Baskets of bread, vegetables, fruit and fish lay in ordered rows as neighborhood people came in to fill their bags and boxes. Many were out of work or out of food stamps. All were out of hope. The indignity of publicly rummaging for free food is new to many of them.
At the Calvary United Methodist Church on Columbia Road NW, a sign in the food room asked, "Please Take Only What You Need." When the doors opened at 5 p.m., about 400 people lined the sidewalk in the black-Hispanic neighborhood. On most days, the food runs out before the people do. It goes within the first hour.
What poor and jobless people are coming for, in greater and greater numbers and in more and more cities, is the latest staple in the national menu: dumpster food. It is edible, healthy and safe. It just isn't sellable. Supermarkets, bakeries, restaurants, farmers and processors have routinely loaded their throwaway bins with food that is too old, discolored or misshapen to sell on the open market.
In early August, the issue of hunger and wasted food had its moment of national publicity. Posing for the cameras, one congressman scavenged in a supermarket dumpster for food. Senate and House resolutions were passed to encourage food companies to give their leftovers to the poor. A congressional luncheon of dumpster food was staged, with the press offering such imaginative headlines as "Crab Quiche Ma la Refuse" and "Beggar's Banquet."
As helpful as it may be that Congress has discovered hunger again, the news is that a national network of foodbanks is firmly in place in at least 40 cities. People are being fed. Wasted food is being salvaged. The scandal reported in 1976 by the General Accounting Office -- that $6.2 billion worth of food is thrown out by wholesale and retail firms, that 20 percent of the nation's food is wasted -- is lessened.
Typical of the operations is the Food Salvage Project in New Haven, Conn. The group has a van that goes to supermarkets, restaurants and bakeries and picks up dumpster-bound food. The haul is then distributed to 18 agencies that belong to the project. In New Haven, the poor are served by four soup kitchens, each of which is on the van's route. In all, more than 12,000 people a month are receiving food through the project.
It is the same in other cities. People who once made it through hard times by private adjustments -- thinning their soup, eating store brand foods, avoiding meat -- are now forced to stand in public food lines to get by. Everywhere that community groups or social service agencies are feeding people, one fact is constant: the lines grow longer.
The new word for part of the solution to the problem is foodbanking. The seedbed for the movement is Second Harvest, the six-year-old Phoenix, Ariz., nonprofit organization that has 40 member groups supplying 6,000 centers in its national foodbank network. Second Harvest's numbers give a statistical side to the story of hunger in America. In 1978, less than 4 million pounds of food were distributed. Two years later, it was 29 million pounds and last year 40 million pounds.
As the middleman between companies that have the food and the poor who need it, Second Harvest has been successful because of its centralized collection skills. Instead of dealing with numberless groups wanting the food, companies work with Second Harvest. In the past, it was cheaper and less bothersome for the firms to destroy their edible but unmarketable food than to give it to charities or to sell at reduced prices.
Last year, 60 national food companies donated more than 14 million pounds of food. Some contributed for tax breaks, others for humanitarian reasons. But all were involved because Second Harvest had proven that it can do good while also being efficient and professional.
This success story overlaps with a failure story: the current cuts in food programs that were often inadequate in the first place. Even spending available money has been too much for the Reagan administration. In August, a federal judge ordered the Department of Agriculture to spend unused funds to feed 47,000 poor women and children in New York and Georgia.
The judge dealt with justice. Second Harvest deals in charity. In these emergency times of fewer jobs and more empty bellies, both are needed.