The line formed by 8 a.m. Friday and grew for hours — men, women and children waiting under the summer sun for the doors to open.
Waiting for food.
Inside the Steelworkers' union hall on Dundalk Avenue, volunteers sorted cans, bagged produce and prepared for the onslaught. Some of them, too, need this food, trucked in by the Maryland Food Bank. Money is tight.
This "pantry on the go" — the largest the food bank supports statewide — transforms the hall into a striking example of coping with financial ends that won't meet, a life that's no longer middle class.
Organizers have put it on almost every month for nearly two years, since the Sparrows Point steel mill closed. Spread over two days to make it more manageable, the mobile pantry draws an average of 2,500 people a month — former steelworkers, seniors, veterans and many others.
Damage from the mill's closure rippled widely in this blue-collar community. But the turnout for food speaks to a far broader instability, one pinching the wallets and stomachs of millions of Americans.
"When I was 18 and started working down the plant and felt like I had a job and I was set, if I worked here long enough I would have a pension and benefits to last me a lifetime — that was the illusionary world that we all grew up in," said Michael Lewis, a former Sparrows Point employee who's unwinding the local union for the United Steelworkers. "We all know that world doesn't exist for working-class people; that world doesn't exist anymore."
One in every seven American households struggled with "food insecurity" — difficulty getting enough and outright hunger — in 2012, according to Feeding America's most recent Map the Meal Gap report.
Maryland's share is nearly that high, despite the state's overall wealth. About 775,000 people in the state were "food insecure" two years ago, up 19 percent from 2009 — the depths of the recession.
Many qualify for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, the federal help often referred to as food stamps. But many others don't. And those benefits were reduced last fall after stimulus funding lapsed.
The Maryland Food Bank said it distributed four times more food in the fiscal year that ended in June — approximately 35 million meals' worth — than it did seven years ago. Yet need still outpaces supply. Since the recession, the nonprofit has seen a flood of new faces, people needing food pantries "for the first time in their lives," said Deborah Flateman, its president and CEO.
Joblessness is part of the problem. So are jobs that don't pay enough to cover necessities. More than half the "food insecure" in Maryland are working, Flateman said.
"We find that very disturbing," she said.
The Sparrows Point food pantry began as an emergency stopgap for newly unemployed steelworkers. Tracey Coleman, 44, whose husband labored at the mill for 17 years, got the gears turning when she called the food bank in July 2012 to ask for help.
Two months later, food arrived for the first mobile pantry. Coleman has been in the midst ever since, coordinating, handing juice boxes to small children, offering recipients and fellow volunteers her thousand-watt smile.
Doors open at noon. A few minutes before that on Friday, a hundred or so people stood in line around the outside of the building, some leaning on crutches or walkers. They know from experience that the food can run out.
"It always pays to get here early and sit," said Bobby Wischhusen, 44, a diabetic Army veteran who comes regularly to supplement his $185 a month in food stamps. "And you talk with nice people."
Inside, the volunteers gathered near the door. Coleman thanked them, then reminded them of a fact that presses on her: As things stand now, Aug. 22 will be the last time the union hall can host the event.
With the steel mill two years gone, the union's two buildings on Dundalk Avenue are due to be sold. But the community need hasn't receded. Coleman needs a new location.
She couldn't dwell on that Friday. People were waiting to come in.