William Valle of the Institute of the Incarnate Word in Chillum, Md., is pictured loading potatoes onto his cart at the food bank. (Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)

From the loading dock of the cavernous Capital Area Food Bank, Bishop Godfrey Nwaneri and members of the Divine Grace Mission loaded several carts of frozen meat and fresh vegetables that they would take back to the church and offer to those in need of food.

Once at the church, Nwaneri said he would make sure that the meat and vegetables were distributed quickly — after all, such precious food shouldn’t go to waste.

“We try to shop very close to the distribution day so the perishables would not spoil,” said Nwaneri, who hands out food on the first Saturday of every month.

The Maryland pastor is part of a network of more than 500 “partner agencies” that distribute 45 million pounds of food to more than 500,000 people across the Washington area each year. And although the distribution includes bread, cereal and canned goods, there is increasing focus among church food banks to supply fresh vegetables and meat for the good health of those in need.

“Fresh food — that’s the key to lowering high blood pressure and diabetes,” said Jeri Bailey, director of the food pantry at the Dupont Park Seventh-Day Adventist Church, who was at the food bank the same day as Nwaneri. “We prepare bags for 130 families a week that includes a meat, fresh greens, canned goods and other items,” Bailey said.

Bishop Godfrey Nwaneri of Divine Grace Mission discusses what it's like to work closely with a food bank to feed those in need. (Hamil R. Harris/The Washington Post)

But the distribution of fresh food means extra attention must be paid to ensuring that the donated perishables don’t spoil. Nearly 36 million tons of food were wasted nationally in 2011, said Nancy Roman, president of the Capital Area Food Bank.

Roman recently helped organize a summit in Alexandria to address how local churches and organizations can reduce food spoilage. Participants included Ben Simon, founder of the Food Recovery Network at the University of Maryland; Elise H. Golan, director for sustainable development at the Department of Agriculture; Tom O’Donnell, an environmental scientist for the Environmental Protection Agency; and Meghan Stasz, director of sustainability for the Grocery Manufacturers Association, which represents such major brands as Kraft, General Mills and Nestlé.

“Food waste is getting some attention from federal agencies, but [the summit] really connected it to people serving in the communities to begin a conversation that is needed in our region,” Roman said in an interview. “We are committed to fresh food and vegetables, but we have to pay attention to waste.”

As panelists talked about how more and more companies are allowed to give out food because of Good Samaritan donation laws, Gerri Magruder, coordinator of the food pantry at First Baptist Church of Capitol Heights , stood in frustration.

“I want real-life specifics. I would like to leave here with real solutions,” said Magruder, who told the panel that there was a shortage of fresh produce when her volunteers recently went to the main food bank to pick up items for their weekly community giveaways.

Marian Peele, senior director of partner relations and programs for the Capital Area Food Bank, said that although the system isn’t perfect, the food bank has worked hard to improve the quality of what it distributes.

“Some people think that this entire system is antiquated and that we need to focus on the systemic problems of poverty: education and unemployment,” Peele said. “But having a strategy to combat hunger isn’t going to help somebody’s child that is hungry today.”

Gerri Magruder, executive director of Helping Hands Ministry at the First Baptist Church of Capitol Heights, is pictured at the Capitol Area Food Bank. (Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)

On Monday, Magruder was back at the food bank picking up items for her Tuesday and Thursday distributions. As she inspected containers of green apples and cabbage, she smiled and said, “Everything is fine today.” No spoilage.

On Tuesday, 27 families were at Capitol Heights Baptist Church, where they picked up collard greens, sacks of potatoes, rice cereal, bread and other items.

And at a time when many people are worried about their jobs because of the federal shutdown, Magruder said: “I am just glad that we are able to make a difference in the community.”