By Michelle R. Davis
For two decades, Chuck Smith, 72, has seen the ebb and flow of economic hardship play out at the food pantry where he volunteers, at St. Martin of Tours parish in Gaithersburg.
There was the spike in demand after a recession in the early 1990s, which prompted the church to formalize the food distribution program. A 2001 recession doubled the number of people asking for food. Now there’s the uptick in immigrants Smith sees every Monday, when the food pantry distributes groceries.
Each week he is moved to provide extra sustenance to local residents, including many older adults. In poorer Maryland households, about a third of adults in their 50s are unsure of where their next meal will come from.
That rate is nearly 19 percent for those over 60.
For many retirees, “you have unusual expenses and that’s it—you’re out of money,” Smith said. “That’s when you come here.”
Over the years, Smith has seen up to 450 pantry visitors in a day; recently that figure hovers around 170. Many line up before dawn to get a number to collect produce, bread, canned goods and cereal later in the day.
Smith’s volunteer commitment means spending countless hours organizing and collecting donations, doling out food and keeping detailed records. This year his efforts earned him AARP Maryland’s 2018 Andrus Award for Community Service.
“You can see the problems in your society. You do something about it—you’re fulfilling yourself,” Smith said. “You’re building your own character.”
Keeping donations local
Because of the high cost of living in Maryland, many retirees and families struggle to make sure there is enough healthy food on the table. To combat hunger, AARP Maryland will hold its sixth annual statewide Spring Harvest Food Drive, on Saturday, April 27.
Volunteers are needed to work with grocery stores and to ask shoppers to donate food, which will go to local pantries, said Jennifer Holz, AARP associate state director for outreach.
“Donors will know exactly where the food is going,” she said. “It’s so important to us that the food stays in the community.”
To volunteer, email Maria Olson at email@example.com.
Smith’s volunteer work is a natural progression from his 27-year foreign service career in Brazil, Poland and other nations.
He pushed for renovating the parish’s dilapidated school annex to house the food pantry. It now operates out of the restored structure, with climate control and refrigeration.
Visiting a food bank can be humbling, but Smith makes it a point to treat everyone with respect. He refers to pantry users as “clients” and greets those from other countries in their native tongue if he can—he’s proficient in 11 languages.
Lisa Schuler, 55, another St. Martin’s pantry volunteer, said Smith loves the idea of “meeting people where they’re at.” She once asked him how he ensures that clients are really in need. “He said, ‘It’s not up to me to judge how in need they are.’ He gives each person their dignity.
“Those who are 50-plus often have to make the decision between paying for utilities, prescription drugs and food,” Schuler said. “This is a great way to give back and support people in their own communities.”
Michelle R. Davis is a writer living in Silver Spring.