The Hunger Fighters
In the past five years, the number of county residents who use food stamps has grown more than 150 percent. Solving the problem is much more complicated than providing food.
Photos by Lisa Helfert
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Kim Longsworth loads a dozen heavy white canvas bags of groceries into the trunk of her Honda SUV before climbing into the driver’s seat. Petite and fit at 49, Longsworth plugs a Kensington address into her GPS, then cruises down Plyers Mill Road, passing well-kept colonials on tree-lined streets. She continues toward University Boulevard, where strip malls and apartment complexes begin to overtake single-family homes, then heads west until she reaches her first stop of the evening, a high-rise apartment building. A short woman with long dark hair waits outside for her, smiling.
Longsworth is one of seven volunteer drivers at St. Paul’s United Methodist Church in Kensington. Last fall, the church pledged to deliver a three-day supply of food to anyone in its ZIP code who calls a hotline, no questions asked. The woman at the high-rise, a 54-year-old disabled U.S. Army veteran who asked to be identified as Melissa, is a regular customer who says the three bags of groceries Longsworth is delivering mean the difference between covering rent and expenses this month or not.
It’s an exchange that’s becoming more common in Montgomery County, where hunger is on the rise, sparking a new wave of hunger fighters—from school lunch programs finding ways to feed children on weekends to social entrepreneurs who recover day-old bread from area bakeries and deliver it to people in need.
For Melissa, who has two knee replacements and no car, it’s tough to travel to traditional food pantries, few of which are located close to bus or Metro lines. She says last winter, with its frequent snow
and ice storms, was particularly difficult.
“I am so appreciative of Kim and her help,” Melissa says. “It means I have hope.”
THE U.S. DEPARTMENT of Agriculture does not quantify the number of hungry people in the country, but instead tracks “food insecurity,” defined as “limited or uncertain availability of nutritionally adequate and safe foods or limited or uncertain ability to acquire acceptable foods in socially acceptable ways.” According to the Chicago-based hunger relief charity Feeding America, more than 8 percent of Montgomery County residents and more than 16.3 percent of the county’s children were food insecure at some point in 2012, the most recent year for which data was available.
In Montgomery County, hunger is often measured by participation in federal food programs. In July 2013, more than 69,700 county residents received help through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, also known as food stamps—an increase of about 151 percent from July 2008, according to the Baltimore advocacy group Maryland Hunger Solutions. And as of June 2014, 35.6 percent of the county’s 151,000 public school children qualified for the Free and Reduced-price Meals (FARMS) program based on their family’s income, according to Marla Caplon, director of the Division of Food and Nutrition Services for Montgomery County Public Schools. That’s compared with 30 percent in 2010 and 22 percent in 2002, Caplon says.
The income guidelines for the FARMS program depend on the number of people in a household; a family of four with a household income of less than $30,615 qualifies for free meals, while a family of four with a household income of less than $43,568 qualifies for reduced price meals. Caplon says there are FARMS-eligible kids in every school in Montgomery County.
“There’s a stereotype that hungry people are poor, that they’re from broken families, that the parents are poorly educated,” Caplon says. “The reality is, in every community, there are hard-working, intelligent people who can’t make ends meet.”
Melissa says she spent several years as an opposing missile computer operator in the Army. She says she moved from California to Annapolis for a job after getting out of the military about 10 years ago. In 2004, she was riding in a taxi on Maryland Route 3 when the cab was hit by a tractor-trailer and then an SUV, she says. She sustained a traumatic brain injury, and was left with debilitating arthritis that led to two knee replacements.
The brain injury caused memory problems that make the months following her accident seem blurry now, Melissa says. But this much she remembers: After she recovered, she found herself unable to hold a job, and was even homeless for a while. “I’ve been struggling for so long,” she says, “I can’t even remember what it feels like to not be in pain.”
HUNGER by the numbers
69,700 | Montgomery County residents receiving help through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program—food stamps—in July 2013
151 | Percent increase in food stamp participation from July 2008 to July 2013
35.6 | Percentage of MCPS students eligible for the Free and Reduced-price Meals (FARMS) program based on their family’s income as of June 2014
30 | Percentage of FARMS-eligible children in 2010
22 | Percentage of FARMS-eligible children in 2002
8 | Percentage of Montgomery County residents who were food insecure at some point in 2012
16.3 | Percentage of the county’s children who were food insecure at some point in 2012
She connected with Easter Seals, a nonprofit offering help to disabled veterans, a few years ago and slowly got back on her feet. She has been in her apartment on University Boulevard for three years, and hopes to get training that will allow her to find a job in information technology. Though she’s far from being on the street again, she says, it’s still hard to pay the rent, bills and medical expenses and to buy food most months, even with disability checks from the military and other assistance.
Montgomery County has always been an expensive place to live, but the housing market crash and ensuing recession made it even harder for many families to make ends meet, says Uma Ahluwalia, director of the Montgomery County Department of Health and Human Services.
“What we saw during the recession is a lot of two-parent households who had been making it until one person lost their job,” Ahluwalia says. “All of a sudden, the numbers don’t work, and they end up in our offices for food assistance.”
At the same time, unexpected hardships such as the federal government shutdown and furloughs created new and complex challenges for the county’s working-class families, says Jackie DeCarlo, executive director of Gaithersburg-based Manna Food Center, the largest food nonprofit in the county. “Workers at every level are being tight with their budgets,” DeCarlo says. “Middle-class households are not getting home repairs done, or are opting to discontinue their house cleaner. For people living on the edge—many of them blue-collar workers in the service industry—this means lost jobs and decreased wages.”
At Manna, any Montgomery County resident who doesn’t meet the self-sufficiency standard, which is defined by the hourly wage needed to meet basic needs without public or private assistance, is eligible for a week’s worth of food each month. In Montgomery County, given the average cost of housing, transportation and food, a single adult needs to make an hourly wage of $17.07 to be self-sufficient, according to the Montgomery County Community Action Agency. And the number of people who don’t meet that standard increases every quarter, DeCarlo says.
“It’s a really troubling trend,” DeCarlo says. “I’m not suggesting that there are large numbers of people in our county who are malnourished. But to be in this society and not know where your next meal is going to come from is troubling.”
Increasingly, assistance from one organization isn’t enough to get by—especially after cuts to federal food-stamp programs earlier this year, Ahluwalia says.