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Blue juice, Flamers and dip Unpopular donations can sometimes leave food bank in the soup


William Ewing has discovered that free food isn't always that easy to give away.

Like blue grapefruit juice.

When Tropicana miscolored a batch of juice, Mr. Ewing, director of the Maryland Food Bank, accepted it on behalf of the more than 900 soup kitchens, homeless shelters and food pantries served by the food bank. But many refused it at first.

"It was blue," Mr. Ewing recalls, "but it was perfectly good to drink. We poured people a glass and let them taste it. It was a tough marketing job, but it worked."

For Mr. Ewing and others at the food bank -- which collects nearly 12 million pounds of food annually -- such creativity is crucial to distributing unusual donations, including foods that soup kitchen cooks have little experience preparing. And challenges pop up frequently during the busy holiday season, yielding some successes -- and a few failures.

Mr. Ewing, a self-proclaimed "Dumpster diver," began scavenging Baltimore-area supermarket trash bins with friends in 1979, distributing the food they found.

"When we began," he says, "I thought we could do more than supply food. We wanted to change people's eating habits and nutritional understanding. We tried to impose our middle-class eating habits on them and it just didn't work."

More recently, no one wanted the gourmet ketchup that arrived at the food bank. Mr. Ewing also couldn't get people to try yogurt -- a "yuppie food," as he now calls it. Sometimes, unclaimed food sits on food bank shelves and in freezers for years.

"We now have 50 to 60 ducks and geese we can't get rid of," says warehouse manager Chris Jordan.

Still, employees sometimes can take rejected foods and turn them into appetizing ones.

"We get the leftovers from Camden Yards," said Paul Rolandelli, manager of a food bank program called Second Helping. "After one particular ball game we got lots of leftover nacho cheese dip. No one wanted it. They just don't eat that kind of stuff. Then someone told me to thin it out with milk and pass it off as spicy macaroni and cheese sauce. Then people wanted it."

Odd food items often can be the toughest sell.

Val Brown, agency relations coordinator, didn't know what to do with a box of Flamers, a processed meat product, that arrived in her office one day.

"I didn't even know what they were. They looked like meat, but I couldn't be sure."

She persuaded a woman to take the Flamers home and to try cooking them a few different ways.

"Well, she tried," Ms. Brown recalls. "She baked them, fried them, stewed them, but they just wouldn't cook." The woman, Ms. Brown says, ended up putting them in her children's arts-and-crafts box to play with.

Over the years, food bank employees have learned some important lessons -- such as never accept frozen bread dough.

In 1989, thousands of pounds of frozen dough arrived at the food bank's warehouse. "I thought this was just great," recalls Mr. Ewing, who envisioned soup kitchens throughout the state baking bread.

But he discovered that casserole dishes, which are always in the ovens of soup kitchens, don't leave space for loaf pans.

So one Friday this summer, after nearly six years of trying to give away the frozen dough, food bank employees gave up. They moved it to the warehouse floor to thaw.

But that weekend was a hot one -- with temperatures soaring into the high 90s outside, and in triple digits inside the warehouse.

"The bread rose," Mr. Ewing recalled, laughing. "It covered everything, closing off entire rooms. It was a bear to clean up."

Sometimes, soup kitchens simply don't know how to prepare the food they receive.

For example, when cooks at a Baltimore soup kitchen didn't know how to cook lamb, Mr. Rolandelli called Holly Forbes, executive chef at the stylish Hampton's Restaurant on Light Street to get advice. He ended up making a three-way call to the soup kitchen.

"That afternoon, over the phone," Mr. Rolandelli says, "they learned how to cook lamb from an expert."

But what about nonfood items, such as the trench coat liners and pantyhose, that find their way into the food bank's warehouse?

"Once we got a shipment of sunless tanning lotion," Ms. Jordan says. I don't know what they thought we could do with this stuff."

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