Local farms contribute fresh produce to End Hunger

While most food pantry programs can offer processed foods and boxed items with a nutritional value that only goes so far, End Hunger in Calvert County plans to take it one step further and add fresh fruits and vegetables to the menu.
EHCC, a nonprofit organization made up of more than 50 county businesses and community leaders dedicated to ending area hunger, has spent the past three years working with local food pantries, collecting and distributing nonperishable food items to families in need. This year, it is teaming up with Spider Hall Farm of Barstow and Serenity Farm of Benedict to bring fresh produce to its mission.
The Rev. Robert Hahn, EHCC chairman who began the nonprofit using the Chesapeake Church’s food pantry, said plans are already under way with the help of a variety of individuals and groups, including the newly coined “Farms of End Hunger,” Calvert County Public Schools and Bernie Fowler Jr. The organization now has 11 acres of leased land split between Spider Hall and Serenity farms and is starting to grow potatoes, sweet potatoes, squash, zucchini and cucumbers, with other items planned for the future.
“It’s really about the essence of the Calvert County community,” Hahn said. “This is a community that has historically taken care of itself.”
With about 10,000 county residents currently using the food pantries, 94 percent of whom have jobs and nearly half of those patrons being children, Hahn said he is concerned that the number will continue to rise during the recession as more people are laid off. He said he wants to see that these local families have a shot at eating well-balanced meals.
“When you can put a salad on the dinner table or a vegetable next to the Hamburger Helper, you feel like a family again,” Hahn said. “There are people who are going to lose their jobs in the next three or four months. We’re already moving to meet the need people don’t even know they have.”
But the plan is barely even 6 months old. Fowler, who attends Hahn’s church and wanted to volunteer for EHCC, arranged a partnership between the nonprofit and the Cox and Robinson families, the respective owners of Spider Hall and Serenity, where the farms would set aside acreage for EHCC produce to be grown, harvested and distributed. The cost of the land, estimated at about $3,000 per acre, Hahn said, will be managed by about 20 local businesses the group contacted for sponsorship.
In addition, the Poole family leased the organization 12,000 square feet of warehouse space in the Calvert County Industrial Park “at basement rates,” Hahn said. While the space currently has no flooring, once that is installed it will be used to store the usual shelved goods, along with a walk-in freezer, refrigerator and cooling area, to be purchased using $14,500 in grant funding from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and Maryland Food Bank, he said.
Adjacent to the warehouse rests a sweet potato field, where Fowler said the goal is to have about 20 acres for crop planting by next year.
“I’m used to making a lot of things happen,” laughed Fowler, the son of former Maryland senator Bernie Fowler. “But before we get too grand or too big, let’s get something out of the ground. Then in the fall we’ll get a better perspective of how to move forward.”
The first EHCC crops were planted this spring, including six acres of potatoes at Serenity Farm. David Robinson, also a member of Chesapeake Church, said he wanted to get involved but wasn’t sure how until Fowler approached him.
“Bernie was brainstorming about the Farms of End Hunger and I had the property, I had the equipment; I felt it was something I was called to help out and do,” Robinson said, adding that “the good thing about a potato is it has a long shelf life. And there’s not going to be any chemicals on these at all.”
Robinson estimated about 90,000 pounds of food will be generated from the potato fields in the fall.
The rest of the produce will come from the five EHCC acres at Spider Hall, the guinea pig property for incorporating the Farms of End Hunger into the school system’s agricultural and civics curriculum.
Susan Cox, who owns the farm with her husband, David, and whose daughter, Catherine, already runs an agricultural education program with the school district, teaching the importance of agriculture to public school students, said the EHCC partnership will bring another level to their family vision.
“It’s more than just planting,” she said. “It’s actually getting to the heart of the people. It’s giving individuals the can-do attitude.”
The “can-do” part comes in when students start taking field trips to the farm to plant crops in the spring and return in the fall to harvest them. This past spring, second-graders from Mutual Elementary School and kindergarteners from Windy Hill Elementary School already visited the farm and planted gardens containing beets, radishes and kale.
“There were like 100 kids at a time in this little garden planting,” Catherine said.
The agricultural education business just launched last August, she said, and is targeted at elementary school students only for the moment. She hopes to build an agricultural education center on the property within the next three years, and there will be a place at the Spider Hall produce stand for patrons to donate to EHCC.
“Perhaps everyone will see how successful this is and will want to do a little more on their farms,” said Susan, a retired CCPS and Calverton School teacher.
“When they come out and harvest, some of them harvest food they themselves will be eating,” Hahn said, explaining the possible far-reaching impacts of the program. “There’s just a human value to knowing what goes on in the dirt. When people see that what they eat comes out of the ground, they might be less likely to pollute that ground.”
Also in the works, Hahn said, is a potential long-term relationship with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, with which U.S. House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D) is helping them. Government support has been “fantastic,” he said, also citing the Calvert County Board of County Commissioners and Sen. President Thomas V. “Mike” Miller (D).
But even if the political support wasn’t there, Fowler added, “We’re doing it either way.”