Even though gourmet and innovative restaurants thrive, and the region is teeming with renowned produce and seafood, large pockets of Baltimore are bona fide food deserts. The faces of the hungry are diverse. Whether out of work, between thinly stretched paychecks, or just trying to keep body and soul together, for some the area’s bounty is out of reach. For so many people – both singles and families – it’s like being a kid with their nose pressed against the window of a candy shop. How can there be so much food nearby, but nothing that’s easily accessible and affordable?
Between farmers markets, food warehouses, and incompletely harvested fields, hundreds of thousands of pounds of food would go to waste if it weren’t for Gather Baltimore, a nonprofit that was started in 2009 in order to get healthy food to people who need it most.
I learned about their (then $7, now $8) “blue bags” last year, when I found myself alone, without a job or money . . . or food. The bags are available for purchase to everyone; you don’t need to meet certain income standards, show identification, or anything else. A lovely friend of a friend realized that the only things in my refrigerator were pretty much gourmet mustards and jams, the remnants of a different lifestyle and a different life. She told me about Gather Baltimore, but let me know that they only were open from 11-4 on certain days. She wouldn’t be able to pick a bag up for me, since she worked during those hours.
That was a problem: I have a severe driving phobia. They’re located in the rear of a former mill building that now sells artisan, locally created food products. It’s only about 5 miles away, but it may as well have been 100. I considered taking a bus nearby, but read that the generously packed bags are about 30 pounds, featuring at least 7 types of fruits and vegetables. Nope, I wouldn’t be able to manage that on a bus. I traced a map of the area with my forefinger over and over. Eventually, I figured out a “backroads” way that would be manageable. Hunger is a powerful motivator. It’s a little hairy getting out of their lot, which is near, but not at an intersection and down a very steep incline.
So, I get the bag home and it’s like a Top Chef competition: what will be in it? What will you do with the goodies? It’s seasonal, so it could be anything from baby artichokes to Maryland’s prized tomatoes to fat blackberries. Because the bag is meant to feed a family of four for two weeks, I ended up sharing my bag with neighbors. It helped me meet friendly folks who I never knew in my old life! I got recipe books out to make dishes with things I normally don’t buy: eggplants, bananas, and banana peppers. Sometimes there’d be something in the bag not found on a farm, like lemonade or pizza dough. I find that much of the contents are fresh, so it’s either use it now or into the freezer it goes.
Many of the volunteers have been there for quite a while, so when you go regularly, they kind of become part of your extended family.
One September afternoon, I was pulling into the lot, ready to pick up my bag. My cell phone started ringing. I recognized the prefix as one from the place I had an interview with a few days before. As I sat in my un-airconditioned car, I learned I had been hired! I told the nice people inside and they were thrilled. I took out the rest of the cash I had in my purse and bought a bag for the young couple waiting in line behind me. And thus, Gather Baltimore’s goodness gets spread.