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Federal agencies compete to raise food for needy

The Department of Agriculture, the Department of Homeland Security and other federal agencies are at it again: waging their friendly summer battle to see which can raise the most food for the annual Feds Feed Families charitable drive.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack goaded the Pentagon recently, pointing out that his smaller department raised significantly more last year than did the Department of Defense, the nation's largest employer — 2.7 million pounds of goods to 2.1 million. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano urged employees last week to give roughly 10 percent more than they did in 2012, to reach a goal of 800,000 pounds.

"We're asking everybody to beat their best, to beat what they did last year," said Douglas Keeler, a Department of Agriculture administrator managing the national program.

Despite his professional affiliation, Keeler said he's neutral in the rivalry with the Department of Defense, which bested the USDA for the first three years of the national program, now in its fifth year.

At stake: bragging rights, and the satisfaction of helping others. Nationwide, the hunger-relief charity says, 50 million people have inadequate food supplies, including 17 million children. And the need peaks in summertime, Keeler said, when low-income kids are no longer getting free- or reduced-price meals at school, and cut into the family's food supply instead.

In Maryland, 740,000 people face hunger. One-third of them are minors.

"There are, unfortunately, plenty of people who have trouble getting the nutritious food they need," said Nancy Roman, president and chief executive of the Washington-based Capital Area Food Bank. Her organization distributes 33 million pounds of food and household items each year to hundreds of service agencies in Maryland, D.C. and Virginia.

The federal food drive is the single biggest event for the Washington food bank. It contributed 600,000 pounds of items last year, equivalent to nearly a half-million meals.

"People are increasingly recognizing the importance of meeting the need. … it's a critical issue," Roman said. She said malnutrition affects a child's brain development, the ability to focus on school and work, and the proper functioning of the immune system.

The food drive developed in 2009 — the year President Barack Obama challenged the country to increase charitable efforts through a "United We Serve" campaign — under the direction of Rep. Frank Wolf, a Virginia Republican.

It's a national effort that encourages federal employees to collect for food banks across the country, most of which distribute the goods in the area in which they were collected, Keeler said. That means Baltimore donations will likely help Baltimore families.

The Social Security Administration, headquartered in Woodlawn, collected 406,000 pounds in donations nationwide, among the most gathered by an agency of its size.

People from the public who want to donate to the cause may drop off items at collection boxes in their local Social Security offices, spokeswoman Kia Anderson said.

Other federal agencies are also collecting from the public, though it's best to check with them before leaving items, according to a fact sheet on the drive.

Food banks need canned fruits, vegetables, soups and meats; grain cereals and sides, such as rice; and cleaning supplies and personal hygiene items such as deodorant, soap and toilet paper. They need goods of all sizes to accommodate both individuals and soup kitchens, said Keeler, who personally donated five 50-pound bags of rice.

Feds Feed Families collected more than 7 million pounds of goods last year, up from 5.7 million the year before.

The first two years of the drive were relatively slow, with 1 million pounds collected in 2009 and 1.7 million in 2010, but collections have risen along with the competitive spirit.

Deputy Secretary of Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter wrote a memo to employees this month praising their 2012 efforts and urging then to "do all you personally can to encourage donations" this year.

"Running a successful campaign requires a team effort, and leadership support is critical," Carter wrote. "'Feds Feed Families' allows us to showcase how caring and giving our people are and demonstrate our commitment as a department to helping people in need."

The Agriculture and Defense departments are "at odds on who's going to win this year. It's big versus biggest," Keeler said.

But he also raised the possibility of an upset by another agency, such as Homeland Security, which donated the third-biggest haul last year.

It will take a few million pounds, Keeler said, "to knock both of them off the top of the hill."

tricia.bishop@baltsun.com

twitter.com/triciabishop

By the numbers

50 million — number of people with inadequate food supplies in America

17 million — number of children who face hunger

2.7 million — pounds of food and household items raised last year by Department of Agriculture employees

2.1 million — pounds raised by the Department of Defense

718,000 — pounds raised by the Department of Homeland Security

Source: Feedingamerica.org and the Department of Agriculture

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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