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Students run neighborhood food pantry


For a moment Saturday morning, the biggest issue at the Donald Bentley Food Pantry was cereal: Would there be enough?

In an hour, the pantry's customers would be outside waiting for cartons of free food. And now Bessie Oster, 16, a St. Paul's School sophomore, was worried that they had run out of corn flakes.

But James Flanagan, the food pantry's president, had the answer. "Give 'em grits," he said, pointing to the stack of boxes left over from last week. "That can be breakfast."

In the back room of the storefront at 2405 Loch Raven Road in north Baltimore, eight high-school students, with the help of Mr. Flanagan, his 11-year-old son, Jamie, and a few neighborhood volunteers, were filling cartons with enough food to keep 40 families going for a few days.

There was plenty of U.S. Department of Agriculture corn meal and flour in five-pound sacks, butter and peanut butter, plus a variety of canned fruits and vegetables, eggs and the cereal.

"It's amazing what young people can do," said Charles Dappie, 78, who lives around the corner on Gutman Avenue and stops in regularly to visit. "They're exceptional."

Indeed, the founders and volunteers at the Donald Bentley Food Pantry, one block off Greenmount Avenue, are exceptional, according to the Maryland Food Committee. No other local pantry or soup kitchen has been organized and run by students, the food committee staff says.

The students ride their bikes to the storefront each Saturday -- students from City College, Gilman, Park, St. Paul's. They fill cartons, buy dozens of eggs, carry in milk, register new clients.

The pantry celebrated its second anniversary last month. Matt Ginsburg, a former Park School student who was one of the organizers, said the idea came from A.J. Julius, a Gilman student who now lives in Madison, Wis.

They named the program for fellow student Donald Bentley, a 19-year-old Gilman graduate who was killed during a robbery attempt in August 1989. They set up operations in a vacant building owned by Project PLASE, an organization that provides shelter for the mentally ill.

"The whole concept was to form an alliance between the community and the students," Mr. Ginsburg said.

Since its beginning two years ago, the program has changed -- and so have the volunteers' views of their job.

"You really start to know people," Mr. Ginsburg said. "At first, you had all the students, very largely, predominantly white, putting food and cans into bags, and a bunch of black people sitting out front waiting. The dichotomy was pretty disgusting. But that's changed. There's real friendships there."

Doris Braxton, who lives nearby, comes every Saturday now to help register new clients, sing along with the gospel program on the radio and chat with the students. "I lost my job and I came up here for food and I've been here ever since," she said.

All has not gone smoothly. Last year, Mr. Flanagan said, thieves broke down the door one night and stole hundreds of pounds of butter from a huge chest freezer. Mr. Flanagan spent the next day putting in a new door and new locks. That night, the thieves returned and stole the freezer.

Mr. Flanagan became a volunteer soon after the program began. A home improvement contractor, he drove a neighbor from his East Baltimore home to the pantry to pick up her food. While he was waiting, he said, he watched someone walk into the back room and steal eggs.

"This is really the students' program, and I didn't like the way the students were getting taken advantage of," he said. Not all the customers were legitimate. "Some days, I'd walk up on the corner and see a guy selling our box of food."

So Mr. Flanagan put some safeguards into place. Today, customers must bring some form of proof that they're out of work or on welfare or Social Security or that they've been referred by a church or community group.

He also has become the pantry's president. He keeps the books, does building repairs and organizes food pick-up.

"We've got a truck donated to us, but we can't roll because we've got no insurance," he said. "If we could drive that truck, we could go to Jessup to get fresh produce."

And he works with the students, for whom he has only praise. "Man, you'd be surprised. Every parent should have children like these. These are white kids. They come into a black neighborhood and do a great job. They're here. These parents brought these kids up right."

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