On a Tuesday morning in mid-April, Hughes United Methodist Church Pastor Diana Wingeier is bustling about the gymnasium at the Wheaton church, moving boxes of mushrooms to the back of the room and bags of leafy greens to a table near the front door as she helps shepherd dozens of Montgomery County residents through a weekly food pantry.
Outside the church, a steady stream of people joins those already in line, including many pushing strollers and clasping the hands of young kids, as they wait to enter the pantry run by the Mid County Hub at Hughes United Methodist Church. The Georgia Avenue church oversees the hub, one of eight set up by the county during the early days of the COVID-19
pandemic to provide food and other social services to residents in need.
By the time the pantry closes early in the afternoon, Wingeier’s small staff and volunteers will have served roughly 700 people—more than at any time during the pandemic, she says—filling bags and boxes with fresh produce, baked goods and other staples. Even as the pandemic has waned, the number of people who are food insecure in Montgomery County hasn’t abated, county officials and local food bank operators say. While some residents were able to recover a sense of stability as employment picked up, they soon found that the rising costs of food and other expenses resulting from a turbulent economy meant their paychecks didn’t stretch as far as they used to.
“The need is growing,” says Wingeier, who is facing the challenge of feeding more people as donations decrease and pandemic-driven federal funding that helped communities feed residents runs out. “How can I reject all of these people, tell them to go home?”
In October 2022, the county council approved an additional $8.1 million for the county’s Food Staples Program, which provides food to individuals and families in need, to prevent it from running out of money. “The latest pressure on our high-risk populations is inflation and the high cost of housing and childcare,” noted the request from Democratic County Executive Marc Elrich. The county’s operating budget for the fiscal year that ends on June 30, 2024, which was approved by the county council in May, includes $6.4 million for initiatives to alleviate food insecurity.
The end of the temporary benefit boost to the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) in late February—and the dropping of thousands of residents from the rolls after waived administration requirements were reinstated—has resulted in residents flocking to food distribution sites in numbers that surpass those during the height of the pandemic, people involved with food assistance programs say.
Manna Food Center, a nonprofit that has been serving the county for 40 years, is facing increasing demand. The organization provided food to a record high of about 5,500 households in June, “well above” the demand at the peak of the pandemic, says Steve Corrozi, deputy director for operations at Manna. With offices in Silver Spring and a distribution warehouse in Gaithersburg, Manna also partners with the county to provide food distributed by smaller local agencies, delivers weekend food bags to students at 53 county public schools and runs six school-based pantries.
“We’re sort of wrestling with what our capacity could be because that’s beyond what we have done in the past,” Corrozi says. “We know that there’s demand there and we’re trying to optimize for how we can comfortably and sustainably increase the food that we’re providing.”
The high cost of living in the county coupled with the income threshold for participation in programs such as SNAP has only exacerbated the problem. The income threshold is 130% of the federal poverty level, which would be just under $30,000 a year for a family of three, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a nonpartisan research and policy institute in Washington, D.C. And yet the self-sufficiency standard in Montgomery County is 400% of the federal poverty level, says Allison Schnitzer, food access initiatives director for the Montgomery County Food Council, a nonprofit that brings together businesses, nonprofits, government agencies and residents around food system issues.
“We have such a high self-sufficiency standard here in Montgomery County that you have people who are certainly not making enough to feed their families well enough or consistently enough, but are making too much to be eligible for SNAP,” she says. “So you have a large number of people who fall into that space.”
That’s the case with Carmen Perea, 55, of Silver Spring, who says her job as a full-time housekeeper pays her too much to qualify for SNAP benefits, but not enough to pay for food and other expenses. The Colombian immigrant supplements what she can afford with a box of food from her Silver Spring church twice a month that includes staples such as meat, produce and canned goods. Meanwhile, she says she worries how she will be able to afford to retire.
Older residents who receive SNAP benefits and Social Security have been particularly hard hit by the benefit reductions, seeing a maximum monthly SNAP benefit cut from $281 to $23, according to Schnitzer. Families also have seen their SNAP benefits cut by hundreds of dollars.
“People are calling us in a panic,” Schnitzer says. “We’re really seeing this as a hunger cliff that people are facing because their food budgets through SNAP are being dramatically reduced and the price of food is still staying high and there are just fewer resources out there.”
Chelsi Lewis knew she’d be eating oatmeal for dinner again. Feeding three growing teenagers on a limited budget and donations from local food banks, the single mom from Rockville often has to be creative to come up with nourishing meals and also make the family’s food supplies last as long as possible
So that meant cooking just half of a package of six chicken thighs—one per child—that weeknight in mid-April and saving the rest for another meal. It also meant being evasive with her kids when they asked why she wasn’t having the same dinner as theirs.
When her children were younger and Lewis would struggle to put enough food on the table, she would tell them she wasn’t hungry or that she’d eaten at work. But now that the kids are older—her twin son and daughter are 18 and her other son is 13—it has become more difficult to lie. “They pay attention more,” says Lewis, 50. “And I’m just honest with them, like, ‘Hey, I just don’t have it, guys. Look, I’m fine. As long as y’all eat, I’m good. I’m going to be fine.’ ”
Lewis, who works for a nonprofit in Landover, has had to rely more on local food banks to feed her family. In December, she lost her eligibility to receive $800 per month from SNAP because her extra work during the holidays had increased her income to just above the program’s threshold. She says she was rejected for the same reason in January and doesn’t have the time or energy to go through the onerous application process again.
In May, Lewis advanced from working part time to full time at the nonprofit after she graduated with a bachelor’s degree from Bowie State University. In July, still trying to make ends meet, she was delivering for Instacart and DoorDash in the evenings. August was expected to bring some financial relief when her twins headed off to college at Bowie State.
According to the Capital Area Food Bank’s 2022 Hunger Report, Lewis and her kids were among the 30% of county residents who experienced some sort of food insecurity in 2021, which is defined by the USDA as “a lack of consistent access to enough food for an active, healthy life.” The June 2022 report, based on a general population survey of communities in D.C., Maryland and Virginia, also shows that more than 80% of those who were food insecure in the region were people of color and 48% had children at home. Seventy-seven percent of those experiencing food insecurity were working.
In Montgomery County, most of the residents facing food insecurity live in the eastern part of the area, as well as Wheaton, Aspen Hill, Gaithersburg and Germantown, according to Manna officials. “Those continue to be the places that were most impacted by the pandemic and they’re most impacted by the current wave” of food insecurity, says Jenna Umbriac, Manna’s director of programs.
Long before the pandemic started, the county had been working with the Food Council and nonprofit partners such as Manna and the Capital Area Food Bank to solve the issue of food insecurity. The goal of the five-year Montgomery County Food Security Plan introduced in 2017 was to reduce the food insecurity rate from 7%, or 78,000 people, to 5.5% by the year 2020 by identifying needs, coordinating local efforts and building capacity, according to the county. The county’s progress toward its goal was interrupted by the start of the pandemic.
Before the plan, “there was no kind of central way of connecting all of those people and organizations and resources so that we could not only connect residents to those services most efficiently, but also connect the organizations to each other for communication and for building partnerships,” says Heather Bruskin, the former director of the Food Council who now heads the county’s Office of Food Systems Resilience. The county established the office in 2022 to streamline and coordinate efforts to address local food system challenges.
When the pandemic began in March 2020, a “really robust” network of 75 organizations coordinated by the Food Council was providing a variety of different food assistance services in the county, according to Bruskin. Those efforts laid the “critical groundwork” for the county to mobilize a response when the number of people seeking food assistance increased by 50% at the start of the pandemic, she says.
The number of organizations providing assistance exploded as well, bolstered by a pivot to food distribution by nonprofits that had been focusing on other missions, such as community service.
During the pandemic, the Montgomery County COVID-19 Food Security Task Force, an alliance involving the Food Council and several county agencies, stewarded the county’s investments in food-based programs, creating food purchasing partnerships with big distributors, such as Manna and the Capital Area Food Bank, and local farms. Funded in part by county grants, Manna’s Farm to Food Bank program buys produce from local farms that it distributes to its clients and other food assistance agencies.
On the task force’s recommendation, the county council approved legislation in July 2022 to create the Office of Food Systems Resilience to focus on making the county food system more resilient and equitable. With $1.1 million in county funding in fiscal 2024, the office serves as a liaison between government and community food systems partners such as nonprofits, farmers and businesses, according to county officials. In March, the county named the Food Council’s Bruskin, an expert in food security issues, to lead the office.
Those working in food assistance applaud the new office’s creation.
“It would be incredibly helpful for the county office to be able to get a sense of who is doing what where and how can we best get organizations to work together to serve residents, especially as we are experiencing this decrease in benefits, this decrease in funding for different items, decrease in volunteers who are available,” says Annmarie Hart-Bookbinder, food security programs manager for the Food Council. “There’s just a lot of opportunity there for organizations to really think about what their strengths are and how they can work together.”
One of the top priorities for the Office of Food Systems Resilience will be collecting and analyzing data to determine a clear picture of food insecurity in the county.“There really is no direct measurement of food insecurity at the county level,” Bruskin says, adding that the county can make “guesses” by extrapolating information from census data and state and federal reports. “It’s very difficult to gauge the impact of the investments that we make and the progress that we’re making.”
Compiling accurate and timely data will reduce a “massive gap” of knowledge about available assets and the baseline of issues such as hunger and food production in the county, Bruskin says. Even determining how many residents are eligible for benefit programs like SNAP that have citizenship requirements is difficult in a community like Montgomery County, which has a large percentage of mixed-immigration status families, she says.
Hart-Bookbinder says one way the county can maximize the federal dollars available to help ease food insecurity is to make sure food assistance providers talk to eligible clients about applying for SNAP benefits. The money also benefits the county by trickling down to the grocery stores and markets where recipients buy their food. “It’s providing residents with the dignity they deserve to choose their own foods and those that are culturally relevant to them and appropriate for dietary needs and their family’s needs,” she says.
At the county council’s behest, meanwhile, the Food Council spearheaded the development earlier this year of the county’s strategic plan to end childhood hunger. The plan outlines strategies such as the expansion of SNAP enrollment programs and the free school lunch program. It also calls for ensuring that county schools serving as hubs for wraparound services offer food pantries and distribution, among other recommendations to expand services and benefits to families with kids.
“Everyone now just knows that it’s not only the right thing to do, it is important for our scores in the classroom; it’s important for our economic development; it’s morally right,” Councilmember Will Jawando, chair of the Education and Culture Committee, said in March during a presentation of the plan to the panel and the council’s Health and Human Services Committee.
Jessica, a 21-year-old Burtonsville resident who did not want to provide her full name, packs the trunk of her Honda Civic with bags of food that she selected one April morning at the Manna Choice Market on Old Columbia Pike in Silver Spring. Reminiscent of a grocery store, the converted office space is lined with shelves displaying canned fruits and vegetables, bread and other baked goods. Refrigerated display cases are brimming with bell peppers, eggplant, greens, apples and oranges, while a freezer case holds a variety of meat and poultry.
The setup allows Manna’s clients to choose the food they want and will eat instead of trying to make do with a box from a distribution site that may include culturally inappropriate items, officials say. Manna offers rideshare transportation from the market to those who request it, eliminating another barrier to accessing food.
Jessica, an assistant at a tax preparation business who lives with her parents, says the family sometimes has trouble paying bills, so she comes to the market once a month because it’s an easy way to get food while “everything is expensive.”
Providing people with the opportunity to choose their own food and creating voucher programs so clients can buy culturally appropriate food that Manna doesn’t offer are just a couple of the ways that Manna’s services are driven by its clients, officials say.
“People who are experiencing food insecurity are really the experts on what will help them in that situation. They don’t always have the tools as an individual to get to self-sufficiency,” Manna’s Umbriac says. “That’s where we come in.”
Contributing editor Julie Rasicot lives in Silver Spring.
This story appears in the September/October issue of Bethesda Magazine.