Pioneering Produce Partnership

The site at Foundry Row was once an industrial bakery, a paper mill, and a plastic cup factory
Out of the rubble of an old factory on Reisterstown Road in Owings Mills, Maryland, a new Wegman's supermarket broke ground in 2013, giving rise to a kernel of an idea in the mind of SDCI vice president Lynell Tobler. Long a fan of the family-owned grocery store chain from Rochester, New York, Lynell was thrilled to hear that a Wegman's would be built on the industrial-zoned property, which had seen duty since 1926 as the Maryland Baking Company and, after 1957, as the Fort Howard (Georgia Pacific) Paper Mill, precursor to the Sweetheart Cup and, eventually, Solo Cup manufacturing works, which closed in 2011.

Construction of the new Foundry Row Shopping Center began in 2013 on the site of an old Solo Cup factory in Owings Mills
As the new, three-year Foundry Row construction project began, Lynell pondered the ways in which Wegman's might support the community it would soon be joining, most notably the sensitive habitat and wildlife at Soldiers Delight Natural Environment Area with which Lynell has long been affiliated. In early 2016, along with other residents of Owings Mills, Lynell was mailed a flyer announcing Wegman's forthcoming opening in September.  In the flyer, Wegman's boasted of its zero-food-waste program. The concept struck a chord.

Three years in the making, the new Wegman's supermarket opened to great fanfare in Owings Mills on September 18, 2016
What if Wegman's would agree to donate some of their leftover produce each week to the rehabilitated animals housed at the aviary at Soldiers Delight, the largest of six state-owned aviaries scattered around Maryland?  What if the turtles and birds who call Soldiers Delight home could count on fresh blueberries and lettuce and apples and grapes, courtesy of a regional company whose core values include giving back, conservation, and zero waste?  The Maryland Park Service provides perpetual food and housing at Soldiers Delight for a number of unreleasable wild animals who have been injured in car strikes or confiscated from illegal reptile and amphibian-breeding operations. The state's budget is small and the animals' needs (and appetites) great. What if Wegman's could avoid throwing away some of its leftover produce and instead feed our wild inhabitants?

Soldiers Delight Ranger Sara Marcinak displays an American crow in 2015
Among the 36 animals at the Soldiers Delight aviary and visitor center are 17 birds, 16 turtles and three snakes, more wildlife residents than in any of the state's five other animal facilities, which typically average four to eight critters apiece. One such Soldiers Delight resident, our black rat snake, is on track to become the largest on record in Maryland. The state record for a black rat snake is 101 inches in length. At only nine years old and still growing, our juvenile male has already exceeded 89 inches. Weighing in at a hefty six pounds, this black rat snake currently outweighs the largest raptors in our aviary, which include the turkey vultures who weigh in at a respectable five pounds each.

While the snakes and raptors enjoy an exclusively carnivorous diet, the corvids in our aviary, a crow and a raven, enjoy fresh berries and greens when they can get them. The turtles housed in our visitor center, of which we have several native varieties, thrive on all sorts of fresh fruit and vegetables. As construction progressed on the new Wegman's store, Lynell formulated a plan for feeding these captive herbivores at considerable savings to the Maryland Park Service's overstretched budget.

Wegman's Manager Matt LePore and SDCI vice president Lynell Tobler meet on opening day to discuss a "produce partnership" for the rehabilitated animals at the Soldiers Delight aviary  
On September 18, 2016, opening day of the Wegman's supermarket in Owings Mills, Lynell approached store manager Matt LePore and introduced herself. With Wegman's zero-waste flyer in hand, she mentioned the dietary needs of the animals at Soldiers Delight and how Wegman's might be able to help. The idea resonated with Mr. LePore, but the frenzy of the grand opening prevented him from sitting down with her to hash out the details of how such a program might work. He asked Lynell to come back in a few weeks, once the hubbub had died down. In the ensuing days, SDCI's vice president and longtime volunteer did not sit idle.

She approached the naturalists in charge of animal care at Soldiers Delight. What would be their idea of an ideal diet for the resident herbivores?  If they could choose from an entire produce department of fresh fruit and veggies, what would make the animals happiest?

It wasn't a particularly long wishlist and it wouldn't take a lot of effort or expense for Wegman's to fulfill: one orange, three apples, one small bunch of grapes, a single medium squash such as zucchini, one small basket of berries such as blueberries, blackberries or raspberries, and three heads of romaine lettuce each week, along with one bag of sturdy greens like spinach or kale and a few walnuts once a month.

Lynell prepared a formal letter to Matt LePore, describing how the resident wildlife at Soldiers Delight cannot be released back into their natural habitats due either to their injuries or the fact that they have been imprinted on humans and would not know to fear them or how to forage for food on their own. She explained how each animal participates in Patapsco Valley State Park's Scales & Tales Program, which brings rehabilitated wildlife into inner city classrooms, senior centers and other venues to teach children and adults about nature and the value of our wild spaces. Lynell wrote about the turtles, frogs and birds which need fresh produce every day.

Soldiers Delight Ranger Jamie Petrucci receives a box of fresh produce from Wegman's clerk Collin Butler 
And then Lynell made her plea: if we could pick up a small box of fresh produce each week on a day designated by Wegman's, it would be wonderful gesture that would help the animals in our care so much.

In two weeks' time, Lynell met with Matt LePore again and presented him with her letter. Mr. LePore introduced her to the produce manager, Shane Andy. They set up a schedule and established a routine for the weekly grocery handoff.

And so a fruitful partnership was struck between a grocery company who genuinely cares about the communities it serves and the staff and volunteers at Soldiers Delight Natural Environment Area in whose care the resident wildlife is entrusted. Every Friday morning a Soldiers Delight naturalist picks up a small box of leftover produce and brings it back to the animal residents at Soldiers Delight to enjoy and devour. And every week Wegman's demonstrates its generosity and commitment to conservation and the environment by providing this otherwise disposable nourishment to the rehabilitated animals in our care.

producepioneeraward,11-19-16.jpgAs for Lynell?  She was a presented with a "Produce Pioneer" award made from a paper plate by staff naturalist Tabitha Aguirre at Soldiers Delight's annual volunteer appreciation luncheon in November, showing that this new produce partnership was truly a win-win-win for all.

More Articles...