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Washingtonian of the Year 2010: Joan Marie Conway

A taste of home for the working poor

Photograph by Stephen Voss.

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People who come to the St. Camillus Catholic Church food pantries in Silver Spring and Langley Park are among the hardest hit by the economic downturn. Many had jobs as landscapers, construction workers, office cleaners. Now they’re lucky if they can get work two days a week. Feeding their families is more than they can manage.

Retired USDA nutritionist Joan Conway is volunteer director of the pantries. When she started, food donations took up five shelves in the St. Camillus rectory. Now the pantries serve up to 6,000 families a year. Some 150 volunteers provide bilingual registration services, haul donations, and stock shelves.

Offering food isn’t enough, Conway believes. The food should be nutritious—and culturally appropriate. The church serves Africans, Bangladeshis, Asians, and Haitians, but most of its members are Latin American. Beans are a staple for many. But an all-American favorite, baked beans in a can with sweet sauce, would be anathema to most.

Conway taught high-school chemistry in her native Brooklyn when a mentor convinced her to aim higher. She earned a doctorate at MIT and built a career in research at the USDA. After retiring, she began volunteering at the pantries, then learned Spanish. Working as a food scientist engaged only part of her, she says; now both her intellectual and spiritual sides are fulfilled. “The graces of this work are the people I meet,” Conway says. “They teach me how blessed I am to be able to offer service.”

This feature first appeared in the January 2011 issue of The Washingtonian.

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