Montgomery County officials hope new legislation establishing an office centered around food resilience can help with connecting underprivileged residents to important social services along with food distribution.

The bill, introduced Tuesday during the County Council meeting, would establish an Office of Food Systems Resilience. Council members approved just over $1 million in the fiscal year 2023 budget for the office — almost $350,000 would pay for three staff positions and about $739,000 would be allocated for various grants and programs to fulfill the office’s mission.

Assistant Chief Administrative Officer Earl Stoddard said in an interview Thursday that part of that mission is food distribution. If the council approves the proposed legislation, the new office also would help integrate programs that exist within multiple county departments and outside organizations — the Department of Health and Human Services, Office of Community Partnerships, county’s  Office of Agriculture and local food assistance providers, among others.

Often it’s just as important to connect people with job opportunities, an affordable place to live, and other services as well as provide food each week or so, Stoddard said. 

“What we realized is that food distribution is the Band-Aid solution to food insecurity,” he said.

The new office would be required to advise the county executive and the council on “food systems related policy issues,” along with delivering an annual report with recommended policy, budgetary and administrative changes, according to the bill.

The office also would establish policies for grants and coordinate with other county resources to pursue county, state and federal grants.

Council President Gabe Albornoz is the lead sponsor of the bill on behalf of County Executive Marc Elrich. Albornoz said in an interview the legislation “institutionalizes” efforts already undertaken by county government and nonprofits concerning food distribution and related services that were critical during the pandemic. 

He said that solving food insecurity requires a “multigenerational” approach — and that county officials and nonprofits must also consider the housing and health needs of people who also need food.

The bill also would build on the work of nonprofits like Manna Food Center in Gaithersburg, Albornoz said. He highlighted that organization’s work in delivering food and meeting people where they are throughout Montgomery County.

The COVID-19 pandemic created an increase in need countywide, Albornoz said — and it’s important to consider what type of resources and food residents actually need.

“There are just so many people who had to seek this kind of assistance, and so many people right on the edge of crisis,” he said. “And with the wonderful diversity in the county, we need to make sure the food we’re providing is actually culturally appropriate and that it’s consistent with people’s diets.”

Angela Whitmal, senior director of people and culture at Manna Food, said in an interview that during the coronavirus pandemic, their food bank did see a significant increase in new families requesting assistance. Manna Food officials also saw families who hadn’t visited the food bank in a long time. 

There are many nonprofits and organizations countywide that provide valuable social services — and further connecting their efforts is important and a vital part of the legislation, Whitmal said.

“We know that providing food assistance itself is not going to solve the problem,” Whitmal said. “It’s not going to get [families] to stability and self-sufficiency, and so we need to continue growing all of these safety net providers.”

All types of stakeholders have to be involved, she said — from large organizations and nonprofits funding the social safety net to churches and similar smaller institutions that can target certain populations of immigrants and people in need.

“It’s going to require us to look broadly at all of the agencies that are serving the community and bringing all the people to the table, not just the bigger institutions that have considerable resources,” Whitmal said.

A public hearing for the bill is scheduled at June 28 at 1:30 p.m.

Steve Bohnel can be reached at steve.bohnel@bethesdamagazine.com