Inside a warehouse big enough to play football 29 churches and charities did their Thanksgiving Day shopping yesterday. There were no ATM machines. No gaudy lights over the produce section. Only food. The region’s central food bank is the city’s pantry for the poor, and they have no money or space for fancy sprinkling systems to make sure the Romaine lettuce stays crispy.
Survival is what you find here amidst a fraction of the 20 million pounds of donated food that is stored in the warehouse and then muscled out the door again to feed needy families.
This gargantuan cement block building in Northeast holds its share of secrets, too. One of them is that 97 percent of the people who are fed from the community larder are not homeless or forsaken they have jobs, a home and a car.
They are the working poor. You just don’t know their cupboards are bare.
“You can’t see behind a wall,” said Adwoa Spencer.
Ms. Spencer is special events manager at the Capital Area Community Food Bank on Taylor Street NE, where the 1,000 tons of food and produce is housed and distributed to 752 charitable agencies throughout the metropolitan area every year.
The 29 agency representatives that showed up yesterday as their groups’ “designated shoppers,” came in the same way someone might go into Wal-Mart with a shopping list of what they need.
“Thankfully, the fall temperatures have been mild, but come December, January and February, people will have to decide whether to buy groceries, pay the mortgage or pay their utilities,” said Ms. Spencer, 33.
Sometimes, for the working poor, it comes down to a choice: Stay warm or go hungry.
The Capital Area Food Bank though whose hands all the donated food in the region passes makes sure 275,876 folks won’t have to make that choice.
A reporter who visited the warehouse is unlikely to forget that sound. It is a forklift carrying 4-feet-wide pallets of canned goods that people dropped into the donation carts at, say, Giant or Safeway, on their way out the door with their own groceries.
Those shopping carts are where the food-bank chain begins. But if you stopped 10 people in the supermarket parking lot at random, the chances are none of those good souls knows what happens next, that it all ends up in the 50,000-square-foot warehouse where the frenzy of workers and machines never stops.
Boxes of food are stacked 24 feet high, inches from the ceiling. Around every corner is a bin chock-full of canned goods and goodies. The food bank’s 20,000-square-foot freezer is so cold icicles could form on the ceiling. That’s where the meats, cheeses, ice cream and a variety of venison, compliments of local hunters, plus lots more are stored until it’s time to fill an order.
Food bank staffers dressed in navy pants and jackets buzzed around in sit-down forklifts and electric pallet jacks filling enormous orders and helped the agency reps load their trucks, vans and cars at the busy loading dock. The agencies pay 14 cents a pound for everything except fruits and vegetables. The pennies paid are for handling and storage.
Agencies are clamoring to get more of the donated food and there’s a reason why: About 30,000 area residents have lost their jobs recently, Ms. Spencer said.
“We’re in overdrive right now,” said Cleveland White, the food bank’s director of warehouse operations. “It won’t slack up until Christmas, but you know, hunger is year round,” said Mr. White, 42. He’s a guy who doesn’t think in terms of cans. The scale he’s accustomed to would astonish average shoppers.
“Eighty to 100 cases of turkeys are going out on a daily basis. 100 cases of gravy and cranberry sauce all the trimming needed for Thanksgiving,” he said.
In the Salvage Room hundreds of volunteers sort nonperishables, a back-breaking job of picking out what’s still useable from the dented cans some donors have tossed into the store carriages. They sort everything. The canned string beans go together. So do the pears. The peaches. And so on. What they’re doing is getting everything ready to go into storage.
Volunteers can usually be seen standing near long, deep bins containing brown paper bags of Thanksgiving trimmings. They are one item away from sending these bags to senior citizens a turkey. They’ve already got 94 bags filled.
Mr. White’s day begins at daybreak. He’s on the job at 7 a.m. to ensure operations run smoothly. The employees arrive at 8 a.m. and the doors open to the agency shoppers at 9 a.m.
“From 7 a.m. until 3 p.m., it’s a constant blur everyone is running around, trying to get customers what they need,” he said.
The pace will continue through Wednesday, he said. Mr. White is short of five men in his crew. There is nothing he can do about that. He’s got hungry people to feed.
Elaine Webb was one of the many “shoppers” out yesterday preparing for the Thanksgiving feast at the United Planning Organization’s Petey Greene Center on Martin Luther King Avenue in Southeast. Ms. Webb said her organization will distribute 100 baskets to residents who live in Ward 8.
“The Salvation Army isn’t putting baskets together this year,” she said. The terrorist attacks on September 11 have changed everything. What they had, they sent to New York. But Turkey day will go on. She came through the food bank to pick up 31 pounds of chicken legs, 102 pounds of whole chickens, plus her fresh produce and breads for the baskets.
Dolores Morris, a member of Triumphant Baptist Church in Hyattsville, said her church plans a holiday feast too. The church will host a sit-down dinner and distribute food baskets, she said.
And by the way is she ever glad the Capital Area Community Food Bank exists.
“This is a wonderful service. The people who work here are kind and courteous,” Ms. Morris said.
With still about 90 minutes to go before his shift ended, Mr. White took a few minutes off to field questions. He said that after the terrorist attacks, he noticed a significant drop in food donations.
But it’s started to pick up recently, he said, thanks to first lady Laura Bush, who encouraged the public to continue to support food banks.