Vanessa Pierre, Food Council member, speaking at the July 2022 press conference launching the initiative. Credit: Heather Bruskin.

The Montgomery County Food Council, or MCFC, has been working with over 200 community partners to develop a new plan to eliminate food insecurity for children of all ages. Soon the plan will be presented before the County Council.

“I think working collaboratively and strategically, we can effectively end childhood hunger in Montgomery County,” said County Council President Gabe Albornoz.

The Strategic Plan to End Childhood Hunger will be a county-wide government initiative. Albornoz requested its creation in conjunction with the county’s Department of Health and Human Services in order to combat rising rates of food insecurity in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.

MCFC is serving as project manager for the plan. It helped create the county’s previous five-year food security plan in 2017 and served as leader of the COVID-19 Food Security Task Force during the pandemic. It has been a “tremendous partner” to the county, according to Albornoz.

Montgomery County Council appropriated $100,000 in funds for the plan’s creation in early 2022. The funds have been used to cover the cost of data collection, graphic design, analysis and other expenses, according to MCFC Executive Director Heather Bruskin.

Over 200 community partners collaborated with MCFC to create the plan, Bruskin said. These include Montgomery County Public Schools and other government agencies, direct food assistance providers like the Rainbow Community Development Center, and other nonprofits and community organizations like the Montgomery County Collaboration Council. The plan itself will include a comprehensive list of all partner organizations.

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Over the summer, MCFC conducted a series of focus groups and community meetings in order to “capture the voices of residents” on food-related barriers and desired solutions, Bruskin said. Many of the meetings were conducted in Spanish. Over 180 individuals participated in the sessions. An online survey was distributed to gather further feedback, which reached over 1,500 county residents, Bruskin said.

“Any policy or program that’s created needs to be rooted in the expertise and insight of the residents it’s designed to support,” Bruskin said. “It’s critically important that this is a community-owned plan.”

Annmarie Hart-Bookbinder, MCFC Food Security Programs Manager, presented at a virtual community discussion meeting over the summer. Credit: Heather Bruskin.

Bruskin said a key piece to combatting childhood food insecurity is recognizing its deeper root causes—in particular, income insufficiency.

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“Food insecurity is truly a symptom of deeper societal inequities,” she said. “So many families live in that gap where they don’t have sufficient resources to cover their costs. It’s not tied to food at all, but rather to your housing costs, healthcare, education, childcare and everything else combined.”

She said other common barriers to food access include language barriers, transportation barriers and lack of trust in the government entities providing food services.

The strategic plan will include a series of recommendations that will require additional local investment to implement, Albornoz said. It will also include policy recommendations at the federal level. Albornoz said he expects the plan to propose continued data collection, additional support for community-based organizations and the codification of universal school meal programs.

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MCFC is currently finalizing the plan’s details. It will then be presented before the County Council, where its findings will be discussed via work sessions and further changes may be made. The plan’s recommendations will likely be reflected in the council’s next operating budget, Albornoz said. He said he expects the County Council to receive the plan by spring of 2023, at which point it will immediately be made public.