Rosa Rodriguez has a hard time making ends meet. A 46-year-old cleaning woman from Honduras who lives in Highlandtown, she has five children to feed, and her salary often just doesn't cut it.
Yesterday, however, she found a bit of relief. Moving down lines of tables with her teenage daughter and about 100 other needy city residents at the East Baltimore Church of God, Rodriguez was able to pick out boxes and bags of fresh produce, bread, beverages and canned goods - all for free.
"I feel glad for the help they are giving us, and it is a big help for me," she said in Spanish.
Rodriguez was assisted by a new Produce Drop, sponsored by the Maryland Food Bank and the U.S. Department of Agriculture to mark National Hunger Awareness Day. Yesterday was the first time a Produce Drop was held in the Highlandtown area, targeting the neighborhood's Latino immigrants.
Although the Food Bank holds produce drops three times a week in other city locations, giving out 7,000 pounds of produce each time, the USDA chose to help with yesterday's giveaway as part of a national effort to reach needy Hispanics, department officials said. Maryland Food Bank spokeswoman Shanna Yetman estimated that one-third to one-half of the people receiving food yesterday were Hispanic.
Hispanics are often unaware of the resources available to help them afford food, including the Food Stamp program, said Yvette Jackson, a USDA official in the Mid-Atlantic region. Many mistakenly think only jobless citizens qualify for food stamps, Jackson said, noting the language barrier as an additional problem. Food Stamp program representatives were on hand yesterday to sign people up.
Ana Colvin, who was born in Puerto Rico and raised in Baltimore, said Latino residents were well served by a Produce Drop in Highlandtown.
"The population around South Baltimore has a lot of Mexicans, a lot of Salvadorenos, a lot of Hondurenos," she said. "They all live around this neighborhood and they have a big family, and it's hard to support big Hispanic families."
Yesterday's produce distribution was accompanied by a lecture on nutrition, which also becomes a problem for people who cannot afford healthful food, Yetman said.
"Produce is very expensive, and, a lot of times, if you go to a grocery store in these locations, you'll find that the most accessible food is not a head of lettuce, it's McDonald's," she said.
Angelina Lopez, 47, who emigrated from Honduras four years ago and lives on Bond Street, knows that firsthand. Lopez has not been able to work for three months because of illness, she said in Spanish. That makes food for her family of four tough to come by. She said she heard about yesterday's event from fellow members of her church.
"They told me I could find food here, they gave me a card," she said.
Lopez came away with a paper grocery bag filled with canned foods and boxed potatoes, and a crate piled high with tomatoes, cucumbers and squash.
"I don't have money," she said. "To buy all this food, I would have to spend a lot of money."
This summer's sharp increase in gas and utility rates means a lot of Baltimoreans, regardless of ethnicity, are having trouble affording food.
"When you pay more for utilities, you have less money for food," said Pat Bruggeman, 60, of Fells Point, who is unable to work because she has lupus and a pulmonary disease. She picked up a large load of produce - including her favorite, bananas - to share with others in her senior-living complex who could not attend because of illness or disability.
Based on the success of yesterday's giveaway, Food Bank officials will decide whether to make the East Baltimore Church of God a permanent location for future Produce Drops, Yetman said.
"We'd have to sit down and talk about it, but it seemed like it went really well," she said.