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Jaynee Acevedo took on a big challenge, last month. As the new Director of the SHARE Food Network, Acevedo is tasked with leading an organization which has helped families throughout Central and Southern Maryland, Northern Virginia, Washington, D.C. and parts of West Virginia and Pennsylvania stretch their food budget every month since 1990. SHARE, sponsored by Catholic Charities D.C. and the Fraternal Association of the Order of Malta, uses wholesale ordering, bare bones warehousing and an army of volunteers to cut the costs of nutritious foods in half.

"It's a great equalizer," said Acevedo. "Anyone who eats can participate, whether they pay with food stamps, cash, or their MasterCard."

SHARE participants pay for a prepackaged bundle of food. Each month, the ingredients change, but the focus remains on basic nutrition for families. Packages include meat, dried beans, grains, vegetables, side dishes and desserts. Participants can purchase them through one of 367 partner organizations throughout the region, or at the SHARE distribution hub in Hyattsville, Md. on each month's distribution day.

In addition to the discounted cost of the packages, participants are asked to volunteer somewhere in their community for two hours each month. It's an opportunity to build communities, as each participant sees fit. If you're already volunteering, that's great. If SHARE inspires you to find a local organization where you can make a difference, that's great, too.

Under the direction of a paid staff of eight, with up to 200 volunteers working together each month, SHARE distributes more than two million pounds of food each year. This year, that included 14,000 turkeys meant for holiday meals.

"This time of year, we put together holiday meals (with turkey or spiral-sliced ham) but the rest of the year the focus is on affordable nutrition, getting protein, fruits and vegetables on the table," said Acevedo.

Many host sites throughout the area are based out of churches, but Acevedo hopes to expand the program into businesses and community centers and more diverse neighborhood organizations. She sees it as an opportunity for employers to give their staff a benefit to help stretch their family food budget during what continues to be a challenging economic period.

"Wouldn't that be a great benefit to offer your employees?" Acevedo asked. "Everyone benefits from more affordable, healthy food."

Though operated with the support of Catholic Charities, the Knights of Malta and the Capital Area Food Bank, SHARE is not just for families traditionally considered in need of the services of a food pantry.

"There are plenty of organizations giving away food. That's not what we do. There is dignity and ownership in what we do at SHARE," Acevedo said. The plan is to make food more affordable to all with a little planning, not to provide emergency food supplements specifically for poor families.

Acevedo is considering creating special packages aimed at seniors, and foods organized around certain ethnic cuisines. Since each month's package includes a whole chicken, she is looking into creating a seasonal spice mix to include in each package--enough to season chickens for a few months, creating a new and interesting flavor for families. The spice mixes, as well as recipes based around the ingredients found in each month's package, are ideas that sprang from Acevedo's past career as owner of a bed-and-breakfast.

"When we first started the bed-and-breakfast, and were raising three small children, we would really have benefited from SHARE, if we'd known about it," Acevedo said. "It would have made it so much easier to make ends meet. But even inexpensive foods can be interesting, with new spice combinations."

Since Acevedo is new to SHARE, she's still learning what her clients need. Fortunately, she can rely on the experience of many long-term volunteers. Church, government and business organizations have volunteered at SHARE since the program's earliest days, packaging, distributing and receiving payments for food packages on monthly delivery days, known as "D-Day" among those in the know.

"The Missionaries of Harmony Hills Baptist Church in Seat Pleasant has sent a group of volunteers every month for over twenty-five years," said Louise Saunders of Seat Pleasant. "We like it. We like helping people."

Elizabeth Gibson of North Brentwood, a retired special education teacher, has volunteered at SHARE since 1990.

"A friend of mine told me about SHARE and I came over to volunteer with my daughter and have been volunteering here ever since," Gibson said. "I haven't missed a D-Day since the beginning."

Gibson helps accept payments for the packages each month, has served on the organization's board and has written for their monthly newsletter, including recipes.

"I would look at what was going to be in the packages each month, and come up with recipes that were easy to follow and delicious. My Navy Bean Soup is responsible for two marriages of women who used to come to SHARE," Gibson said.

Acevedo hopes to bring back recipes and other nutrition education efforts in the coming months, to help families make the most of their SHARE packages..

For more information, including a list of local distribution sites throughout the area, visit www.share dc.org.