With world headlines warning of increasing drought and a hunger crisis and almost 15 percent of U.S. households struggling to put food on the table, a religious group in the shadow of the nation's capital is quietly putting surplus food on empty tables.
Every Monday, about 150 people line up in the parking lot of Christian Life Center in Prince George’s County, Maryland. Joan Oswald, whose family has lived in an emergency homeless shelter since April, got here early.
“I had a lot of difficulties finding help with food. But since I met pastor Slye, we don’t have to worry about food for my family. Every day there is food in my refrigerator," Oswald said.
Everyone in line receives bread and a full bag of produce weighing more than five kilos.
“Everything is free. That is why you have a line here. Everybody is hurting right now. Everybody has a need no matter what background you are from,” said pastor Ben Slye, who runs Christian Life Center.
He began the weekly food distribution to low-income residents in the Washington suburbs a year and a half ago. Every Monday, he rents a refrigerated truck to pick up fruits and vegetables from the two largest produce companies on the east coast, Taylor Farms and Coastal Sunbelt Produce.
“It is approximately around 20,000 pounds [9,000 kilograms] per week. It could be sometimes we receive just 5,000. Today we will receive up to 40 to 50,000 pounds [18,000 to 23,000 kilograms] of fresh produce between the two organizations,” Slye said.
The program began when Slye was told about the huge amount of produce sitting in warehouses with nowhere to go.
“We sell millions of cases of fresh fruits and vegetables every year. Sometimes we have a little leftover. The quality standards of our customers are very high. So if the produce gets a couple of days old, maybe we can’t sell it to our customers, but we certainly don’t want it to go to waste,” said James McWhorter, a vice president of Coastal Sunbelt Produce.
If the surplus produce doesn’t get picked up, McWhorter says, the company has to throw it out.
"Best case scenario, it will go to be composted. Worst case scenario, it will go to the landfill,” he said.
About 40 percent of all the food produced in the US is wasted, according to a recent report by the National Resources Defense Council.
“It is a huge waste both monetarily and environmentally. We estimated that about $165 billion every year was wasted on food that we never eat,” said Bob Keefe, the council's spokesperson.
Back at the Christian Life Center, about 20 local non-profit groups take Slye's leftovers to distribute.
“Vegetables are hard to get. You can get all the bread, but vegetables are really hard to get. Very thankful,” said Laura Lombardo of Greenbelt Baptist Church.
“A lot of families are living paycheck to paycheck, so they are not having to buy those expensive vegetables. It is a pretty good thing for them,” said Dana Duncan of the Bladensburg Police Department.
Slye says it is a blessing to be able to reduce food waste and help feed people in need.