Why Food Banks like Maryland Food Bank Are Crucial to the Continuing Post-Pandemic Recovery
Richard Hood stands in a line outside of Victory Villa Baptist Church in Middle River, Maryland, waiting for food provided by the Maryland Food Bank (MFB). Despite working part time, Richard is one of the roughly 2 million Marylanders who don’t always know where their next meal will come from.
“The money I get from working part time and the $38 I get in food stamps each month just isn’t enough to survive on,” says the 62-year-old. “Here, I can get a hot meal and a bag of groceries to take home, which really helps.”
Hunger in Maryland is not a new problem. The pandemic increased disparities across the 22 jurisdictions the Maryland Food Bank serves. And while the effects of the pandemic are receding, hunger persists.
According to the food bank’s most recent Maryland Hunger Map analysis, approximately 2 million Marylanders may face food insecurity in 2021. Even before the pandemic, the state’s higher than average cost of housing, combined with stagnating wages and rising costs of everything from childcare to healthcare, were some of the root causes of food insecurity.
It’s a predicament exacerbated by the social determinants of health — where one lives, works, and plays ― factors that are more likely to predict Marylanders’ health outcomes than anything else. How can this be? When people don’t have the ability to choose their foods, whether because of financial challenges or access issues, they are forced to rely on what is available, which tends to be inexpensive and low nutritional value foods from corner and convenience stores.
Yet many of the community organizations that MFB works with, including food pantries, can, and do, offer choice to food-insecure Marylanders.
“We believe all Marylanders — regardless of level of income, education, or ethnicity — should be able to make informed choices that lead to a long and healthy life,” says Carmen Del Guercio, president and CEO of the Maryland Food Bank. “We at the Maryland Food Bank are using our decades of experience and statewide reach to help make it a reality.”
Looking at Hunger Differently
A common misconception surrounding food banks like MFB is that they simply distribute food, either donated by donors or collected from local grocers, to the homeless or destitute. This is a simplistic view that overlooks the costs to purchase nutritious food and what modern food banks are doing to combat the problem. For the hundreds of thousands of people like Richard who are balancing low wages and high costs for food, medicine, and transportation, the local food pantry is vital to their everyday survival. In turn, those neighborhood sites rely on the Maryland Food Bank, which supports a network of more than 350 community organizations statewide that collectively provide nearly 1,450 distribution points with much-needed food for their local communities.
Far from the old model of collect-and-distribute, the Maryland Food Bank uses a wealth of data to inform agile, dynamic programs that make a difference in the lives of the food insecure. For example, just before the pandemic, the Maryland Food Bank premiered the Mobile Market, a 26-foot “on-the-go” market that not only supplies food to residents, but also provides access to additional services that help address some of the root causes of hunger. Using this kind of data-driven tool enables the Maryland Food Bank to target communities in the most need of service and deploy the most appropriate solution.
Currently, the Mobile Market travels to communities in eight Eastern Shore counties — Caroline, Dorchester, Kent, Queen Anne’s, Somerset, Talbot, Wicomico and Worcester — that lack brick-and-mortar food assistance facilities and don’t have easy-to-access social services for their residents in need.
“These strong and proud communities deserve better,” says Del Guercio. “We know for a fact that this barrier exists more often in lower-income neighborhoods, rural areas, and disproportionally in Communities of Color. People living in these areas can become entrenched in generational cycles of food insecurity.”
The Far-Reaching Impact of the Maryland Food Bank’s Programs
By addressing the root problems that lead to hunger, the Maryland Food Bank is part of a larger trend where social well-being intersects with health care. A preventative approach to health care sees nutrition as a way to prevent health problems before they can present in a population. Food banks like MFB provide a necessary link between the population and preventative health. Two of MFB’s most popular programs — Farm to Food Bank and Pantry on the Go — have helped increase Marylanders’ access to healthy foods in the belief that healthier food options lead to healthier, happier lives.
Another way the Maryland Food Bank is addressing root cause issues is using workforce training programs like FoodWorks to prepare aspiring chefs to enter the job market. Finding gainful employment is one of the key ingredients to preventing hunger. At FoodWorks, participants learn culinary skills to work in the hospitality industry while making meals that help feed fellow Marylanders in need.
No Easy Solution, but Plenty of Reasons to Hope
The Maryland Food Bank acknowledges there’s a long way to go to solve Maryland’s hunger problem, yet there is hope. Because the factors that lead to food insecurity in western Maryland are not always the same as they are in Baltimore City or on the Eastern Shore, MFB has taken a regional approach, crafting programs to meet the specific needs of the individual communities they serve more effectively.
The Maryland Food Bank’s data-driven, localized programs have made great progress. Every single day, people are getting the food and services they need to thrive. And now, post-pandemic, the Maryland Food Bank is looking to continue this progress.
“I’m 60 years old and didn’t think I’d ever need help,” says Henry R. “But I’ve been out of work for some time, and things are just tight right now. There’s no grocery stores nearby; you have to travel a bit to get to one. So, I appreciate this a lot. It’s easier to pick up food at the pantry. This will help me, at least for a good month.”
Rodney L. agrees, saying, “We didn’t have any transportation to get around, so we had to make an appointment with someone to take you to buy food, but that was difficult. We also need to pay for medicine, but the Medicaid we receive is not enough to cover everything and still live. You either buy food or buy medicine. But its places like this that help us out, a lot.”
How You Can Make an Impact
Agonizing choices between essentials like housing, food, and medicine are being made every day, with razor thin margins. The Maryland Food Bank wants to change this distressing reality, but they need help to do it. There are a number of ways to donate to the cause, generating the funds the Maryland Food Bank relies on to help those in need. Simply put, the Maryland Food Bank couldn’t be the resource it is without you.
But it’s not just food and resources needed in the quest to end hunger. Volunteering is a crucial way to make a difference in our community. Consider the case of Smithsburg resident Wanda Barber. After working two jobs for years, she was injured and could no longer perform her duties. Surgery put her into massive medical debt. Combined with job loss, Barber battled hunger and homelessness. She credits the Maryland Food Bank’s local partnership with Tabitha’s Table, one of many partnerships with local pantries, for helping her get back on her feet. Now she’s a volunteer.
“I’m not trying to take advantage of anything,” says Barber. “I’m here because I’m on disability, and I only get so much money. On the job I had, I had to lift 30 pounds, and after the surgery, I have screws in my back, and I can’t lift 30 pounds anymore. But I sure can help by volunteering!”
Hunger continues to be a major hurdle to many Marylanders, especially for children, seniors, and working families. Stories like Wanda’s, Richard’s, Henry’s and Rodney’s remain far too common, yet the Maryland Food Bank and its statewide network of community partners are working to change this by expanding food access while providing resources that offer our neighbors in need pathways out of hunger. But they can’t do it without your help. To get involved in any way you can, visit www.mdfoodbank.org.