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In economically pressed area, waiting for food

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.

"Smiles, everyone — smiles!" she said to the volunteers.

When the doors opened, chaos did not ensue. The early folks know the drill. Fill out a federal form, because some of the food comes from a federal program. Then make a circuit through the hall, stopping at each table to get a can or two, a produce bag, a bottle of juice.

Volunteers determined in advance how many of each item recipients could get, often one, sometimes two.

None of it is name brand, save for the Sun-Maid raisins. No frozen meat arrived this time — occasionally it does. But there was variety in the cans: salmon, green beans, diced tomatoes, red beans and rice. The food bank's truck brought peanut butter and jelly, macaroni and cheese, and barbecue sauce to dress whatever meat recipients can get elsewhere.

And at the end of the circuit, fresh food: cucumbers, carrots, potatoes, cabbage and even watermelons.

Karen Lusby of Essex, whose husband worked at Sparrows Point for 18 years, and Marsha Diggs of O'Donnell Heights, a mother of eight with no connection to the plant, stood next to each other in line an hour and 15 minutes in — eyeing the food coming out. Eyeing the watermelons.

Lusby got in first, looked around and called back: "No more watermelons." The last one had just headed out the door.

Diggs nodded. "I knew that was going to happen."

But nothing else had run out yet. Lusby called the event a blessing, fresh fruit or no.

Karen Burgess of Dundalk came out for the first time Friday. She said she has a bad heart and tries to stretch disability payments and food stamps to support not only her but her ill daughter, her grandkids and her elderly mother. This is the lean time of the month, when funds and groceries run low.

"It's hard," she said.

For many of the volunteers, too. They're mostly steelworkers, and the last two years turned their lives upside down.

Year after year, Point workers donated to the United Way of Central Maryland and the Maryland Food Bank. Then, suddenly, they needed the help. And they've needed it longer than they thought possible, with manufacturing jobs scarce.

Mel Elste, 57, gets $410 a week — the equivalent of about $21,000 a year — in a federal retraining stipend to pay bills while she earns an associate's degree in criminal justice. The steelworker of 35 years is passionate about her new field, but she has a year to go and many pennies still to pinch.

"The food bank helps a lot," said Elste, a mother of two. "We get our nonperishables from there — it doesn't last the month, but it helps."

She's one of Coleman's most faithful volunteers. They didn't know each other before the mobile pantries started, and now they're best friends. Friday, Elste handed out food in a Rosie the Riveter T-shirt.

Coleman hardly stopped moving. She handed raisins (extra, because she's a soft touch) to 4-year-old Matthew Bayres, whose grin rivaled hers. She gave an old suitcase — donated by another steelworker — to a woman with nothing to put her food in. She tallied up the mounting numbers of people.

Grand total: nearly 1,700. Roughly the same number came out Wednesday, the first day of the two-day event.

When the doors closed at 4 p.m., almost all the food was gone. Leon Savoy, a former steelworker and new culinary school graduate, handed Coleman a piece of cake he'd made with the carrots, raisins and cranberries he'd picked up from the mobile pantry Wednesday.

Coleman qualifies for that help, too — between her teacher's aide job and her husband's new job as a heating and air-conditioning technician, they're making half of what he brought in at Sparrows Point. She surveyed what little was left Friday and figured she'd take some carrots and cucumbers home for her family.

Then a grandmother, mother and 1-year-old girl showed up, hoping for food. Coleman placed some into their cart and stood outside the union hall, thinking about its looming end.

She hopes she can find another location.

"We need it," she said. "The community needs it."

jhopkins@baltsun.com

twitter.com/jsmithhopkins

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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