Volunteer Rob Hutchinson gets help from son Cody, 7, picking beans from harvested plants at a Farming 4 Hunger work day at Serenity Farm in Benedict. (Joel Davis/Maryland Independent)

A Prince Frederick nonprofit group is harvesting locally grown produce to stock food banks.

The organization, Farming 4 Hunger, has been gathering produce from area farms with the assistance of volunteers and nonprofit groups.

Bernie Fowler Jr., son of former state senator Bernie Fowler Sr., founded Farming 4 Hunger and is leading the organization’s charge.

The younger Fowler said that, as a home builder, he saw the effect of the economic downturn and was “almost spiritually driven” to do what he could to help out.

“The more I got involved in this, the less I thought about my problems and focused on helping other people,” Fowler said.

Fowler owns Bernie Fowler Homes, based in Prince Frederick.

The harvest is the first for Farming 4 Hunger, he said.

End Hunger in Calvert County, a Huntingtown nonprofit group that partners with Farming 4 Hunger by distributing produce to pantries in Calvert, had a similar harvest last year that brought in slightly less than 200,000 pounds of produce, according to Farming 4 Hunger’s Web site, www.farming4hunger.com.

Fowler said he ran and managed that harvest also, but established Farming 4 Hunger to grow produce on a larger scale.

“There were too many people who needed help in our area,” he said.

Brenda DiCarlo, director of the Southern Maryland Food Bank in Hughesville, wrote in an e-mail that the food bank’s 28 member sites have reported an increase in the number of families requesting assistance, and produced 36 percent more food in July than in the same month the previous year.

The food bank and its member sites are currently serving more than 5,500 families each month, DiCarlo wrote.

Fowler said he projects the nonprofit group will bring in a little less than 500,000 pounds of fresh local produce, including potatoes, green beans, sweet potatoes and other produce, to local food pantries.

DiCarlo said the food bank usually suggests five to eight pounds of produce for a family of three to five people, although families are not limited to that amount.

The food bank sites also give produce by its availability, family size and each family’s situation, DiCarlo said.

Based on that estimate, this year’s Farming 4 Hunger harvest could provide enough food for each of the 5,500 families that Southern Maryland Food Bank serves 11 to 18 times, assuming a three-to-five-person average per family.

The harvest will go to several food banks: End Hunger in Calvert, the Southern Maryland Food Bank, Maryland Food Bank in Baltimore and Capital Area Food Bank in the District, although the focus of Farming 4 Hunger is to provide produce for needy people in Southern Maryland.

“My heart and vision was to help Southern Maryland,” Fowler said.

Serenity Farm in Benedict is one of the participating farms, playing host to harvesting days most recently on Sept. 12, 15 and 22. Theresa Robinson, the farm’s owner and manager, said the work has been rewarding.

“Bernie came to us to say what he’d like to see happen and was looking around for help,” Robinson said, adding that her brother David Robinson really got the farm involved in the food effort.

David Robinson said he and Fowler attended the same high school and church.

“It was a call to faith and it was about helping people out — the needy — first and foremost,” Robinson said.

The farmers also received reimbursement for growing the crops, Robinson said, adding that the income has helped the farm.

Donations from individuals, businesses and churches have funded the farming operation, Fowler said. The nonprofit group’s staff is made up of volunteers.

Fowler called the effort a “win-win” for farmers, in that they receive income for growing crops while providing fresh produce for food banks.

Twenty-three fifth-grade students from Barstow Elementary School went to Serenity Farms to help with the harvest Sept. 12.

Students detached green beans from stalks and sorted potatoes by size.

The day was geared toward giving students the experience of learning about harvesting and providing for the hungry, said teacher Kelli Short.

“I don’t think the kids understand how much work goes into harvesting, and how many people are in need of food in the area,” Short said.

Students also had fun helping with the harvest.

“It’s fun,” Sophia Santoyo, 10, said. “It’s hard work, but it’s for the hungry, so it’s good.”

Bernie Fowler Sr. praised the children’s efforts.

“I’m overjoyed with the children today,” he said. “While they are working hard, they’re putting food in the bellies of needy people.”

Volunteers from the United Way of Calvert County, Big Brothers & Big Sisters, local businesses and parents also helped out on the Sept. 12 harvesting day.

Churches, businesses and other nonprofit groups have assisted on previous harvesting days, Fowler Jr. said.

Fowler hopes to grow the output of produce donated, the outreach effort and community involvement.

“My goal is to be able to grow and produce a million pounds of fresh produce every year,” Fowler said.

Another possibility is to have a missions and retreat center for high school and college students to stay and work at Serenity Farm, Fowler said.

Renovating greenhouses and growing food year-round is another goal, Fowler said, as is educating people about sustainable agriculture.

Fowler said he hopes the experience teaches children to give to others and to grow their own food.

“We’re all supposed to serve others and by serving others first, it’s fed me as much as we’ve fed others,” he said.