Two Maryland lawmakers and a local county executive are saying the state needs to do more to address a rise in hunger caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“People are still hungry,” Sen. Katie Fry Hester told WTOP. “When I go by our local food bank or the Miller Branch Library on Saturdays, there’s a long line of cars — people still waiting to get food.”
While signs of an economic recovery are evident — businesses are hiring, and many are offering signing bonuses and hiking wages to attract workers — Hester said, “We’re still on the tail end of this pandemic.”
Hester and Del. Lorig Charkoudian co-sponsored the legislation that created the Maryland Food System Resiliency Council. At the start of November, the council issued a report finding that demand for food assistance grew dramatically over the past 16 months: For example, food distribution at the Maryland Food Bank grew by 88%.
The report also found that farmers and food-related businesses saw demand for their goods plummet.
Hester and Charkoudian have written to the state’s Department of Budget and Management to request immediate and long-term funding to address hunger, including $20 million for emergency food distribution across the state.
“We felt in addition to the Maryland Food Bank and the Capital Area Food Bank, there are local organizations that are also distributing food, and who knows what they’re going to need for the span of 2022?,” Hester said.
The lawmakers are also looking for $3 million for cold storage to enable even small operators of food banks to store perishables.
‘The demand is not really going away’
Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich also talked about the need to address the issue of food insecurity in a recent briefing with reporters. Elrich said he’d been having discussions with non-profits and food banks, and “What I’m hearing from everyone is, the demand is not really going away. They continue to see very large numbers of people still struggling to buy food and to meet their basic needs.”
Hester and Charkoudian are also working on legislation for the upcoming legislative session that will create a grant pilot program “to incentivize the production, procurement and provision of local foods in school meals.”
Hester said another bill would establish a competitive grant program for food banks and other charitable food providers to allow them to work with local farmers to support the purchase and processing of produce. “So if they get a ton of tomatoes, for example, they could process those tomatoes” for distribution at a later date.
“I’m very excited for our bill,” said Hester, who said the proposal would build “resiliency and food security all the way from our Maryland farms to the citizens of Maryland who need additional support.”
The Maryland Food System Resiliency Council was designed to be in effect for two years, and Hester said “at the end of the second year, the council will make a recommendation if and how it should go forward.”