By 11:30 a.m. on Friday, a line of cars winds through the Bethesda-Chevy Chase Rescue Squad parking lot.
Drivers read, wait and watch as volunteers from St. John’s Norwood Episcopal Church unload loaves and fishes — loaves of bread and cans of tuna fish — to give to the first 200 cars in line.
The food distribution event doesn’t begin until 1 p.m., and it will run out within a few hours.
For a similar event last week, almost 100 people remained in line when the last of the food was given away, said Lisa Goldberg, the vice president of Nourish Now, a Rockville-based nonprofit that provides food for the Bethesda event and dozens of others in Montgomery County.
“People say, ‘Bethesda? Food insecurity? You’ve got to be kidding,’” John Ross, who runs the men’s ministry at St. John’s, said. “One of the big things that we’re trying to work with people is to really talk about the significant need in Montgomery County and all around Bethesda of food insecurity. … People are getting squeezed.”
The organizers ask each recipient what ZIP code they live in. Of the 209 families served on Friday, nearly half were from Bethesda, Chevy Chase, Potomac and North Bethesda.
The Nourishing Bethesda food distribution was first held on Aug. 14, and has run every Friday since.
St. John’s, the Greater Bethesda Chamber of Commerce, the Hyatt Regency Bethesda, the Bethesda-Chevy Chase Rescue Squad and Nourish Now organize the event.
Initially, the groups anticipated 100 to 200 families might show up. Last week, they served 240 families — a total of 978 people — before supplies ran out.
“We came out with 200 and we are just getting hammered,” Ross said. “Now we just have to turn away people and it’s very hard to see.”
The pandemic and resulting economic crisis have exacerbated issues of food insecurity, or a lack of steady access to food. Many people in the area have lost jobs, and some students do not have access to meals they received while in classrooms.
Goldberg estimated that Nourish Now, which runs 17 food distributions each week in and around Montgomery County, has seen a 300 to 400 percent increase in need since COVID-19 first broke out.
One Bethesda resident who asked not to be identified said the pandemic has made it harder for her to find food distribution sources.
“It’s really kind of embarrassing to have to do this,” she said, looking from her front seat to the line of cars before her.
Maria Fontana, who came from Rockville to get food, said she was surprised to hear that Bethesda — which she perceived as a wealthy community — had so many residents facing hunger.
“Battery Lane? Those people don’t need it, you know? But you never know,” she said.
But Pete Warner, a 65-year-old Bethesda resident, said the federal government should contribute more of its budget to food distribution.
Warner, who is retired and has a disability, receives a federal government stipend of less than $1,000 a month in retirement benefits and about $200 per month in Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) food stamps.
“There is no excuse under the sun as to why Nourish Now should be running out of food 20 minutes to half an hour after the opening bell,” he said, adding that Congress should allocate “a few billion dollars” to provide food for Americans.
Montgomery County Council Member Andrew Friedson, who represents District 1, which includes Bethesda, said the virus has “taken the cracks in our society and it has blown them wide open.” He added that the challenges will persist beyond the public health emergency, but he hopes the community assistance — what he called “the light in this dark time” — will as well.
A call for volunteers at the food giveaway events has had a good response. St. John’s created a SignUp Genius electronic registration for event volunteers. People signed up so fast, there aren’t any openings until October, Ross said.
Each Friday, around 15 volunteers arrive around noon to unload meals from Nourish Now’s refrigerated trucks. They don latex gloves and safety vests, and stack teetering towers of boxes.
Ross preps volunteers on what the day might bring. They sign COVID-19 waivers, receive a quick safety briefing, and take a moment to put themselves in the shoes of the people they will soon meet.
“It’s really helping them understand the relationship we have — it’s not one of pity or judgment,” Ross said. “It’s a matter of respecting the people coming in — smile even though you can’t see the smiles through our masks.”
Emotions run high. People who come through the food distribution line have expressed some embarrassment, fear over when the virus and economic crisis will subside, and anger when the food runs out, Ross added.
The Rev. Anne Derse, the deacon at St. John’s, told of one woman who watched as the food supply dwindled as cars inched forward to claim the boxes. It appeared she would not get anything, taking home a flyer with additional resources instead of a trunk full of food.
When she finally arrived at the front of the line, she was the last to receive food, and burst into tears.
“She was just so grateful that she was able to get that food,” Derse said. “So that really tells us that there’s something that we need to be doing here to help our community, and we’re very committed to continuing to do it.”
Wheaton resident Stephen Clark said this was his third or fourth time at the distribution. He said the event lets him save money while getting extra food for the month.
Organizers says Nourishing Bethesda will run for the next six months.
Currently, much of the donations come from the church community, the Hyatt Regency, and members of the Greater Bethesda Chamber of Commerce. The coalition hopes to ramp up fundraising, setting a new goal of serving 300 families each week. To do so, it must raise $180,000.
The food packets that are distributed include enough to last a family of four for five days.
This week, recipients were given a box of fresh produce, including oranges, carrots, apples, melons, potatoes and onions. Additionally, they received bread, coffee, tuna, macaroni and cheese, and meals of roast chicken and rice prepped by the catering company Simply Fresh.
But the food runs a hefty price tag. The box of shelf-stable food comes to $15, and each restaurant meal can be $3 to $4. Nourish Now, which provides the food, must pay for all of it.
The organization is trying to partner with local Bethesda restaurants, as even the reduced meal rate can help the businesses survive during the pandemic.
“For us, this isn’t just a mechanical effort,” Derse said. “It’s an effort of reaching out to neighbors in need and it’s part of being a member of a community. … That’s what communities should be.”
Who was served
On Friday, Nourishing Bethesda served 209 families, totaling 830 people including 346 children. The full breakdown by ZIP Code is below.
ZIP ZIP Total % of total Number Number
Code area families families in family of kids
20167 Sterling, Va. 1 0.48 5 4
20218 Washington, D.C. 1 0.48 1 0
20705 Beltsville 1 0.48 3 2
20706 Lanham 3 1.44 16 10
20707 Laurel 1 0.48 5 3
20774 Upper Marlboro 1 0.48 3 2
20814 Bethesda 49 23.44 167 63
20815 Chevy Chase 7 3.35 34 15
20816 Bethesda 2 0.96 12 6
20817 Bethesda 17 8.13 72 29
20850 Rockville 3 1.44 11 5
20851 Rockville 12 5.74 51 18
20852 North Bethesda 20 9.57 65 23
20853 Aspen Hill 6 2.87 30 15
20854 Potomac 7 3.35 30 14
20855 Derwood 1 0.48 4 3
20871 Clarksburg 1 0.48 6 2
20874 Germantown 5 2.39 20 12
20877 Gaithersburg 8 3.83 36 14
20878 Gaithersburg 4 1.91 18 7
20879 Gaithersburg 1 0.48 3 1
20886 Gaithersburg 2 0.96 7 3
20895 Kensington 2 0.96 7 3
20896 Garrett Park 2 0.96 11 6
20901 Silver Spring 2 0.96 7 3
20902 Wheaton 22 10.53 99 41
20903 Silver Spring 1 0.48 4 0
20904 Fairland 3 1.44 11 5
20905 Silver Spring 1 0.48 5 2
20906 Aspen Hill 16 7.66 63 22
20910 Silver Spring 6 2.87 22 13
22321 Alexandria, Va. 1 0.48 2 0
Totals 209 100.00 830 346
Staff writer Dan Schere contributed to this story.