One of the joys of running a farmers market is the ability to be a part of a wider community. Farmers markets have an important role in the food system, connecting rural farmers to urban consumers, bringing fresh produce to our diets and serving as economic drivers. Even in communities such as Montgomery County, Maryland, which has great resources, excellent public schools and access to tech and governments jobs, there is still poverty and hunger. The reality is that many people in Montgomery County, as in many other communities across the United States, do not have the resources to access good food.

Last year, as it has in the past, Central Farm Markets worked with Manna Food Center, the largest food recovery and distribution organization in Montgomery County, collecting over 60,000 pounds of fresh fruits and vegetables, meats, breads from the vendors to send to the food center. Our farm market patrons are used to seeing the Manna volunteers at the tables each week, explaining how the programs work and taking food and cash donations back to the center. At the end of each market, a large truck arrives to collect the produce and food that would otherwise be composted or thrown out.

The Manna Food Center main offices and warehouse are located in Gaithersburg, Maryland, and there are eight other satellite centers throughout the county. The food center operates five days a week and one Saturday per month. Jenna Umbriac, director of programs at Manna Food Center, graciously gave me a tour of the facility and explained how its programs operate. Participants in the food programs often come in on their own, but they may be referred by an outside organization like the Jewish Social Services Agency or church groups. Patrons who come actually go shopping in the Choice Pantry. Like a mini grocery store, it offers a more dignified way for them to get their food and learn about making healthy choices.

Each week food is rescued from grocery stores, farmers markets and other entities like Community Food Rescue (in Montgomery County), with volunteers or food runners picking it up. On the day I visited, 27 staffers were packing food boxes for 198 households. In total, 10,000 people are served across four locations in the county.

Each day, the households listed on a big board are categorized by dietary restrictions, so that special packages can be assembled. Dietary needs might include a low-sodium diet for someone on dialysis or low-sugar diet for a diabetic patron. The center also puts together vegetarian, gluten-free, kosher and pork-free boxes for those who require them. Some boxes include baby food and formula, too. Each box always packs important information on food safety, use-by dates and good nutrition.

In addition to the boxes of food distributed on site, Manna partners with a local farm to buy half-shares of a CSA (community-supported agriculture) for a program called Smart Sacks, which serves elementary school children each week through a distribution point at a local elementary school.

Manna’s community education manager runs educational workshops, grocery store tours and cooking classes for food recipients. Classes are held in apartment buildings, making them accessible to new mothers and senior citizens who cannot go to the center, and Manna also has a bus (“Manny”) that travels around and serves as a roving education center (top photo). Look out for it at Central Farm Markets this season.

Interestingly, the biggest collection for Manna takes place at Yom Kippur, when synagogues all over the DC area collect food for distribution. The center even gets some fresh produce from some local synagogue gardens from time to time.

Now in its 35th year, Manna is continuously working with the wider community on ways to put systems into place for future food security. As Umbriac told me, “There will always be a portion of the population who will need our service, but we want the center to be able to focus more on health and wellness, policy change and increasing access to local agriculture. It will take all of us working together to alleviate food insecurity in our communities.”