Gathering healthy food for the hungry, not just at Thanksgiving

Two dozen volunteers were on their hands and knees Sunday morning, harvesting abundant greens or bagging them to give away in a Baltimore neighborhood where both healthy food and money are in short supply.

Thanksgiving was on some of their minds, but the effort is about far more than eating well on one day of the year.

Gather Baltimore, the fledging group that organized the rapid harvest, does this work every week — collecting food that would otherwise go to waste and distributing it in city neighborhoods. Sunday was Oliver's turn, the third time the group brought food to the East Baltimore community.

"Oliver is considered a healthy food 'desert,'" said Earl Johnson, a Gather Baltimore volunteer who helped found Operation: Oliver, a separate effort to revitalize that neighborhood. "There's a great need for food that's healthy."

Johnson and the rest of the crew made quick work of the lettuce, chard and other greens growing in the hoop house — a low-tech greenhouse — behind Hamilton Elementary/Middle School. Then they headed to another hoop house on Harford Road to do it again.

Arthur Gray Morgan, a teacher and urban farmer who founded Gather Baltimore, is a newly minted fellow with the Open Society Institute-Baltimore. His fellowship mission for the next 18 months: expand Gather Baltimore and make it sustainable.

This is the group's first year with a name. But Morgan, who tends the Hamilton Crop Circle gardens in Northeast Baltimore, has collected and distributed free food for several years — ever since he saw how much went to waste at farmers' markets. What couldn't be sold wasn't necessarily taken back to the farm. Frequently, it was tossed out.

That bothered Morgan, who hears a frequent refrain from his students at Hamilton Elementary/Middle: "I'm hungry, I'm hungry."

"So much is going to waste," he said. "You see just piles of food outside the trash cans, people picking through the cans. … Holy moly, there's so many people who need this food."

Now he and his army of volunteers have the work down to a science — harvesting, picking up donations from local stores and stopping off at the downtown farmers' market to cart off anything farmers want to contribute after the customers leave.

They got so much Sunday, they could barely pack it all into the refrigerated truck that Morgan had borrowed (and hopes to buy, if he can raise $25,000). Cabbage, kale, root vegetables, broccoli — even some big turkeys with price tags of nearly $70 apiece.

"This is the largest haul," said Amy Genevieve Kozak, who helps Gather Baltimore with fundraising and other efforts. "People are feeling very generous."

Bartenfelder Farms, in White Marsh and on Maryland's Eastern Shore, handed over 20-pound boxes of spinach. Joe Bartenfelder said his family farm frequently donates to Gather Baltimore "because otherwise, it ends up there," he said, gesturing to a pile of forlorn-looking greens dumped on the pavement.

"I don't think there's any farmer in the business that grows anything they want to see go to waste," he said.

Kim Galbreath of Hawks Hill Creamery in Harford County was delighted to contribute her leftover pumpkins. "This is awesome that you do this," she told Morgan.

Then the Gather Baltimore folks headed to Oliver, setting up on a vacant lot at the corner of Bond and Hoffman streets. With assembly line efficiency, the men and women loaded up oversized bags with a little bit of everything.

It was at least twice as much food as they had when they came to Oliver last month — enough to pack more than 300 bags. All were taken, most of them soon after the farm stand's 2 p.m. start.

It's not the neighborhood's only food giveaway — the Oliver Community Association organizes another monthly event. But there's more than enough demand.

Chris Pasley, 71, an Oliver retiree, came in his suit — straight from church — to make sure he got a bag Sunday. Last time, he left with enough vegetables to last him a week and a half.

"It's fresh — and free, too," he said. "This is going to help with Thanksgiving dinner."

Cheryl Youmans lives on Baltimore's west side, but she heard about the farm stand and came out Sunday to partake, too. As she waited, she exclaimed over the variety, nibbled on a raw beet green and looked forward to delicious meals.

"I love greens," she said. "And the budget's kind of low, so this will help out."

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