OLNEY, Md. — Government programs, food banks and nonprofit organizations aiding people who struggle to put food on the table have had to adapt to the novel coronavirus pandemic, and they say stress levels have moved beyond typical levels.
As more Marylanders encounter food insecurity, schools, nonprofits and others must figure out a way to get more food to more people, but with less staff and safety concerns hampering their ability to do so.
Organizations must weigh the possibility that volunteers and staff who are handling food could transmit or acquire the virus.
On Tuesday, Montgomery County sent out an email alerting the community about two “nutrition services staff members” who tested positive for COVID-19 at Glen Haven Elementary School, having last worked on site March 26.
Additionally, the email states that the chance of students and families becoming sick is “low given that the staff members were not symptomatic while working on site.”
On Friday, Maryland’s Department of Human Services announced that it would spend an additional $66 million on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or SNAP — formerly known as food stamps — which would reach 319,000 households in two months, according to a press release from the agency.
On March 27, the Department of Human Services made accessing SNAP easier by eliminating the work requirement and extending SNAP recipients’ certification scheduled to end in or before May by six months after being granted approval from the USDA, according to a state Department of Human Services statement.
“For Marylanders in need of food, these times can be acutely stressful as they try to navigate these unchartered waters,” Department of Human Services Secretary Lourdes R. Padilla said in the March 27 statement.
In December, 604,287 people were enrolled in SNAP in Maryland, which is down 3.6% from the same month the previous year, according to a March report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Nationwide, there were more than 37 million SNAP participants as of March 13, according to the USDA.
The federal government eased SNAP restrictions with the March 18 Families First Coronavirus Response Act, which includes billions of dollars for nutrition assistance, according to a USDA press release.
In a remote press briefing on Wednesday, Director of Maryland Hunger Solutions Michael Wilson said he supports an expansion of nutritional programs because “there is no reason why we should deny people who are experiencing poverty access to food.”
Wilson said Hunger Solutions has not been able to perform its typical advocacy and outreach, meeting people at nutritional clinics and homeless shelters — and instead is operating remotely.
Hunger Solutions is getting many calls from people experiencing food insecurity differently; those who thought they would never experience food insecurity and others who feel like they have not received adequate assistance.
“As we communicate with our congressional delegation across Maryland, and others, we want to have people understand that this is a system that failed millions of people and that their anger is palpable,” Wilson said during the remote briefing hosted by the Food Research and Action Center, a nonprofit that works to end poverty-related hunger.
Maryland Food Bank Director of Communications Joanna Warner said the coronavirus has created a lot of challenges — increasing demand, maintaining enough volunteers and getting enough support and funding.
Communicating to the public that they are deemed essential and allowed to stay open has also been difficult, Warner said.
Maryland Food Bank’s warehouse — where their partners pick up food — is seeing a larger volume than usual, and some workers compare the current demand to levels seen during the winter holiday season, which is their busiest time of the year, Warner said.
Warner said a huge challenge is making sure that their local partners, including food pantries, are able to continue operations.
“So many of their operations rely on older volunteers, which has obviously been a challenge. Right now, we have about 65% of our networks operational in central Maryland,” Warner said.
“Our community partners, from what I can tell, are experiencing an influx of clients. There’s a whole new client population of individuals who just lost a job, many in the hospitality field, who have never experienced food insecurity before,” Warner said.
Volunteering at the Maryland Food Bank has also decreased; in the middle of March, corporate groups began canceling their volunteering visits because of fears about the coronavirus, Warner said.
To prevent the possible spread of the virus, the food bank makes sure projects involve 10 people or fewer, there is lots of space between individuals, they are consistently cleaning the facility and providing gloves, Warner said.
Last school year there were 384,470 Maryland public school students enrolled in free and reduced-price meal programs, according to Maryland’s Department of Education, and with schools closed and classes online, educators and partnering organizations are finding ways to adapt.
Maryland Hunger Solutions has compiled a list of school-based meal sites on its website where families of students can pick up meals.
“We have meal services for our students in need. We are serving breakfast, lunch and dinner and having weekend backpacks,” Montgomery County schools spokesperson Derek Turner said.
Maryland public schools are scheduled to be closed until at least April 24.
Schools are adjusting around spring break. In Montgomery County, Women Who Care Ministries and Manna Food Center will distribute food for the weekend.
County schools are scheduled to provide meal bags on Wednesday and Thursday — which will come with an additional bag of food — according to an announcement.
Manna Food Center, a Montgomery County food bank, has a “Smart Sacks” program, which provides Montgomery County Public School students with weekend meal backpacks.
Manna has seen an uptick in the number of participating students since schools closed, distributing about 5,000 weekend meal backpacks per week, according to Manna Foods program manager Cynthia Wilson.
“We had to get creative, and for the safety of Manna Foods, we can’t have everyone in the office. Our call center is absurd right now, our phones literally do not stop ringing,” Wilson said.
Wilson said weekend backpack distribution has “shifted to a drive-through” model, meal delivery has just been introduced, and their “Mobile Kitchen and Pop-Up Pantry”, a bus retrofitted with a kitchen that educates students with cooking classes, has been canceled.
Debra McCurry has been volunteering with Manna Food Center for nine years, inspired by a conversation she had with a parent on her kid’s high school field hockey team, and has seen “Smart Sacks” at Viers Mill Elementary School grow from serving 15 to 50 students.
When McCurry picks up food from Manna Food Center for the “Smart Sacks,” she makes sure to wash her hands prior to arriving and wears gloves while handling the food — typically pasta, beans and various snacks — and then leaves the food in a room in her house for a week before touching them again and packing them into backpacks.
“To me it’s very important because we’re all impacted by this health crisis,” McCurry said. “I think that taking care of kids really should be what society is all about.”
Real Food for Kids, a nonprofit that works with school communities, partnered with the Silver Diner at the Rio Shopping Center in Gaithersburg, Maryland, to serve families free fully prepared plant-based meals Wednesday, and will continue to provide grab-and-go meals for the remaining school year as schools remain closed.
Real Food for Kids executive director Jenn Yates said the original plan was to supply 250 meals but had to increase to 350 “on the fly,” when cars lined the street hours before doling out meals at 2 p.m.
“It just goes to show just how important school meals are for families that are in need, and the growing economic insecurity for so many families,” Yates said. “I hope that this issue, what’s happening right now, really helps people understand, in regular times, just how important school meals are.”
Real Food for Kids started the “Chefs Feeding Families” initiative with Chef David Guas of the Bayou Bakery in Arlington, Virginia, on March 17, and because of its success, the nonprofit reached out to the Silver Diner and Pizzeria Paradiso, which is scheduled to begin serving pizzas on Thursday in Hyattsville, Maryland, according to a press release.
Meal distribution points have also been an opportunity for philanthropy beyond food.
Gillian Huebner, a child protection professional with UNICEF, organized a donation for board and card games, puzzles and books for students receiving meals at two Montgomery County schools, Sligo Middle School and Einstein High School, where her two kids attend school and she is a member of the Parent and Teacher Association.
Huebner said her “natural instinct is humanitarian response,” which is one reason why she came up with the idea, and why she ended up with two full carloads that filled the trunk and back seat of her Subaru Outback.
To disinfect the donations, Huebner said the games, books and puzzles were wiped down with disinfectant wipes and left in a container for 72 hours before distributing them.
“The feedback that we got was a lot of enthusiasm from the neighborhood and that’s the heartening thing that you see at times like this,” Huebner said.
Seniors vulnerable to food insecurity and isolation have also been hit hard by the coronavirus outbreak.
In Montgomery County, the Department of Health and Human Services changed their senior “congregate meal program,” and now provides frozen meal packs, which contain enough food for seven meals, according to a county press release.
The program may implement a wait list because of “rapidly increasing demand;” it serves about 2,500 seniors, 60 years or older, a month, according to the press release.
Meals on Wheels is a national organization that addresses hunger and isolation among seniors, and the Maryland branch delivered about 1.3 million meals last year, according to the group’s annual report.
Meals on Wheels of Central Maryland executive director Stephanie Archer-Smith told Capital News Service the demand for their services has “raised dramatically” and have had to adjust how services are provided.
In-home visits have been suspended; all communication must be done remotely, mostly via phone; older volunteers — over the age of 70 — who had been the majority, are not allowed to help, and meal delivery has turned into providing packages of seven frozen meals, according to Archer-Smith.
With many of their normal services suspended or changed due to health concerns, Meals on Wheels still is able to serve seniors vulnerable to hunger and isolation.
“I just received a message from someone we delivered to today who was 93 years old and her quote was ‘Thank God for Meals on Wheels you’re an answer to my prayers.’” Archer-Smith said April 1.
More information on the organizations mentioned in this story:
Manna Food Center: https://www.mannafood.org/covidresponse/
Maryland Food Bank: https://mdfoodbank.org/ways-to-give/volunteer/
Meals on Wheels of Central Maryland: https://www.mealsonwheelsmd.org/volunteer-application/
Maryland Hunger Solutions: https://frac.salsalabs.org/fraciicopy1copy1/index.html