Story: Kathleen Jordan
Multimedia: Dayne Buttafuoco
Gather Baltimore is one of the newest fellowships granted with a $60,000 grand from the Open Society Institute- Baltimore.
Gather Baltimore is a volunteer-based program focused on collecting fresh produce donated at the farmers markets for people in the area who lack a healthy food source. Volunteers redistribute the items to local hospitals, meal programs and faith communities. The money in the grant from OSI-Baltimore doesn’t fund the collection and delivery process, but acts as a full-time salary for Morgan. This allows Morgan to make Gather Baltimore his sole priority to the community.
Founded by Arthur Morgan, the initiative didn’t always have a name, but it always had a purpose.
“It wasn’t originally called that,” said Joe Hamilton, a volunteer of Gather Baltimore. “It was just an element of what Hamilton Crop Circle did, that is collecting up the food and taking it to food meals and soup kitchens.”
Hamilton began working with Morgan in 2008. At the time, Hamilton worked within his own neighborhood of Rodger’s Forge in Baltimore County to maximize food production in residential spaces. Both were featured in a Baltimore Sun article covering multiple garden initiatives, Morgan’s at the time was Hamilton Crop Circle. Morgan reached out to Hamilton in hopes of joining forces.
“As Gather Baltimore developed, I was just doing it,” said Hamilton. “I was just helping him and now it has a name and it’s evolved.”
Where did Morgan get his inspiration from?
“Even now, when this market ends whatever farmers don’t want to take back to the farm to rot there, they’ll leave here,” said Hamilton. “And there would be a mound of food, rotting food. But what Arthur noticed, was that it wasn’t in all the bad of condition.”
Morgan would even eat the leftover food himself. Hamilton says he would peel a “little spot off” and it looked perfectly good. After observation and calculating in his mind, Morgan quickly realized there was an enormous amount of food going to waste. And then the foundation of Gather Baltimore was born.
“What if someone went to the farm stands all over the market,” said Hamilton, “put out a bin and asked ‘before you throw it away, if it’s half good can you throw it in here’.”
Though few farmers participated at first, many joined in after some time and now several donate to the initiative. A typical day for the Gather Baltimore volunteers starts around 11:30 a.m. With his new truck, Morgan arrives to the market with nearly 100 storage bins, from Home Depot or Walmart. The empty, colored bins are placed with their matching vendor or farmer, only those were are willing to participate.
As the day goes on, farmers will donate foods but focus on selling their food to customers. It’s not until they close around noon that farmers really look over their inventory and decide which foods to leave with Gather Baltimore. In the beginning, volunteers mainly saw bruised and dented items that weren’t going to make it, but were good for cooking into bigger dishes.
“Increasingly once Arthur really showed his execution of the idea,” said Hamilton, “and how he’s really doing it well, now people donate perfectly good stuff. Boxes of things they could absolutely sell. We’re getting the dented stuff but we’re getting the really good stuff too.”
Once all the boxes are collected volunteers pack up the truck “floor to ceiling and front to back”, Hamilton says. The food is taken to places like Our Daily Bread, one of the largest hot meal programs run by Catholic Charities and three blocks from the market. For two or three years, the group would pass all the food along to Our Daily Bread.
As the amount of food collected began to increase, Gather Baltimore began to branch out because more people needed the food. These volunteers are always on the hunt for more organizations and other outlets in need of food.
“We literally take it, unload it at Our Daily Bread or Shiloh United Church up on Woodberry,” said Hamilton, “or at Oliver Food stand that just started in the Oliver neighborhood. In that case, at the food stand, we put the food into bags, and they’re given out to residents.”
Hamilton says the delivery side of Gather Baltimore is still evolving but the support from the farmers has led to rapid progress. Some have come to the market with their own boxes already full of food to donate. He points out that Gather Baltimore wouldn’t exist without the generosity of the farmers.
“It’s phenomenal” said Hamilton. “My hunch is that you don’t become a farmer to make money. You become a farmer because that’s what you know how to do or there’s something about growing food that’s meaningful to you.”
Hamilton adds that food is a necessity for human survival. Farmers might derive motivation from the idea of someone not having the very product they make and helping those starving people survive.
“Farmers are hard-nosed business people too, don’t get me wrong,” Hamilton said. “But there is a part if you’re a farmer, that I think you see through what Arthur’s doing, is this real generous side of even the most hard-nosed farmer in the face of need.”