An estimated 14%–or at least 33,840–of children living in Montgomery County are food insecure, meaning they don’t have sufficient access to food, according to Feeding America and a report prepared by the Montgomery County Food Council. And an additional estimated 76,000 children face food insecurity but are not eligible to receive free and reduced lunch or Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits.
“There is no reason that we can’t end childhood hunger here in Montgomery County. No reason,” Montgomery County Councilmember Gabe Albornoz (D) told an audience of public officials and community members at Wheaton’s Highland Elementary School on Wednesday morning.
He was there to announce the Montgomery County Strategic Plan to End Childhood Hunger, a partnership between the county government and Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS), as well as members of the General Assembly including Del. Jared Solomon (D-Dist. 18). It was prepared with the Montgomery County Food Council, which created a report addressing the issue of childhood hunger. The plan outlines 14 strategies–six of which are labeled “big ideas” and eight “quicker changes”–to address the crisis.
Albornoz said he came up with the idea for the plan when he was serving as council president last year and decided to work with County Executive Marc Elrich (D), MCPS and county staff to put the plan into motion.
“The plan lays out several key components. One is that we need better data and analysis to ensure that the organizations that are on the ground are not flying blind and have the support that they need to be able to communicate with each other,” Albornoz said. “Second, it involves enhancing the existing infrastructure programs that we have to make sure we expand eligibility and access to eliminate the barriers to accessing those existing programs.”
Since the county has such a high cost of living, some families may earn too much to qualify for these programs but still don’t have sufficient income to cover basic needs, according to the Montgomery County Food Council report. According to a Capital Area Food Bank 2022 Hunger report, 46% of households in Montgomery County have children who experienced food insecurity at some point in 2022.
Some of the strategies listed in the plan include expanding free school meals, providing direct benefits to SNAP ineligible households, expanding food distribution at community schools and expanding distribution of food bags for students to take home on weekends.
MCPS Superintendent Monifa McKnight said some children who qualify for free and reduced lunch aren’t receiving it because their families have not filled out eligibility forms. The system is working to combat this by providing meals at 117 identified high-need schools, regardless of a student’s financial status.
“This is going to ensure that students have the right nutrition to fuel their learning throughout the day,” McKnight said. “We’re going to continue to build that number until we have actually reached the capacity of making sure that every single child in this community gets the food that they need while they’re in school–breakfast, lunch and in some cases, dinner.”
Rosa Cruz, a parent of a Highland Elementary student, said receiving food for her family through the school system has been life changing.
“I have four children, so there are a lot of food expenses,” Cruz said. “When the [school] brings us fresh vegetables and fruits, I can make more nutritious meals for my family and at the same time save money for other living expenses.”
Heather Bruskin, director of the county’s Office of Food Systems Resilience, said the council will host a work session in October to discuss the plan and how to “dig in” to the 14 strategies. She said the county has not yet allocated funds for the plan.
“We want to stretch dollars from outside the county to free up local dollars to address the plan,” Bruskin said.
Bruskin said the plan will also need to include strategies beyond just working with the school system, especially to address hunger in children younger than kindergarten-age. Albornoz said the success of the plan will also rely on state and federal partnerships.