Jose Cruz sat behind the wheel of his red Toyota Highlander, sixth in a line of cars already 21 deep. The food distribution event at Mt. Calvary Baptist Church in Rockville wasn’t scheduled to begin for another hour, but Cruz wasn’t taking any chances. It was a wise calculation. This blazing-hot Thursday afternoon in August marked the third time the church had hosted such an event, and demand was so great the previous two times that latecomers drove away empty-handed.
Earlier this year, the thought that he would need to rely on the charity of others to feed his girlfriend and three children would have been unimaginable to the 52-year-old Wheaton resident. Cruz was a line cook at the swanky Mayflower Hotel in downtown Washington, D.C., where he’d worked for 15 years. The job was so stable that it even provided access to health insurance, an unusual perk for the industry.
Then the pandemic hit. Cruz didn’t catch COVID-19, but he was a victim of the virus nonetheless. “There are no hours, I have not worked for five months,” he said as he sat in his car that day. “I rent a basement and I was behind on the rent for two months. I’m going [to] pay [my landlord] when I get the money. They cut off my insurance, and so when my baby got born I have a bill for $16,000 from the hospital. This helps a lot.”
As the minutes ticked by, vehicle after vehicle pulled up, creating a line that snaked through the parking lot three times, out onto North Horners Lane and around the corner onto Frederick Avenue. Two city police officers directed traffic.
While they waited, some drivers idled in park so their air-conditioning could run. Others rolled down the windows and killed the engine, 96-degree heat be damned. Gas isn’t free.
Finally, just before 5, four cars at a time were directed to the driveway near the church entrance, where bags of fresh fruit and vegetables were loaded directly into trunks by volunteers. Henrietta
Jenkins was one of them. “These are just the ones who have cars—what about the ones who don’t have access to transportation?” the 69-year-old said as she lugged heavy bags of peppers, mangoes, bananas, corn and avocados.
Similar scenes have played out in school, synagogue and shopping mall parking lots across the country since everything changed in March. The U.S.
Census Bureau reported in late July that almost 30 million Americans said they hadn’t had enough to eat the previous week. It’s a scourge that has not spared even well-off jurisdictions like Montgomery County. Before the pandemic, roughly 60,000 county residents were considered food insecure, meaning they didn’t know where their next meal was coming from or they didn’t have regular access to healthy food. In August, that number was about 100,000, according to Heather Bruskin, executive director of the Montgomery County Food Council.
One bad break or poor decision—let alone a global pandemic—can quickly inflict financial ruin on the middle class and working poor. The woman who was first in line at the church lost her job as an office receptionist when the coronavirus shuttered the building. “Things are very tight money-wise,” she said. “A lot of folks are depending on this.” Behind her, another woman sat patiently with one of her five children in the back seat. COVID spelled the end of her employment at a retirement community.
“Some of the cars are Lexuses and Cadillacs and Mercedes,” said the Rev. Barry Moultrie, who’s been at Mt. Calvary for 30 years. “Some of the trunks, when you open them, there’s a nice set of golf clubs in there. Regardless of what you see around them, you look at people’s faces and you can see that they’re hurting. I’ve never seen the need like this.”
With a median household income of $103,178, Montgomery County is the 17th-wealthiest county in the United States, according to Census Bureau data released in 2018. It’s also one of the most expensive places in the country to live. According to the Montgomery County Planning Department, its median gross rent (which includes utilities and other expenses) is $1,746 per month, compared with $1,371 statewide and $1,058 nationwide.
“A lot of people think that Montgomery County all looks like their neighborhood,” says Anna Hargrave, executive director of The Community Foundation in Montgomery County. “I once had someone say, ‘I lived in Chevy Chase, I worked in Georgetown, my entire life was on Wisconsin Avenue.’ They had no idea about the income disparity, they had no idea about the challenges people face in different parts of our community.”
These days, however, even people in the county’s wealthiest areas are not immune. Every Friday since mid-August, St. John’s Norwood Episcopal Church in Chevy Chase, partnering with the nonprofit Nourish Now, organizes a food distribution event called “Nourishing Bethesda.” At the afternoon event, held in the parking lot of the Bethesda-Chevy Chase Rescue Squad, 15 to 20 volunteers distribute packages of food to help a family of four for five days. St. John’s provides the planning, most of the volunteers and the funding to help defray the costs of the food. It initially planned to serve 200 families for six months at a weekly cost of $5,000, but during its distribution on Sept. 11, it served over 250 families before running out of food and turning people away.
The organizers ask each recipient for the ZIP code they live in. Of the 209 families served on Sept. 18, nearly half were from Bethesda, Chevy Chase, Potomac or North Bethesda.
“People say, ‘Bethesda? Food insecurity? You’ve got to be kidding, ’ ” says John Ross, who runs the men’s ministry at St. John’s. “One of the big things that we’re trying to work [on] with people is to really talk about the significant need in Montgomery County and all around Bethesda of food insecurity. …People are getting squeezed.”
At the Sept. 18 distribution, the line of vehicles stretched down Old Georgetown Road and into the rescue squad parking lot. Volunteers greeted each car and put a box of food in the trunk or back seat. Each interaction took about 15 seconds.
“Even if there are a lot of people in Bethesda who can transfer their work to home, not everyone can,” says the Rev. Anne Derse, the church’s community life coordinator. “One of our volunteers was told by a woman in tears that she never thought she was going to have to do this.”
Hours before the food distribution began at Mt. Calvary in August, another was held in the parking lot of Glenmont United Methodist Church on Georgia Avenue in Silver Spring. There were no lines onto the street or police to control the traffic; this was a regular weekly event hosted by Manna Food Center, which has been fighting hunger in the county since 1983.
Beginning at 1 p.m., cars pulled into the lot to pick up a box of produce—potatoes, melons, cabbage, lettuce—and a bag of meat such as smoked sausages, organic chicken breast nuggets, and salmon filets. Each recipient had an appointment—and a story about what brought them there.
Felicita Martinez lost her job in after-school care when classrooms went dark in March. This was the 71-year-old’s fifth trip to Manna. “What I receive is really a great help,” the Rockville resident said. “I don’t know where I’d be without it. Even though I am by myself, I still need my daily meals. Without this help I would probably be eating only once a day. People without jobs need many things. If you are in need, you are in need.”
In its own way, Manna is now in need as well. In a typical year it serves about 32,000 individuals—people who receive food or participate in nutrition education classes. This summer, demand was up 40%, according to CEO Jackie DeCarlo. Some grocery stores donate surpluses to Manna, but because supply-chain issues have reduced that excess, the organization has been forced to buy more of the food it gives away. In July 2019, the nonprofit didn’t purchase any food at all; the same month a year later it spent $100,000. (The majority of the organization’s more than $3 million budget comes from private donations.)
On top of that, Manna waived its income requirements for food recipients when the pandemic hit. “Before COVID, we used the self-sufficiency standard,” DeCarlo says. “It’s based on household size and age of any children. I always give the example of when my mom became a single mom, there was my sister, myself and my mom. If she lived in Montgomery County right now, she would have to make about $84,000 to not need food stamps or a rental voucher.”
That’s an eye-opening figure, and it helps to explain why more than 33% of Montgomery County Public Schools’ roughly 167,000 students are on the free and reduced-price meals program. When schools closed in March, many parents didn’t know how they were going to feed their kids. MCPS transformed its food distribution system virtually overnight.
“We went from a regular full-service meal on Friday the 13th in March to a summer food service program on Monday the 16th,” says Jeanie Dawson, director of the Department of Materials Management for MCPS. “We had never had to do a complete switchover for an entire school system in three days. It was a Herculean effort. We made 18,000 meals on that Saturday to be prepared for Monday.”
MCPS never looked back. That first week it distributed food at 19 locations to anyone under the age of 18, whether they were an enrolled student or not. By the end of the summer, it was using 51 sites. From March 16 to Aug. 28, the school system gave out 4.4 million meals.
At Montgomery College, officials knew they had to act as well. “Our students oftentimes are first-generation college students,” says DeRionne Pollard, the president of the college. “Many of our students are immigrants. Some have very complex lives, they’re caring for children or parents. The majority of our students work. The jobs that are most vulnerable right now, many of those folks are students at Montgomery College. When you have restaurants that are closed, stores that are closed, they simply don’t have work.”
According to Pollard, the college and its foundation handed out more than $800,000 in direct aid to students, and held food distribution events on its campuses that were also open to the general public. In April, about 47% of its students reported that they had problems with food insecurity. Forty-one percent reported that they had lost their jobs, and 33% reported having their income reduced because of COVID.
The situation was just as dire at The Universities at Shady Grove (USG), which offers more than 80 undergraduate and graduate degree programs from nine Maryland public universities on its Montgomery County campus. It opened an emergency fund for students on April 13, and within 48 hours it had awarded $100 Target gift cards to 150 students. Through August, it had given $65,300 in gift cards to 565 students.
“This is a very challenging situation for everyone, but particularly for students, and particularly for students like ours from underserved communities, because they’re hit the hardest,” says Stew Edelstein, who retired as USG’s executive director in October. “They’re in some cases the most affected by the pandemic itself, let alone the consequences of the disease in terms of employment and education.”
The county has responded to the food crisis by creating Food for Montgomery, a $30 million private/public initiative. About $25 million has been funded—$15 million from the federal CARES Act and $10 million from the county. But “there’s still a $5 million gap,” says Hargrave of The Community
Foundation in Montgomery County, which is administering the program and raising the balance of the money.
Food for Montgomery funds are being used to purchase prepared meals and fresh food from local farmers, and to make investments in the county’s food security system, “so it will be strong, more efficient at meeting needs today and anything that comes down the road,” Hargrave says.
Before the pandemic, Nourish Now, a food bank in Rockville, was distributing about 3,000 pounds a day. These days, the nonprofit is distributing 20,000 pounds.
“It all happened so quickly,” says Brett Meyers, the founder and executive director of Nourish Now. “The only thing I knew about a pandemic was from Contagion,” a 2011 movie in which a virus spreads much like the coronavirus.
When the pandemic hit, Nourish Now had to quickly adapt to a new way of doing business and to demand unlike anything it had seen. “I had to switch the whole organization,” says Meyers, 42.
Most of Nourish Now’s food was reclaimed from restaurants and large institutional kitchens, such as the MGM National Harbor resort and casino in Oxon Hill, Maryland. But almost overnight, many of those places closed. In addition, many high-risk Nourish Now employees and volunteers were no longer able to work.
Prior to the pandemic, Nourish Now was distributing food in four low-income neighborhoods each month; providing a five-day supply for 40 families who would come to the organization’s Rockville warehouse each week; and distributing snacks each week for 2,000 MCPS students.
In late March, Nourish Now started distributing food at two schools that weren’t being served at the time by MCPS. “We could not believe the line of cars,” Meyers says. “It was like a bad version of Field of Dreams.”
These days, Nourish Now provides food each week for 20 distribution events, including those at the Mt. Calvary Baptist Church in Rockville and the Bethesda-Chevy Chase Rescue Squad.
While restaurants and other sources of reclaimed food are starting to reopen, Nourish Now, in order to meet demand, is currently purchasing most of its food at a cost of $25,000 a week. About two-thirds of that money comes from the county; the rest mostly from donations, which have increased by 600% since March.
Early on, Meyers worked 39 straight days and ended up in the hospital with a strep infection. He says he’s still working 14 to 16 hours a day, usually seven days a week, but when he takes a break he often does the same thing: re-watch the movie Contagion.
“I’ve seen it 13 times since March,” Meyers says. “It gets me pumped up for what we have to do.”
Fatima Aguilar arrived in the U.S. from El Salvador when she was 5 years old. Now 26, she lost her job at Taco Bell during the pandemic and was working just one or two days a week at a Peruvian restaurant when she took a bus to the Manna food distribution event at Glenmont United Methodist Church in August.
“I got to the point where I didn’t have a place to live,” said the Wheaton High School alum, who slept outside some nights. “Thank God I got a room. I sold some personal things in order to come up with the money. I sold my MacBook laptop for $400.”
Despite her circumstances, Aguilar didn’t seem sad or pessimistic about the future. In fact, a sense of hope emanated from within her when she spoke.
“This is the moment we should all help each other, no matter what race, no matter where you’re from, because COVID doesn’t say: You’re from here, you’re from there,” she said. “We’re all humans, we’re all the same. I’ve seen a lot of homeless people that need help. Whatever change I have I try to give to them, even though I’m struggling. Some people struggle even more.”
Aguilar has dreams of attending cosmetology school, or maybe even opening her own food truck, from which she’d sell fat sandwiches or plump pupusas. But those were thoughts for a future day. On this one, as she sifted through her bag of fresh food, her eyes lit up when she spotted the yucca. Later, she panfried it and ate it as a side with ground beef to which she added curry, salt and pepper.
The meal, she said, was delicious.
The Need at Nonprofits
These are trying times for nonprofits. Since the pandemic began, 37% of regional nonprofits reported a decline in funding from individual donors, 30% saw a drop in giving from foundations and corporations, and 62% that charge fees for services experienced a decline in revenue, according to a July survey led by Nonprofit Montgomery, an alliance of nonprofit leaders in the county. There were over 800 responses, including 151 from Montgomery County.
“Often the needs of the families [that] nonprofits serve go beyond what [nonprofits] are directly funded for,” says county Councilmember Gabe Albornoz, chair of the Health and Human Services Committee. Combine that with the challenges of providing services in a virtual world, keeping their clients and staff safe, and incurring increased expenses and “you have the perfect negative storm going on right now.”
Those challenges are evident at Home Builders Care Assessment Center (HBCAC), one of three men’s shelters run by the Montgomery County Coalition for the Homeless (MCCH). Occupying a nondescript three-story building in an office park off Gude Drive, the shelter opened in November 2019 and was expected to be a temporary site. Then came COVID-19.
Another MCCH location a few miles away in Derwood recently underwent an expansion. It was supposed to house up to 100 men, but social distancing requirements have reduced the capacity to 36. So the organization, the county’s largest dedicated to fighting homelessness, was forced to extend its stay at the previously vacant office building.
“There have been estimates nationally that there’s a potential to see a 40% increase in the number of people experiencing homelessness because of COVID,” says MCCH CEO Susie Sinclair-Smith. “We have served approximately 100 more individuals than was expected prior to COVID-19.”
Inside HBCAC, the tops of bunk beds now serve as shelves for shopping bags filled with residents’ possessions. Because of social distancing, only the bottom bunks are used for sleeping. Case managers who match residents with housing programs and help them with employment used to have offices on the second floor. Now, cots line the walls; the space has become residential overflow.
Like other organizations, MCCH was forced to quickly pivot many of its caseworkers to a virtual model. This has led to delays in getting services to residents. Gathel Ware Jr. has been at the Derwood shelter for about eight months, and the virus has impacted the 53-year-old’s life in ways both big and small. “It’s slowed the process of getting your housing,” he says. “The case managers are working from home, and they kept us here in quarantine. I couldn’t go out as much. I was in contact with family members more. Now my sisters just stay at home. They really don’t want visitors. I miss them big time.”
The average length of stay at the MCCH facilities has increased from about 90 days to more than 120 since the pandemic started. That, coupled with the changing norms, has taken its toll on both staff and residents, says Jay Scopin, HBCAC’s program director.
“We used to have all our staff here all the time,” he says. “Because programs have suffered, I think it’s leading to more depression. There are fears.”
In the age of masks, quarantines and social distancing, mental health issues have become more visible. “Specifically related to the past six months, people are dealing with financial insecurity, illness, whether that’s them being sick or taking care of family members, or even the fear of illness,” says Ann Mazur, CEO of EveryMind, a Montgomery County-based nonprofit that provides education, advocacy and direct services for people with mental health issues. She also points to other challenges: “The demands of home schooling for working parents. The anxiety about what’s happening and what’s to come. Loneliness.”
EveryMind operates the Montgomery County Hotline, which fields calls daily from 8 a.m. to midnight, providing crisis intervention and response. Since the pandemic started, calls to the hotline have increased by 25%.
“It’s interesting for us because one of our focuses has always been on education, stigma reduction, and having people feel open to talk about their mental health challenges,” Mazur says. “Because of the circumstances, I think the stigma around mental health has been reduced in a strange way. [We] probably talk to colleagues about our mental health and how we’re feeling more than we ever would have before.”
Mike Unger is a writer and editor who grew up in Montgomery County and lives in Baltimore.