The largest hunger relief and food rescue organization in Anne Arundel County, Food Link is a non-profit, grass roots effort providing immediate emergency, food assistance and other essentials in times of need. It is the first non-food bank in the county and has earned national recognition for consistently delivering valuable services at minimal cost. The core of Food Link, donated foods and services, supports over 100 agencies and charitable organizations in churches, homeless shelters, soup kitchens, foster care group homes, emergency food pantries, treatment and rehabilitation centers, public housing sites, battered women’s shelters and low-income senior citizen facilities.
Initially organized as Helping Hand, the staff and volunteers of Food Link have focused on their mission“to lead efforts in alleviating hunger in our community by linking vital resources to families and individuals in need”since 1991.
That was the year real estate agent Judy Rachap attended a banquet in Annapolis where, because of inclement weather, about 40% of the expected diners never came. Their uneaten meals made Rachap think of the hungry people who could well use the food. After the banquet and still serious about the idea of connecting soon-to-be wasted food to hungry people, Rachap brainstormed her idea with Annapolis attorney and her friend, Susan Hickes. Soon the two launched a grass roots effort to feed the hungry, sending trucks to restaurants and catering companies to rescue food destined for landfill and deliver it to the distribution centers established at local agencies and charitable organizations. They trained volunteers to go to food sources and link up with recipient agencies. By the first year they provided a link between 33,000 pounds of food and the hungry.
After Hickes filed for the 501(c)3 and the name change to Food Link, Inc., the two women tapped the organizational talents of Jane Morrell. Originally from Pennsylvania, Morrell was involved in grass roots community organizations in college, had experience in corporate America as an EEO officer for Xerox and was on the Governor’s Commission on Teenage Pregnancy in Maryland. Moreover, she was impressed with the concept and the success of the fledgling organization. So in 1993 Morrell became the volunteer executive director, Marylander Cathy Holstrom left her position at the Anne Arundel Council of Community Services to become Program Director and Paula Schulz was hired as Coordinator of Volunteers. For Schulz, Food Link reflected her small hometown in Iowa where people reached out to help others. The three forged a successful, life-sustaining program.
Holstrom recalls how, “Jane had the vision. She got us to our current goal of linking 3,000,000 pounds of food to the needy.” She would say, “Good food should feed hungry people, not the landfills.”
Morrell guided their outreach to the Spanish-speaking community, in establishing the Center for Help at the Allen Apartments, a program of health surveys, cooking classes, and baby classes. Today Food Link serves that population through their own 501(c)3, Centro de Ayuda on Forest Drive.
In 1995, aware of no conduit for emergency baby supplies, Food Link established the first Emergency Baby Pantry. Today there are six baby pantries, stocked with Pampers, formula, baby foods and other items. Holstrom speaks with pride about their Emergency Food Pantry and Crisis Connection Program, commenting, “Hunger is symptomatic. People who need food need other things as well; we are the last stop when traditional support programs turn away people who do not conform to certain guidelines. No one is turned away by Food Link, no paper work, no judgments and no waiting.” She describes how they deal with “the embarrassed, the beaten, who come in ‘down’ and you can say ‘yes’ to them.” She also sees the advantage of having “many of the churches as distribution centers; this makes it easy for people; there is less stigma.”
Food Link serves short- and long-term needs in five designated programs. This is how The Wholesale Produce and Retail Food Rescue Programs work: “Every Friday at the Maryland Wholesale Produce market, vendors donate edible but not sellable fresh fruits and vegetables for distribution to the needy; a wide variety of wholesale foods are donated by grocers restaurants, caterers, and food distribution services. Volunteers pickup and deliver this food to recipient agencies and charities.”
In addition to their designated programs, Food Link has special events at holiday time, including Thanksgiving baskets and a Holiday Sharing Program at Christmas.
“Some need a hand; some need the system for a while,” Holstrom says. “Many of our regular clients are families who live in hotels. In some cases, because of injury or lost wages, families fall behind and can end up on the street. Some who are working can only pay the $200 - $240 a week for a hotel.” Serving the needy every day, they get calls from as far away as Pikesville from people who ask, “Is there anything like you in our county?” They have expanded to include the Eastern Shore counties of Queen Anne, Dorchester, Talbot, and Kent.
Four years ago, Morrell resigned to spend more time with her family, leaving the work in the capable hands of Holstrom as Executive Director and Schulz as Coordinator of almost 200 Monday-through-Saturday Volunteers.
Food Link runs on a budget of less than $150,000 a year. Expenses include runs to pick up and deliver food, salaries, and insurance. If more funds were available, Holstrom would opt for larger quarters and more staff. Because of their small staff, there has been little time for public appearances. Rather than dealing directly in human services, they work with trucking companies, leasing trucks for dedicated and unscheduled food runs when stores call on an off-day, sending volunteers to the produce market in Jessup to fill up a tractor trailer and bring it back to the farmers’ market on Riva Road, one of the two distribution centers for fresh produce. Over the past twelve years, however, Food Link has become more connected with the community, including Birth Right, WIC, the Department of Aging, the Department of Social Services, and civic groups.
Some budget support comes from fundraising events. In November they held the second annual Blue Jean Bash at Homestead Gardens in Davidsonville. In December, for the second year in a row, Food Link will benefit from CANstruction, a charity sponsored by the design and construction industry.
CANstruction is a design/build competition showcasing the talents of professionals and students at events held around the world. Teams have just 12 hours to defy expectations of logic and gravity in building fantastic sculptures from thousands of cans of food. The next day, the super-sized masterpieces are reviewed by celebrity judges in a variety of categories, after which this unconventional art exhibit is open to the public. Admission fee: one can of food.
This year students in Architecture at Anne Arundel Community College will design and build large scale structures made entirely from cans of food that will be donated to Food Link, Inc. Last years structures included the Jefferson Memorial and the Chrysler Building. This year they will build replicas of Big Ben, the Eiffel Tower, the Roman Coliseum and the Arc de Triomphe.
The structures will be built on December 2, and on display from December 3 to 11 at the Arundel Mills Mall in Hanover. Names of sponsors and contributors who have funded the purchase of cans will be prominently dis played near the structures.
The life-sustaining work of Food Link continues with the donations of food, money, services and products, and the time and energy of dedicated volunteers. They welcome donations and participation from all those in the community who share their simple message,
“Hunger doesn’t discriminate and neither do we.”