The Hunger Fighters
In the past five years, the number of county residents who use food stamps has grown more than 150 percent. Solving the problem is much more complicated than providing food.
That was the case for Sue, 50, a disabled Rockville woman who has cared for her four grandchildren since 2008. Sue receives food stamps, but says cuts to her benefits earlier this year led her to seek extra help from Manna and Nourish Now, a Rockville-based food-recovery nonprofit.
“Even if you’re on Section 8 low-income housing, you still have rent and utilities to pay,” says Sue, who asked that her last name not be published. “It can come down to paying your rent and your bills or feeding your kids.”
THE INCREASE IN HUNGER and food insecurity in the county has led many organizations to radically alter the way they provide services. For Manna, that means communicating more with the other 50 organizations in the county that do similar work.
“We’re trying to be more aware and proactive about how we share clients with other agencies, and even how we share volunteers and donors,” DeCarlo says.
For example, Manna recently partnered with Colesville Presbyterian Church in northeastern Silver Spring to create a food pantry there. Once a month, residents in need of food assistance can “shop” for supplies at the pantry, which Manna stocks with produce and other fresh foods.
Manna also participates in the Montgomery County Food Council, an independent coalition of government officials, businesses, nonprofits and professionals, and DeCarlo co-chairs the Food Recovery Work Group, a county-run task force that is fighting food waste at restaurants, catering companies, grocery stores and anywhere else fresh food gets thrown away. The group recently received a planning grant from the county to create a network of food donors and food nonprofits, using a system that could include a website and a smartphone app to pair surplus food with shelters and pantries that can redistribute it. “So a restaurant could send a message to the network saying, ‘Hey, it’s a slow night, we expect to have 50 servings of chicken cacciatore,’ and have an alert go out to homeless shelters in a 10-mile radius,” DeCarlo says.
Members of the local business community also have stepped in to help organizations collaborate more efficiently. “We can’t have 50 groups operating separately and duplicating the same efforts 50 times over,” says Andy Burness, founder and president of Burness Communications, a Bethesda company that provides public relations assistance to nonprofit organizations worldwide. “We have to get better at sharing information in more sophisticated ways; otherwise, all the money in the world won’t solve the problem.”
In May, a group of 15 representatives of local hunger-fighting organizations met in a Burness Communications conference room. Burness talked about addressing the problem by building a comprehensive database that would catalog a family’s individual needs and be accessible to all food nonprofits. It would show, for example, that a family receiving hot meals from one organization also needs groceries from another. “I’m not an IT guy, but I’m told that there is very limited information on who needs what, when and where,” Burness says.
The meeting was scheduled to last for an hour and a half. Burness had to cut it off after about an hour and 45 minutes, and he says some attendees continued the conversation as they left. “A few meetings alone aren’t going to solve this problem,” Burness says. “But we’ve started a conversation.”
RESPONDING TO THE increase in need for food assistance also means recognizing that hungry kids rely on their public schools to provide much of their food during the week. “We know that there are kids who come to school when they’re sick to get breakfast, then go home to rest,” Caplon says.
That led officials to question whether MCPS was doing enough to reach food-insecure kids when school wasn’t in session.
Since 1976, the county has served federally-funded breakfast and lunch during the summer to kids participating in summer programs. But in 2006, school officials noticed that only a small percentage of eligible children were receiving meals, so they began brainstorming ways to increase the numbers.
That summer, they started serving meals at walk-in locations—such as elementary schools, churches or community centers—in neighborhoods where more than half the student body receives free or reduced-price meals during the school year.
Still, they knew they weren’t reaching as many kids as they could. They found that some walk-in sites not connected to a camp or summer-school program weren’t succeeding for a simple logistical reason: Kids left at home alone all day may not have a way to get to the walk-in sites, and may not be able to afford a camp or summer program.
So this summer, in a pilot program that may expand to other parts of the county, MCPS partnered with the Montgomery County Department of Recreation to sponsor a free, six-week half-day camp for 50 kids at Rockville’s Maryvale Elementary School, where 44 percent of students were FARMS-eligible in the 2013-2014 school year, according to MCPS.
MCPS also found by talking to kids that the brown-bag lunches served at most summer programs were unappealing to some children, so it started offering hot lunches at nine locations throughout the county in 2013. The hot meals were such a hit with kids that the school system expanded to 50 locations this summer, Caplon says.
These efforts led to an increase in meals served from 207,000 in the summer of 2005 to 430,000 in the summer of 2013, Caplon says.
Nonprofits also are rallying to help fill the gaps between school-provided meals and those kids may get at home. Multiple nonprofits, including Manna, provide sacks of food to FARMS-eligible children each Friday so they don’t go without over the weekend. Among the nonprofits is volunteer-run Kids in Need Distributors (KIND), founded by Bethesda real estate agent Jeremy Lichtenstein two years ago.
Lichtenstein created KIND after hearing of a “smart sacks” program run by a friend in Kentucky. He called the principal of Cedar Grove Elementary School in Germantown, which his kids attended, and asked if the school could use similar help.
When he learned of the high number of hungry and food-insecure kids at Cedar Grove and other local public schools, Lichtenstein says, “I was completely blown away.”
He began making Costco runs to purchase oatmeal, canned tuna and other nonperishable food for the 34 kids he agreed to sponsor at Cedar Grove. Two years later, he has recruited 35 volunteers to help deliver food to nearly 1,000 students at 17 public schools throughout the county. The group also has raised $250,000 in donations and grants to fund those Costco runs.
Every Friday, volunteers drive carloads of food to participating schools, where more volunteers fill bags with a weekend’s worth of food and quietly place them in kids’ backpacks, Lichtenstein says.
Despite the success of this program and others like it, one of the biggest barriers to feeding hungry children and teens remains: shame. Caplon says many middle- and high-school students who qualify for free or reduced-price meals are too embarrassed to actually get them. In fact, only about 80 percent of the 55,000 MCPS students approved for free and reduced-price meals take part in the program, Caplon says.
“In elementary school, kids will walk up to the cashier and say, ‘I’m free,’ with no problem,” Caplon says. “In middle school, kids start to feel like there’s a stigma. That’s a real struggle for us.”
THE REV. ADAM SNELL knows what it’s like to feel unsure about where you’ll get your next meal. Snell, now the senior pastor at St. Paul’s United Methodist Church in Kensington, grew up in a small town in Delaware in a family that he describes as having “limited means.”
“I have found myself in places throughout my life where I have been food insecure, and I know the low-grade anxiety that permeates that situation,” Snell says.
So a few years ago, when Snell heard what he describes as a clear message from God to feed hungry people, he didn’t question it. For years, St. Paul’s had sponsored meals for hungry families around the holidays. But after Snell’s epiphany, the church began collecting funds and canned food from church members on designated days throughout the year, not just around the holidays.
Two years ago, the church started hosting monthly food pickups, called “Communion Collect,” for 30 needy families in its ZIP code. The families could come to the church on a designated evening to pick up a few bags of dried goods, beans and a small Safeway gift card for milk and produce.
Soon the church had an unexpected problem with the money it was bringing in from parishioners. “We couldn’t spend it fast enough,” Snell says.
They considered donating to a food pantry. But Brian Ruberry of Kensington and the other church members who headed the hunger ministry had another idea. They would declare 20895 a hunger-free zone, promising to deliver three days’ worth of groceries to anyone in that ZIP code, no questions asked. The church partnered with the all-volunteer nonprofit Bethesda Help, which was already operating an emergency food-delivery service for a wide swath of the county, and last September started placing lawn signs advertising the “hunger-free zone” around town.
“When you come to church, you look around and say, ‘Wow, this is a nice area,’ ” Ruberry says. “South Kensington is very affluent. But just north of our church, around Einstein High School and along University Boulevard, there are hidden pockets of poverty.” Ruberry recalls delivering to a woman who lived in a large, well-maintained house, and realizing once he walked inside that there were nine children living there, and the fridge was bare.
Melissa was among the first residents to call last fall. She was far from the only one—since deliveries started in October 2013, drivers such as Kim Longsworth have made more than 150 food deliveries.
“We may not be able to end hunger in Nicaragua or Africa,” Snell says, “but we can take ownership of 20895.”