Promptly at noon the doors to Boston's Church of All Nations open. Over 100 people, waiting in the bitter cold, stream in, following the sound of piano music and the aroma of the day's meal downstairs. In a large but cheerful basement room crammed with tables, the ``guests'' seat themselves while volunteer ``waiters'' bring coffee, casserole, and salad. ``Saturday's Bread,'' the official name for this free, once-a-week meal, is one of 400 local charitible activities that function partly or wholly thanks to the savings on food provided by the Boston Food Bank.
The story begins at 70 Amory Street, in Jamaica Plain's northeast corner. From the street the small sign on the food bank's door is easily overlooked, but the contents of the 22,000-square-foot warehouse are impressive. The food bank, equipped for storage of frozen foods and other perishables, handles 10,000 pounds of food daily. Two trucks and a van collect the food -- considered unsalable by food suppliers but still perfectly edible -- from local producers, restaurants, and supermarkets. Here, workers for local shelters, detoxification centers, food pantries, and soup kitchens pick up supplies to distribute to some 35,000 needy people in Boston.
Moving among the stacked boxes of cereal, cans of juice, cartons of yogurt, and packages of frozen dinners, Homer Platt shops at the food bank for Saturday's Bread. His list includes frozen fish, Legal Seafood chowder, macaroni, salad dressing, margarine, and cookies.
With his cart full, Mr. Platt heads for the checkout to pay the standard fee of 12 cents a pound. When the main course for Saturday's Bread is purchased at the food bank, each meal costs roughly 40 cents, less than one-fourth the amount necessary to purchase similar food at commercial rates. Due at least in part to these savings, Saturday's Bread will serve an additional weekly meal on Sundays beginning in March.
JoAnn Eccher, director of Project Bread, explains that a network of charities has been in existence in Boston since the early 1980s. It grew in conjunction with the food bank to counteract the $12 billion in cuts made to food stamps and child-nutrition programs. Project Bread, an information, referral, and advocacy center for the hungry, publishes ``The Free Meal Guide To Downtown Boston.'' This pamphlet, which provides the needy with a day-by-day list of meal times and locations, demonstrates the organization and cooperation that exist among local charities.
Despite this, Ms. Eccher explains, the system that provides free food is ``very fragile. Some weeks people forget to donate, and the food runs out.''
Countering that fragility -- and standing behind local meal providers like Saturday's Bread and the Boston Food Bank -- is Second Harvest, the coordinating body for a national network that stores and distributes surplus food. Founded in 1979 and headquartered in Phoenix, Ariz., Second Harvest acts as a certifying board for food banks by setting standards for sanitation, staffing, and warehousing. These standards insure that food bank food is safe and protect those who donate food from possible law suits. Second Harvest also solicits and coordinates donations from national companies. In exchange for these services, food banks pay Second Harvest 1 percent of their operating budgets. The credibility food banks gain through membership in a national network helps persuade companies to donate. Twenty-six percent of the food used to feed the homeless in Boston is obtained through Second Harvest. The rest is donated by local suppliers.
In America, hunger and waste exist side by side. The Physicians Task Force on Hunger recently estimated that 10 percent of Americans (nearly 20 million) are hungry. A Harvard study group says that in the Boston area alone 200,000 people are living at or below the poverty level. Local relief workers say that President Reagan's proposal to reduce social programs by another $800 million would inevitably add to these numbers.
At the same time, economists at the American Farm Bureau Federation estimate that the storage and handling of farm surpluses cost the government $1.35 billion each year. A General Accounting Office Survey estimated that nearly 20 percent of all food produced in the United States is never sold or consumed.
Food banks alleviate hunger through using existing resources. They provide a situation in which everyone wins. Not only are the hungry fed, but food suppliers are spared the trouble of disposing of unsalable food. In addition, since all participating charities are nonprofit, the suppliers can claim tax deductions for their donations.
Across the country 13,000 charities have made use of the 150 million pounds of food that have been distributed through Second Harvest to date. This impressive record has not gone unnoticed. Food banks are hailed by the food industry, charities, and President Reagan.
But despite suggestions that they be incorporated into the Department of Health and Human Services, Larry Myer, director of the Boston Food Bank, states that food banks will retain their independent status. At the same time, the number of food banks is expected to continue increasing. Mr. Myer says many untapped resources still exist both in Boston and across the country. Second Harvest has set a goal of launching a food bank in every major metropolitan area.
The amount of food donated to the Boston Food Bank has doubled every year since its founding in 1981, bringing the total amount donated to 6.2 million pounds.
Despite this impressive record, Myer is quick not to take too much credit. He explains that the growing need in America has demanded a greater response by the private sector.
It is only natural, Myer stresses, for charities to attempt to help the hungry and homeless, but that this is no substitute for government programs: ``Food banks are not a replacement for welfare and food stamps; they only provide for those that somehow fall outside of government care.''
Myers warns that ``the Achilles' heel of this whole business is that people will think everything is being done, and that they can sit back and relax. There still exists a tremendous amount of human need. We are only doing a small part.''