Enter the supermarket in Columbia and it feels like any other: aisles of staples, shelves of dairy products, bins of fresh produce and pleasant music wafting through the store. The difference? This fare is free.
Run by the Howard County Food Bank, the smallish 6-year-old grocery on Gerwig Lane is a godsend for the needy, a go-to for those struggling to make ends meet. One of about 20 food pantries in the county, it’s the only one that features in-store, customer-choice shopping rather than the drive-through pantries where eligible patrons receive pre-bagged goods that meet USDA requirements but perhaps not their own dietary needs.
Here, one finds low-sodium and gluten-free foods, cultural favorites, yogurt and even tofu. Clients, some down to their last meal at home, stock up on eggs, milk, meat, poultry and a bounty of fruits and vegetables, much of it (3,000 pounds a year) grown organically in a nearby community garden. Area food stores kick in stuff, too.
“Sometimes we offer pineapples, avocados and mangoes,” said Carrie Ross, director of the Howard County Food Bank.
Nonfood items, such as diapers and feminine hygiene products are necessities. Volunteers — some of them former customers — stock the shelves and roam the aisles, helping first-timers left jobless during the pandemic or strapped by other financial woes.
“We’ve seen seniors and veterans, but also lawyers and accountants,” Ross said. “COVID-19 brought out the middle-class families we’d never seen before. Some who come are embarrassed at first, but we don’t judge them; there’s no shame in coming here. Besides, shopping for themselves takes away the stigma of going to a food bank; it upholds the dignity of the clients.”
In 2020, as the pandemic raged, the food bank serviced more than 50,000 people and doled out 1.5 million pounds of food, a record for the 40-year-old organization. In the past 20 months, demand has soared 96 percent, said Bita Dayhoff, president of the county’s Community Action Council, which oversees the food bank.
“There is no stereotype to poverty. Hunger doesn’t have a face. It could be the person sitting in the cubicle next to you at work,” said Dayhoff, whose organization also supports 17 smaller food pantries in the county.
“A lot of us are one crisis away from needing assistance,” said Ross. “You don’t see a lot of the homeless walking the streets in this county, but that doesn’t mean people aren’t hungry.”
Some cry for help. In September, Ross received a plea from a Clarksville resident, disabled and diabetic, who said he hadn’t eaten in three days and had no means of transportation. When she arrived at his door with five bags of groceries, the man wept.
“He looked at a box of strawberries [in wonder] and said, ‘I haven’t had these in years,’ ” Ross said.
Community donations and government grants help fuel the marketplace. Homeowners offer bounty from their own backyards as well, from apples to zucchinis. Each November, Ross and her staff dole out about 2,000 turkeys at the market, where county residents can stock up twice a month. Few abuse the privilege — for good reason, said Dayhoff.
“One mom came up to me and whispered, ‘My daughter never knew this was a food bank,’ “ she said. “Shopping for oneself creates a sense of equity and inclusiveness. We don’t treat the most vulnerable segment of our population any differently than how we’d want to be treated.”
St. John Baptist Church Food Pantry
Though Howard is one of the most affluent counties in America, Mike Johnson is struck by the lengths to which people have gone in recent months to feed their families. Like the woman who trudged 1½ miles to the food pantry at St. John Baptist Church, in Columbia, to collect her 60-pound allotment — and then set off to lug it home when a church volunteer offered her a lift. Or the man who, last winter, rode a bicycle there, in the snow, to get food for his family.
“He’d been evicted and was sleeping on someone’s couch, with his kids,” said Johnson, chairman of the St. John food pantry. “We drove him home, too. For my money, that guy deserves all the respect in the world. Talk about resilience — he made it happen.”
Such tales resonate with those who help to feed the needy — heartfelt accounts that speak less of the desperation of the poor than their determination to hang tough. At St. John, which gets its victuals from the Maryland Food Bank, volunteers dole out respect along with the rice and rolls.
“A lot of first-time patrons cry when we give them food; they’d hug us if not for the pandemic, but we keep it as low key as we can,” said Johnson, 58, an architect and church member who lives in Columbia. “We don’t want them to feel they owe us because we’re just there to help.
“We tell our [two dozen] volunteers, ‘Don’t get big egos just because people are thankful.’ Our patrons are not on display, like animals at Jurassic Park. In truth, any of us could be any of them, at any time.”
Volunteers range from high school students to retirees. Once a month, they gather at three different sites (the church, Deep Run Park Mobile Home Park in Elkridge and Harper House, an apartment complex in Columbia) and hand out pre-bagged groceries to drive-thru patrons.
“For three hours, I’ve seen them load cars in the cold, rain and heat and, last spring, with cicadas flying in their hair,” said the Rev. John West, associate pastor at St. John. “For our workers, this isn’t a job, it’s a mission.”
Even some of the patrons chip in. Recently, Johnson learned of a food pantry regular whose hard-up neighbor, unaware of the program, came begging to her door.
“She told [the neighbor] about us, then gave him some of her own food,” Johnson said. “Sometimes, the people whom you’d think would be the greediest are the most sharing.”
Elkridge Food Pantry
Not everyone waiting in the drive-through line at the Elkridge Food Pantry is there to fill ‘er up. One man rolled down his car window and handed Dan Durholz a check for $4,000.
“People are incredibly generous,” said Durholz, director of the 36-year-old program. “It’s a very gratifying thing.”
Another driver arrived, her car stuffed with 40 roasting chickens she’d bought at Costco to donate to the pantry. Yet another dropped off 60 white plastic trash bags, each filled with dozens of bags of potato chips. Durholz thought a moment and decided to play a prank.
“I told our patrons, ‘We have a new policy — if you want food, you have to take a bag of this trash with you,’ " he said. “Not one of them batted an eye. Of course, before they drove off, I told them what was in the bags.”
Twice a month, the pantry distributes groceries to about 45 families from Elkridge, Hanover and Jessup (proof of residency required) outside the Melville Chapel United Methodist Church on Furnace Avenue. Upon arrival, each patron is handed a “menu” of available goods and a highlighter to tick off their choices. Volunteers load the stuff in their cars, akin to an online shopping experience at Giant.
“Some don’t take much,” said Durholz, a retiree from Elkridge. “Others with big families load up, maybe 20 [plastic] bags full.”
Walk-ups are welcome, too.
“We give out shopping carts and have them stand in line with the cars,” he said. The carts are always returned.
Groceries run the gamut — whatever regular customers place in the food pantry’s bins at local supermarkets. Besides standard canned goods, Durholz and his 10 volunteers have collected everything from cereals and sodas to shampoo and salt-and-pepper shakers.
Though 70, he has no plans to quit, he said:
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“It’s kind of fun to play Santa Claus twice a month.”