Food drive concert marks 20 years as Howard congregations step up collection efforts

Sterlind Burke, the former principal at Patuxent Valley Middle School and Hammond High School, grew up on a poor subsistence farm in Pondtown, a tiny town nestled in northern Queen Anne's County.

Despite days of raising hogs, tending vegetables by hand, living with patches on his clothes and little to eat, Burke said he grew up in a giving environment surrounded by 11 siblings who sang through thick and thin. He remembers his mother, Edner, serving her signature melt-in-your-mouth rolls to guests when they had little to eat.

"Giving was a part of life," Burke said. "There was a lot of love. We didn't have a lot of anything else."

Burke, 63, has taken that principle to heart.

For 20 years, Burke and his family have performed a cappella gospel music at a community concert at the First Baptist Church of Savage to support the church's food pantry, Bread of Life.

The drive grew out of Burke's work as principal at Patuxent Valley from 1996 through 2006. During his tenure, the school held a community-wide drive, a tradition he carried with him to Hammond High School in 2006.

On Saturday, Burke and his family, including his 1-year-old grandson, will sing songs like "Syahumba" and "I'm Free" at the church's 20th anniversary concert.

As the holiday season comes into full swing and winter sets in, dozens of local congregations like First Baptist Church are stepping up efforts at local food drives and restocking pantries.

For many, food assistance is an extension of the bedrock principles that drive the congregations' intimate connections to faith, morality and outreach.

"The faith that I have garnered over the years has helped me as a child get through some really tough times and as an adult, it helps you understand the ebb and flow of the world," Burke said. "It is by faith we are able to not let anything keep us down very long."

Demand hits high this time of year at the Howard County Food Bank, which sponsors 14 emergency food pantries throughout the country and operates its own pantry in Columbia.

Around 7 percent of Howard County residents are food insecure and poverty levels in the county are increasing. Over the last three years, the number of children in the county living in poverty doubled from 5 to 10 percent, according to CAC data.

The food bank receives donations from 30 local congregations as more congregations step up efforts.

With items rarely in excess, Bita Dayhoff, president of the Community Action Council of Howard County, which runs the food bank, says the organization encourages congregations to better coordinate the items they donate.

"For example, each January, congregation A will collect funds or dairy products, while congregation B will collect protein bars. … That way at the end of each month, the food bank's inventory offers a healthy and complete menu while the burden of support has been distributed," Dayhoff said.

The food bank distributes roughly 687,000 pounds of food per year, and since 2009, the number of individuals accessing the food bank has increased by 310 percent to 27,000 county residents each year.

Steve Sternheimer worked with Bet Aviv, a Jewish reform synagogue in Columbia, to collect nearly 3,000 pounds of food for the county's food bank. The congregation caps the year with a "Pack the Pick-Up" drive where congregation members fill a pickup truck to the brim and transport items to the food bank.

He agrees congregations can do a better job coordinating the types of items they provide to fill in gaps, avoid overflows of specific items and target their services to specific geographic areas with the most needs.

"We have no idea what's going on with other congregations. There is no central point of coordination," Sternheimer said. "The whole idea is to feed the needy, do it more efficiently and reduce food wastage. Many churches do the same thing we do. It's not a coordination issue. It's a marketing issue."

Dayhoff said the Food Bank intentionally supports 13 pantries across the county to give clients multiple opportunities to access items.

"This is done because we are interested in increasing access and realize not everyone can get to our location during the times we are open," she said. "We also realize that some individuals may be more comfortable in asking for help from their church than from the Food Bank."

For many congregations like Bet Aviv, food drives and food pantries are integral parts of faith-based outreach.

In the Jewish tradition, Sternheimer says, "tikkun olam" or "heal the world" is a guiding principle for the congregation's work.

"Healing the world, which means helping people, goes back to the Biblical notion that the world as created could be perfect and throughout own acts, we have not always recognized God's gift or heaven's gift and it is our responsibility to make things whole again," he said.

That principle crosses religions, said Mildred Jones, a member of Columbia Community Church, which is exploring the possibility of opening a food pantry in its church.

"We as Christians should be doing outreach to those who are without," Jones said. "It's needed all over."

As Burke prepares for his family's 20th concert, he hopes for a large turnout in audience — and canned food.

After retiring from his education career, Burke now works for a ready-to-work program at Suitland High School. His two children, also teachers Howard County public schools, plan to join him on the stage Saturday.

"This is our job as a community. We want to lift everybody up." Burke said. "That's what all of this comes down to. Doesn't matter who you are or where you come from."

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