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In Affluent Maryland County, Pandemic Exacerbates Food Insecurity

Sep 27, 2020

An hour before the food distribution event began in Bethesda, Md., on a recent Friday, a long line of cars was already winding through the parking lot.

Volunteers from St. John's Episcopal Church worked to unpack boxes of bread, prepared meals and coffee — enough for the first 200 people to arrive. Nourish Now, a Maryland-based nonprofit food bank, provides food for the weekly events.

Waiting in his car, Peter Warner was sure to arrive early this time. Last week, the group ran out of meals within a half hour.

"I was fortunate to get a spot, and they had almost run out of food 20 minutes after the starting bell," he said. "Anyone who got here after 1:30 p.m. was totally out of luck."

Nearly all of the people who had lined up for those meals said they lacked reliable access to safe, nutritious food as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.

Since March, food insecurity has grown throughout the U.S., including in Montgomery County, one of the wealthiest counties in the country.

Before the pandemic, at least 35 million people in the U.S. were unable to get enough food or were uncertain where their next meal might come from. That number is projected to go up by at least 17 million for this year, according to the nonprofit Feeding America; researchers at Northwestern University say food insecurity has actually doubled from before the pandemic.

In Montgomery County, Feeding America projects food insecurity to go up from 8% in 2018 to 13% this year.

Warner relies on a $1,000 monthly disability check for all of his expenses, including food and shelter.

"I also am now getting $194 a month in SNAP food stamps, which is invaluable," he said, but it wasn't quite enough to cover his food for this month. "Today is the 18th, my food stamp award comes in on the 22nd — I have to eat for the next four days."

The line of cars eventually spilled into the busy street outside the parking lot of the Bethesda-Chevy Chase Rescue Squad, a volunteer firefighting group that loaned out its space for the event.

Drivers line up to receive food distribution in Bethesda. Food insecurity has increased in Montgomery County since the start of the pandemic.
Xueying Chang / NPR

For some, being food insecure is a source of shame. Many of the people in line didn't want to provide their last names.

Linda, who was laid off from her housekeeping job in May, hoped to pick up food for her daughter and five grandchildren.

Her unemployment application hasn't gotten approved yet, and five months without work or any financial aid is taking its toll.

"It's too difficult really — I'm struggling," she said. "I hope the pandemic, it's finished soon. It's so difficult, but we are still blessed to have somebody to provide some food for us."

Adam and his wife, parents of two children, are both collecting unemployment and seeking food assistance for the first time in their lives, after they were each furloughed in March.

"Any little bit helps now, because you never know what's going to happen tomorrow, or the next day, so it's good just to be prepared because you never know how long this is going to last," he said.

Some of the federal funds Montgomery County received from the CARES Act have gone toward food insecurity efforts like Nourish Now, a nonprofit based in Rockville, Md.
Xueying Chang / NPR

Until last month, there was no food distribution in the Bethesda-Chevy Chase area, located just outside of Washington, D.C. That's when Andrew Friedson, the Montgomery County council member for the area, pulled together a coalition of nonprofit, commercial and faith-based groups to help distribute food. He said the pandemic has only increased an existing need for food assistance in the area.

"It has always been needed," Friedson said. "I think there is more poverty in Montgomery County — and even places like Bethesda — than people realize in normal time," he said. "And during COVID, it has just gone through the roof, the challenges that we face."

Since the start of the pandemic, Friedson said, rental assistance and food security are the two biggest issues his office hears about from constituents.

Even with local grant programs, he said, the county can't keep up. "We desperately need federal government support."

Volunteer John Ross sees the effort as something beyond the transactional delivery of food to those in need. "It's the care that comes along with this too," he said.
Xueying Chang / NPR

In late April, Montgomery County received about $183 million in federal funds after Congress passed the $2 trillion Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act that Congress passed a month earlier. A portion of that money has gone toward small businesses, rent relief, child care, public transportation and food assistance programs, including Nourish Now.

Still, Friedson said, "it's nowhere near enough."

While feeding the food insecure is the goal of Nourish Now's distribution event, volunteer John Ross said it's about more than just the food — "it's the care that comes along with this too."

"COVID and the economic disruption is an equal across-the-board disruptor of people's lives," said Ross. "What we want to do out here, too, is show people that people care ... that we're all together in this and we all need to be part of that."

NPR's Kira Wakeam, Eliza Dennis and Natalie Friedman Winston produced and edited this story for broadcast. Emma Bowman produced it for the Web.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

So what does food insecurity look like and feel like for the 1 in 6 people who are projected to experience it this year? We went to find out.

JOHN ROSS: I need one more volunteer to load cars.

MARTIN: On a Friday earlier this month, we visited a food distribution site in Bethesda, Md. It's in Montgomery County, which is one of the wealthiest counties in the country. But as in many places, the need for food has grown since the beginning of the pandemic.

ROSS: People will line up and come right around here. You'll see they've already started lining up.

MARTIN: Before the distribution is set to begin, volunteers like John Ross are unloading some of the more than 200 boxes of food to be handed out. Stacks of bread are piled high on one table, prepared meals and bags of coffee on the other.

ROSS: It's been shocking to, I think, all of us to see this on the ground right here, right now. So we're doing the best we can.

MARTIN: An hour before the event is scheduled to begin, a long line of cars is already winding through the parking lot at the Bethesda-Chevy Chase Rescue Squad, a volunteer firefighting group that loaned out their space. We met Peter Warner while he was waiting in his car.

PETER WARNER: Last week, I arrived here at 20 minutes after 1. There were a quarter-mile worth of cars in line. I was fortunate to get a spot, and they had almost run out of food 20 minutes after the starting bell. Anyone who got here after 1:30 p.m. was totally out of luck.

MARTIN: Warner arrived early this time. He works part-time at Safeway and receives a monthly disability check of a thousand dollars. That has to cover all of his basics - rent, medicine, keeping his car running and, of course, food.

WARNER: I also am now getting $194 a month in SNAP food stamps, which is invaluable. But today is the 18. My food stamp award comes in on the 22. I have to eat for the next four days.

MARTIN: As we spoke to people, the line of cars kept growing, eventually snaking down the busy street outside the parking lot.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: How many families? OK, two here.

MARTIN: Many of the people we talked with in line didn't want to say much about their situation. It seemed like a source of shame and pain. One or two said that falling short on food even for a couple of days a month was a chronic problem in an area where the cost of living is high. But most of the people we spoke with said the coronavirus pandemic or the steps taken to contain it was the main reason they needed help with food right now.

Linda is one of them. She was picking up food for her daughter and five grandchildren. Before the pandemic, she worked as a housekeeper.

LINDA: I laid off since May. I'm trying to apply for unemployment if I can.

MARTIN: That unemployment application has yet to be approved, and five months without work or any financial aid is taking its toll.

LINDA: It's too difficult, really. I'm struggling. I hope the pandemic - it's finished soon. You know, it's so difficult. But we are still blessed to have somebody to provide some food for us, so we will still thanks to God.

MARTIN: We also met Adam. He's a father of two. He and his wife are both collecting unemployment and seeking food assistance for the first time in their lives.

ADAM: Both me and my wife are on furlough since March. And now just with the extended benefits down, it's just - it's - yeah, the money is very - it's a lot lower now, so it helps. You know, any little bit helps now because you never know what's going to happen tomorrow or the next day. So it's good just to be prepared for it because you never know how long this is going to last.

MARTIN: There hadn't been any food distribution in the Bethesda-Chevy Chase area until August. That's when Andrew Friedson, the Montgomery County council member for the area, brought together a coalition of nonprofit, commercial and faith-based groups to distribute food. You can hear that we're both talking through our masks.

This is an affluent area. Montgomery County is affluent in Maryland, and - which means it's one of the most affluent areas in the country. So when did you realize that you really did need something like that?

ANDREW FRIEDSON: Well, it has always been needed. I think there's more poverty in Montgomery County and even in places like Bethesda than people realize in normal times. And during COVID, it has just gone through the roof, the challenges that we face.

MARTIN: But Friedson says, since the start of the pandemic, the need for help with food and rent are the two biggest issues his office is hearing about from constituents.

FRIEDSON: We desperately need federal government support. The CARES Act was great. That's largely what is funding the public efforts on these - the CARES Act funding, the $183 million that the county has received. But it's nowhere near enough.

MARTIN: And while feeding those in need is the goal of this distribution event, volunteer John Ross says it's about more than just the food.

ROSS: What we want to do out here too is show people that people care. It's not just the calories, but it's the care that comes along with this, too - that we're all together in this, and we all need to be part of that.

(SOUNDBITE OF ANDREW BIRD'S "BLOODLESS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.