with less food, and the Scouts’ contribution fills only a fraction of the shelf space.
Scouts in the National Capital Area Council have seen their area-wide Scouting for Food totals increase — up to 675,000 pounds of food last year from 520,000 in 2009 — but need still outpaces donations.
“It’s frightening for us to see how low donation levels have been,” said Kim Damion, executive director of Manna Food Center in Gaithersburg, which has 200 to 300 families lining up for food every day. “It’s really important that folks understand that our lines are longer than ever.”
Manna fed 172,627 people in Montgomery County last year, more than double the volume from 2008 when the recession’s impact was first felt, Damion said.
Scouting for Food is Manna’s single-largest food drive but accounts for just 2 percent of the 3.5 million pounds served overall and about 16 percent of their yearly food drive totals.
This is a small, but vital contribution, she said, and with government aid down by nearly 90,000 pounds from last year, the center is looking for replacement food sources.
At 10.8 percent, the poverty rate in Maryland is the highest it’s been in nearly 20 years, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s recent statistics from 2010. In Washington, the rate is 19.9 percent, and food pantries say they’re only able to feed a portion of the families who go hungry.
“It’s the hardest time I’ve ever seen in my career,” said Wawrzusin, who has been a social worker for Montgomery County since 1988.
Totals at the Potomac collection site — one of 34 sites Scouts in the council will use Nov. 12 — are usually between 17,000 and 19,000 pounds, he said. The objective is always 10 tons.
Last year, Manna received 68,791 pounds of food from the Boy Scouts. Capital Area Food Bank, which serves Prince George’s and Montgomery Counties, along with Washington and Northern Virginia, received 32,258 pounds directly from Scouting for Food last year, a fraction of the 27 million pounds of food they served in 2010, though some troops give directly to smaller organizations stocked by the food bank.
And these smaller pantries have felt the crunch of the recession.
Joan Conway, coordinator of emergency pantries in Silver Spring and Langley Park, which receive food from Capital Area Food Bank, said she expects to feed 7,000 families this year through the sites run by Saint Camillus Catholic Church, up 40 percent from normal.
“We prayed about this, and we think that it’s going to be bleak,” she said.
Fairbanks, who is an Eagle Scout, said the recession first hit home for him two years ago when a resident near his Potomac neighborhood told him their household wanted to contribute but couldn’t afford to fill a bag.
“Anyone is subject to these hard times,” he said. “It really helps the kids from our troop see what life is like outside of their sort-of cushy lifestyles.”
Bjorklund, a Life Scout, said participants are being pushed to collect more food.
This year, some 20,000 Boy Scouts and Cub Scouts will collect items from customers at Safeway stores and pass out empty bags around their neighborhoods in the week leading up Nov. 12. Residents are asked to fill their bags with non-perishable foods and leave them on their doorsteps that Saturday morning.
Scout leaders are confident that the council’s collection will be comparable to past years, but with the economy still foundering, they acknowledge that previous donors might be unable to give this year.
“Things are tight,” said Mike Holder, committee chairman for Troop 1071 in Rockville. “Some years, my pickup truck has been filled up to the top — sometimes I have half as much.”
Patrick O’Hanlon, a Star Scout with Troop 1071, said he visited 52 houses last year. Some residents were able to give four or five bags worth, he said. Others could only give a few items — or nothing at all.
He said he’s seen a steady number of donations in recent years, in part because the Scouts have covered more ground.
“I think I’m going to go for more houses this year,” he said. “I hope we’ll get more.”