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Grants tackle causes of food insecurity as rising costs plague Maryland families


Grants tackle causes of food insecurity as rising costs plague Maryland families

May 24, 2024 | 5:10 pm ET
By Danielle J. Brown
Grants tackle causes of food insecurity as rising costs plague Maryland families
Inflation continues to drop, but high prices linger, particularly for groceries. Photo by Brandon Bell/Getty Images.

Maryland families continue to feel a pinch in their budgets from rising grocery and living costs, leading nonprofits such as the Maryland Food Bank and state leaders to reconsider how to reduce the causes of food insecurity and poverty.

A report tracking the number of families living paycheck-to-paycheck in Maryland shows that in 2022, nearly 40% of households struggled to afford basic necessities including food, according to United for ALICE, a partner of Maryland United Ways.

The study analyzes financial hardship in ALICE Households, which stands for Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed. Those are households where earnings are above the federal poverty level but less than “what’s needed to survive in the current economy,” according to the updated ALICE report released Thursday.

Among other living costs, food continues to be a hardship for many families, according to the report.

“In 2023, 34.7% of Maryland parents reported difficulties in finding enough affordable food for their children,” it says.

“Food insecurity, it’s not a binary thing. It’s not an on-or-off thing. It’s often cyclical and it’s qualitative,” said Meg Kimmel, the Maryland Food Bank’s chief operating officer.

The Maryland Food Bank is a statewide food distribution hub that works to connect hundreds of food pantries, shelters and other community-based organizations to reduce food insecurity across the state.

Kimmel hopes that a new grant program from the Maryland Food Bank will help reduce what she calls the “root causes” of food insecurity.

“We try to spend energy on the drivers of why people are food-insecure in the first place and working to change those systems,” she said.

Kimmel explained that food insecurity can come from many causes, such as living somewhere without a nearby grocery store or lacking transportation to buy food. Food insecurity can also come from economic factors, such as having high child care costs, needing expensive medical services, or cutting back on work hours to take care of a loved one.

The Maryland Food Bank already has two grant initiatives that work to close gaps in food access. But the new Neighbor Impact Grant is an effort to support other organizations and nonprofits that may not directly provide food assistance but can help battle food insecurity in other ways.

Six organizations will share a total of $1.05 million in grant funding over two years from the Neighbor Impact Grant.

Among them is City of Refuge Baltimore, which not only provides a food pantry for the south Baltimore area but also has workforce development programs to help community members learn skills that help them secure employment.

The Neighbor Impact Grant will help support the City of Refuge’s partnership with NAPA Auto Parts to create an automotive technician training program that also provides subsidized car repairs for low-income residents.

“Good-paying jobs in high-growth industries is the surest way to end hunger for an individual or for a family,” Kimmel said. “And along the path to that, there are lots of other things … as an organization and as a state, we can be doing to take away some of those barriers to stability.”

Another grant recipient is the Westminster Rescue Mission, which will work to bring together existing food pantries in Carroll County to better target food insecurity in more rural areas.

“We’re a rural community. At our heart, it’s a farming community,” said Stephanie Halley, executive director of the Westminster Rescue Mission. “It’s a county that prides itself in taking care of its own.”

She said that people do not often think of Carroll County as a place that struggles with access to food.

“We have over 15,000 people in Carroll County who are food-insecure,” Halley said. “I think we get caught up in saying, ‘Those problems happen somewhere else.’ And sometimes people don’t realize to the extent to which they are happening here.”

She noted that transportation is an issue for rural communities in Carroll County.

“Transportation is just an issue everywhere when you’re talking about vulnerable populations. And it’s a big problem out here in Carroll County,” Halley said.

“In the city, people are close to things,” she said. “But in the county, if you’re poor and you don’t have transportation, you lack access to a lot. And that includes food. There are places where there aren’t grocery stores nearby and to get to food, it costs you money.”

Halley said the Westminster Rescue Mission is meeting with its food pantry partners in the county to see how they can improve access to food for low-income residents.

She said the grant will likely be used help support data collection to see where families are falling through the cracks in Carroll County and find ways to improve their food distribution efforts.

“Thinking along the lines of eradicating food insecurity rather than just, ‘How do we serve more people?’” Halley said.

The Black Church Food Security Network and the Black Yield Institute Inc. are grant recipients that will help bolster urban farming efforts so that community members can grow, sell and distribute fresh produce in their areas.

The United Way of Central Maryland Inc. will also receive grant funding for awareness campaigns to address the child care shortage and advocate for better working conditions among child care workers.

The last of the six grant recipients is the Johns Hopkins Children’s Center which will help provide food, transportation and case management support for families  struggle with food insecurity as they come in contact with the hospital.

Food insecurity is a topic of current interest in both federal and state government.

Congress is negotiating new terms of the Farm Bill, wide-reaching legislation that tackles agricultural and food policy across the nation. It is updated every five years. Part of the bill provides a federal assistance program that families whose incomes are less than the federal poverty level use to help purchase food.

The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), sometimes referred to as “food stamps,” might see a cut of $30 billion over the next 10 years if Congress approves the version currently being pushed by House Republicans, according to policy think tank Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

“The fact that we are having a conversation around not increasing those supports to those families, at a time where the cost of groceries are at the highest level that they’ve been in our history, it would create hardship,”said Kimmel of the Maryland Food Bank.

During the 2024 legislative session, the Maryland General Assembly took some steps to reduce food insecurity and childhood poverty. And in April, Gov. Wes Moore (D) signed Senate Bill 35, sponsored by Sen. Cory V. McCray (D-Baltimore City), which adds a few extra dollars each month for seniors receiving federal food assistance. He also signed the House version, House Bill 66.

While SNAP is a federal program, the funding comes from federal and state sources, and states can provide additional benefits.

Starting in October, the new Maryland law will require that SNAP recipients aged 60 and older get at least $50 in benefits each month, up from the current $40 minimum benefit for that age group.

The ENOUGH Act, among Moore’s priorities for the 2024 session, is another new law aimed to tackle the “root causes” of childhood poverty. It will provide grant funding to organizations and community leaders in certain low-income areas to address the factors that lead to high rates of childhood poverty in those regions.

During session, the Maryland Food Bank supported the ENOUGH Act for working to reduce the number of hungry children and households.

“People are not food-insecure just because they lack food. They’re food-insecure for myriad reasons,” Kimmel said.

“There’s a lot of really good work happening outside of the food-assistance space when it comes to root cause work, so we want to support that as well,” she said.