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Teaching the hungry to help themselves [Commentary]

Food insecurity has become a major issue in the United States. More families than ever before are depending on government assistance and other nutritional aid to supplement their diets. And the problem is only going to get worse as Congress considers billions of dollars in cuts to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, also known as food stamps.

Food prices have risen in the past couple of years due to droughts in the United States and other countries. Grain, dairy and meat products — items that are staples in the diets of most families — have been especially vulnerable to price increases.

What does this mean for American families? Almost 15 percent of people living in the United States experienced some type of food insecurity last year. And yet, the government continues to make cuts on federal aid programs, and the minimum wage continues to stay below a living wage value for the cost of living today.

In Maryland, the richest state in the country, people earning minimum wage are only making $7.25 an hour, and 10 percent of the population is living below the poverty line. How are they going to support the nutritional needs of their families?

In Baltimore, many neighborhoods are feeling the effects of unemployment, low-paying jobs and food program cuts. Some of the poorest communities are also dealing with inadequate food options and an influx of fast food restaurants and corner markets.

One such neighborhood in South Baltimore faces food insecurity on a regular basis. With no grocery stores within a mile radius and some of the highest unemployment rates in the city, the Brooklyn/Curtis Bay community is having a hard time meeting basic nutritional needs, especially toward the end of the month when the money runs out. Residents in this area are depending on food pantries to supplement their diets.

One church in the area serves over 100 families each month through its food pantry on the third Saturday of every month. The pastor noted that many families rely on the extra groceries and the hot dinners the church provided for all community residents each Friday. Two schools in the area also offer weekly food pantries with canned goods, frozen meat and other frozen and dried foods provided by the Maryland Food Bank. These food banks are supporting more than 50 families with supplemental food.

Is giving away food the only way to meet the nutritional needs of people who do not have enough money to buy essential sustenance? What if people in Curtis Bay/Brooklyn had other options to alleviate their food challenges?

Jason Reed of Filbert Street Garden thinks that he may have one solution. His vision for the garden he oversees in Curtis Bay is broader than just providing extra food for the community; he wants to create a sustainable resource that can teach residents about nutrition, gardening and starting produce plots in their own backyards.

With the Filbert Street Garden as their classroom, teachers and students are learning about nature, local produce and even entrepreneurship. One student group meets weekly to run TriVeggie, a mobile food mart that sells local products to area residents. They learn business and gardening skills by cultivating and creating products to sell for a profit. Area residents are also getting involved in the garden; during the harvest season they can visit the garden's monthly farmer's market for fresh and local products.

Community gardens may not be the answer to food problems for Americans, but creating a community initiative that empowers and engages residents and provides much needed fresh produce is a step in the right direction.

To learn more about food deserts and programs that can support your community's food efforts, please visit Maryland Hunger Solutions at mdhungersolutions.org.

Meredith Slater is a graduate student at the School of Social Work, University of Maryland, Baltimore. Her email is mslater@umaryland.edu.

To respond to this commentary, send an email to talkback@baltimoresun.com. Please include your name and contact information.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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