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A passion to feed the state's hungry

The Baltimore Sun

Deborah Flateman's cell phone is squawking. Her schedule is full of board meetings, conference calls and cocktail parties. And she's sifting through reports with growth figures and projections.

Like many corporate executives, Flateman is looking to increase production, streamline distribution and improve inventory tracking.

But she never has to worry about losing customers. They are Maryland's hungry, estimated at 516,000 and growing.

"It's a huge responsibility," says Flateman, director of the Maryland Food Bank. Still, she's looking to do more.

She wants to distribute 21 million pounds of food this year -- about 7 million more than last year -- that will provide 16.5 million meals to Maryland's hungry. And she's working toward adding a new feature: a commercial kitchen.

Flateman, who is quick to smile, began heading the nonprofit organization, which has an annual budget of $33 million, early this year. With its headquarters in a large warehouse in Halethorpe, the food bank collects surplus produce, dairy products and meat, canned goods and pantry staples from retailers and manufacturers. It then distributes them to more than 1,000 food pantries and soup kitchens in the state.

Using a formula created by a Michigan food bank director, Flateman estimates that the Baltimore County-based organization should be distributing 89 million pounds of food each year. Last year, it distributed about 14.5 million.

"We have a way to go," said Flateman, who was chief executive officer at the Vermont Food Bank from 1997 until February, when she replaced retiring Maryland Food Bank director Bill Ewing.

Ewing, a personable leader who was known to dress up in costumes and whiz around the food bank warehouse on a scooter, led the agency for more than two decades. During his tenure, food distribution more than doubled and programs such as one that involves distributing healthy after-school snacks were initiated.

Marty Brunk, chairman of the Maryland Food Bank's board of directors, said he's convinced that Flateman is the right successor to build upon the progress.

"The 14 1/2 million pounds of food last year, that just scratches the surface," Brunk said. "We're fortunate to have someone with Deb's experience. I think what she and Bill have in common is a passion and commitment to feeding the hungry."

One of the biggest changes under Flateman's short tenure has been the closing of the food bank's "Marketplace," an area in the warehouse where nearby food pantry and soup kitchen volunteers could come to pick items they wanted.

The service was well-liked but costly, averaging about $1.65 per pound for the food bank to process compared with 35 cents per pound for the rest of the food, according to Flateman. It also made tracking inventory more difficult and was unfair to volunteers not within driving distance of the Baltimore County facility, she said.

"We're not to going to be able to give 89 million pounds of food one can at a time," she said. "We've got to get it out in 25-pound boxes at least."

But Flateman expects the next change to be very popular. A commercial kitchen will allow the food bank to offer training in food preparation. The kitchen, scheduled to open in the spring, will also allow the food bank to repackage bulk foods into smaller quantities and reuse leftovers from restaurants and hotel chains, by freezing industrial-size casseroles and stews for soup kitchens and family-size frozen dinners that can be offered through food pantries.

"These families have crazy lives just like the rest of us," she said, adding that they don't usually have the means to pick up a pizza on a busy Wednesday night.

"A lot of them are working two and three jobs. The [frozen dinners] will help them juggle kids' homework and jobs," she said. "We're trying to give people a piece of normalcy. It's helping families be families."

She also expects soup kitchens to appreciate the convenience of the industrial-size frozen meals. "It's great that they won't have to start from scratch every day," she said.

Flateman oversaw the opening of a commercial kitchen at the Vermont Food Bank, said Donna Watts, a board member there.

"Handing someone bags of oatmeal and cans of beans doesn't accomplish as much as sending out prepared food," Watts said, adding that the Vermont Food Bank is able to train welfare recipients for food-preparation jobs at the commercial kitchen.

Watts said Flateman also had a reputation for being able to develop staff. "There was something about her enthusiasm, her spark and clear drive to accomplish things that convinced us she was the next step for the food bank," said Watts.

In addition to the 87,000- square-foot facility in Halethorpe that opened in 2004, the Maryland Food Bank has a warehouse and facility in Salisbury. The Capital Area Food Bank serves Montgomery and Prince George's counties, but the rest of the state is served by the Maryland Food Bank.

Flateman, 53, oversees a staff of about 50 employees and has an annual salary of $135,000. She is divorced, with a grown daughter, and lives in Fells Point.

She sees waste -- and the opportunity to feed more hungry people -- everywhere.

Flateman estimates that the food bank could be reaping millions of pounds of produce from Maryland farms by harvesting what is not picked and distributing what is not sold.

Restaurants and hotels, she says, might not want an unserved pan of leftover macaroni and cheese, because it's not on the menu for the next day. But, she says, the food bank wants it. It's just a matter of arranging to pick it up.

Similarly, a grocery store won't sell a case of spaghetti sauce with labels spoiled by, say, a leak from a pickle jar. But the sauce is perfectly acceptable for the food bank, Flateman said.

Her predecessor used to say he'd like to go out of business, meaning there would be no more hungry people to feed. But Flateman's goal is also daunting.

"My dream," she said, "is to see very little food on the racks, knowing that people got it and plenty more was coming."

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