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.
WHEN HE MANAGED a Panera Bread in Potomac in 2006, Brett Meyers recalls seeing full crocks of soup being dumped out and loaves upon loaves of bread being thrown into the trash.
The waste, which he describes as “an atrocity,” stuck with Meyers after he left Panera and, in 2011, he quit his job at a vending machine company and founded Nourish Now, a nonprofit that recovers surplus food donated by restaurants, caterers, bakeries and grocery stores and distributes it to people in need in Montgomery County. He started by contacting Panera and driving donated food from his former workplace to food banks, shelters and group homes nearby. Meyers drove to low-income apartment complexes and asked building managers to pass out meals, approached people at bus stops, and even knocked on doors in low-income neighborhoods to ask if residents knew anyone who was in need of food assistance.
After six months, five restaurants were routinely donating food, Meyers says. At first, he found space to store surplus food at The Universities at Shady Grove, but as donations increased, he decided last year to rent his own space in Rockville.
These days, Nourish Now has a refrigerated truck and four full-time employees, funded primarily by grants and private donations. Most of the 350 families or individuals who come to Nourish Now to pick up five-day supplies of food each month are referred by other social-service agencies in the county, though a few clients Meyers connected with at bus stops still come, too.
Nourish Now also delivers fresh food to several other agencies. On a recent afternoon, Meyers was driving a refrigerated truck full of vegetables to Manna so it could distribute the produce to clients. St. Paul’s Church often gives out bread recovered by Nourish Now.
In three years of operation, Nourish Now has recovered and redistributed 200,000 pounds of food, Meyers says.
This past June 18, Meyers received a call from a supplier asking if he could use 2,400 pounds of cauliflower dated as fresh until June 30. A few months ago, another supplier offered 2,000 pounds of chocolate milk. “That sometimes happens when a company over-orders,” Meyers says. “It can be a little difficult to figure out how to distribute it all while it’s still fresh, but we always get rid of it.”
The nonprofit is also beginning a pilot program to test whether it can eradicate food insecurity for a small group of people by closely collaborating with social service agencies and other food nonprofits. The idea is to closely track 30 people—seven men living in a group home and several families—and connect them with every available food-assistance measure necessary to meet their needs.
“If a family lives in Gaithersburg and already receives assistance from us, we might connect them with [the nonprofit agency] Gaithersburg Help to help them get through the rest of the month,” Meyers says.
If the program is successful, Meyers says it could be one idea for solving a very complicated problem that doesn’t lend itself to a one-size-fits-all solution. “If you have 10 different clients, you’ll get 10 different stories,” he says. “One person lost his job. Another is living in a homeless shelter. I met a lady yesterday who can’t leave her house because she just had surgery, and she needs a little extra help to get by while she recovers.”
THE PEOPLE WHO WORK to feed Montgomery County’s hungry all know that solving this problem is more complex than providing food; it involves a range of social issues, including poverty, lack of education, job security, housing, transportation and social stigmas. Longsworth, the St. Paul’s volunteer, says she likes to think she is tackling that big truth in a small but meaningful way.
The first time she delivered food to Melissa last year, the Army veteran was wearing a shy smile and a sweatshirt with appliqué leaves. “She just had this cute little crafty sweatshirt, and she was so sweet,” Longsworth says. “Something about her and her personality really touched me.”
As Longsworth handed over bags of groceries, the two struck up a conversation. Melissa’s son is 15, as is Longsworth’s youngest daughter. The women exchanged phone numbers, and before long they were talking on the phone regularly. When Longsworth delivers to Melissa now, she makes a point of including crunchy peanut butter—she knows it’s one of Melissa’s favorites.
“Oh, wow!” Melissa says, peering into one of her three grocery bags and spotting the crunchy peanut butter.
“I know you like that,” Longsworth says. “We have to have fun, right?”
It’s a small thing, but thanks to St. Paul’s and Longsworth, Melissa has added one more layer to her social safety net. She even attends church with Longsworth and her family.
“I feel bad, because she’s got a big family and I take up room in the car,” Melissa says.
“What did I tell you the other day?” Longsworth says, smiling. “I told you there’s room for you. There’s always room for you.”
Amy Reinink is a frequent contributor to the magazine who also writes for Runner’s World and other outdoor publications. To comment on this story, email firstname.lastname@example.org.