Gloria Luster spent a brisk afternoon yesterday bagging freshly picked apples and sweet potatoes in South Baltimore.
"Many are not aware of how many millions of tons of produce ... go to waste every year from farms alone," said Luster, 80, a coordinator with the Mid-Atlantic Gleaning Network, a regional food charity.
Thanks to Luster and dozens of volunteers, this produce will not to go waste. The cardboard bins unloaded in Cherry Hill are among 50,000 pounds of fruits and vegetables being distributed locally this weekend.
The Northern Virginia-based nonprofit picks the produce from dozens of farms in Maryland and surrounding states and distributes it in poor neighborhoods. The farmers get to write off the donations on their taxes.
Yesterday's produce was hauled in from West Virginia and North Carolina by Eric M. James, a U.S. Food Service trucker who has volunteered for the charity for seven years.
"Wholesome foods are the best food source for anybody, certainly for those in need," said James, 47, who lives with his wife and four children in Northeast Baltimore. "It's a very simple recipe for a full life: distilled water, whole grains and fruits and vegetables."
Tomorrow the charity will distribute produce at Greater Grace World Outreach at 6025 Moravia Park Drive in Northeast Baltimore, beginning at 10 a.m. The distribution is to commemorate Martin Luther King Jr. Day, organizers said.
Anyone can pick up food, but they'll have to work, said Luster, who lives in Pimlico and founded the charity's Baltimore office in 1996.
Yesterday about 30 volunteers spent hours bagging Eastern Red apples and sweet potatoes from large bins unloaded from one of the charity's two trucks in the parking lot of Cherry Hill United Methodist Church.
Rose Long, 86, bagged sweet potatoes for her West Baltimore church, while Annie Gray, 69, collected apples for neighbors on Round Road in Cherry Hill.
"You'll be surprised at how a little something can go a long way for somebody," Gray said as she worked.
The charity distributes about 5 million pounds of produce a year in the Mid-Atlantic region, Luster said. This year's total could be significantly lower because Florida, normally good for hundreds of thousands of pounds of donations, is recovering from four hurricanes.
The charity benefits from laws that allow farmers, who are bound by market regulations that sometimes limit how much produce they can sell, to donate produce that would otherwise go to waste, Luster said.
Luster said the biggest problem the charity encounters is a shortage of volunteers.
"My heart aches sometimes when I see string beans" that go to waste, Luster said. "Above and beyond the money, we need people with their hands."