EASTON — Throughout Easton, local chain restaurants and fast food establishments donate their surplus unused food to local agencies in order to help combat hunger in the community.

According to FeedingAmerica.org, there are 682,280 food insecure people in the state of Maryland, which is more than 10 percent of the state’s population that do not know where their next meal is coming from. In Talbot County alone, there are 3,810 food insecure individuals.

Area restaurants in Easton have been participating in a food harvest program through the Food Donation Connection and the National Restaurant Association which allows area non-profits to pick up any surplus food and distribute it to people in need throughout their neighborhoods.

Local area restaurants that participate in the program include Olive Garden, Chipotle, Panera Bread, Pizza Hut, Chick-fil-A and eWaWa. Some of these locations provide pick-ups weekly or once-or-twice-a-day to several organizations and churches who provide meals for others.

Since 2012, Olive Garden in Easton has been participating in the program and currently the Neighborhood Service Center is the only designated non-profit working with Olive Garden to distribute the unused food.

For Olive Garden, the Neighborhood Service Center collects unused food once or twice a week depending on supply. A typical pick-up consists of any surplus food such as soups, sauces, and even complete meals.

Carl Wakeland, general manager of the Olive Garden in Easton, said the fully prepared meals are ones that were made and never left the kitchen due to an order cancellation or possibly an ordering mistake.

He said those meals are then immediately weighed, packaged, labeled and frozen until the next pick-up. Several of the sauces and soups may have a used by date that the restaurant feels they may not be able to sell by that date, so they will once again label the item and store it in the freezer until the next pick up date.

Since Olive Garden in Easton opened in 2012, they have donated 6,000 pounds of food.

“We know that there are a lot of food insecure families out there and we want to try to reach out to our communities and just donate that food,” Wakeland said. “We try not to have any waste but when we do we make sure to donate it.”

Wakeland said if Olive Garden has any meat, such as chicken, fish or shrimp that is getting close to their sell by dates they will then cook them and place them in the freezer so that the Neighborhood Service Center can either hand out the meat as is or use it to make other things such as soups or complete meals.

Carmeshia Williams works at the Neighborhood Service Center and said the program has been a blessing for the community.

“We actually started with Panera Bread, picking up from them on a daily basis,” Williams said. “It grew very quickly to other area restaurants and it has been a great program. We are happy that a lot of restaurants are coming on board with the program, because there is a great need within the community.”

Once the center collects all the available food from the businesses, Williams said they take the food back and break down all large portions into personal sizes and prepare them for distribution.

The center hosts a give-away hour from 10 to 11 a.m., Monday through Friday in which the public can come and select any of the food items they would like to have.

Williams said Mondays and Fridays are their busy days with head counts of 50 or more people attending the giveaway hour. She said on occasion there is a line of people outside waiting for them to open.

“I believe, especially for our senior community, things that are all ready prepared and or heated up, makes it very easy for them to have a meal,” Williams said. “Where it may be a challenge financially or physically for some, to have these meals is such a blessing.”

But the pay-it-forward meal train does not stop at the Neighborhood Service Center. Williams said if they have any leftover food from the giveaway hour, the center continues to pass that on to the community through landlords, community centers, and housing units like Magnolia Meadows and Dover Brook.

“We have a few landlords that have great relationships with their tenants,” Williams said. “So if they have a tenant that is immobile they will pick up items and deliver them to them. So the whole thing just branches out in all different areas.”

For a complete list of participating restaurants or to learn more about the Harvest Program, visit www.foodtodonate.com.

Follow me on Twitter @Dspiering617

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