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Baltimore County provides over 6 million free meals during pandemic as experts expect food insecurity to worsen

Parkville High School student Ryan McCann, 14, carries a pallet of bread at the Hillendale Police Athletic League building in Parkville on Sept. 19. He is one of the students hired by the county to help provide free meals each week from now until late December, when their work contracts end.
Parkville High School student Ryan McCann, 14, carries a pallet of bread at the Hillendale Police Athletic League building in Parkville on Sept. 19. He is one of the students hired by the county to help provide free meals each week from now until late December, when their work contracts end. (Taylor DeVille / Baltimore Sun Media Group)

Baltimore County’s food distribution for those in need now runs like a well-oiled machine, thanks to the volunteers.

At the Hillendale Police Athletic League in Parkville, Recreation and Parks employees Rob Taylor, Rick Griggs and Shawn Sprole direct cars, two at a time, through the parking lot.

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“Trunk or back seat?” they ask before Baltimore County Public Schools students load boxes of canned goods and nonperishables from the Maryland Food Bank and produce from county farms into cars.

They have about 70 boxes. In just over an hour, they’re all gone.

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“We run out of food every week,” said David Bycoffe, battalion chief with Baltimore County Fire Department, and an organizer of the distribution program.

The county so far has spent $3.5 million to provide food for residents, who do not need to meet any income criteria to be eligible, county spokesperson Sean Naron said.

It’s been a multi-agency endeavor, with county departments adopting individual sites to send volunteers every week. And with the departure of Maryland National Guard units brought in to help with distribution, the county has filled that void by employing high school students at an hourly rate of $11.

The program is an outgrowth of the county’s Summer Youth Employment Program, which paired 200 students with job opportunities, in a virtual setting, during the summer. The county intends to station about four students at each distribution site, said Kevin Armstrong, manager of Baltimore County Youth Services.

Jewl Walker, 16, helps pack and pass out food at Westowne Elementary School in Catonsville, and said the social interaction with families has been a respite since schools are closed and she’s been isolating.

“I enjoy helping the community out,” she said.

‘That’s what the government is here for’

Michelle woke early Saturday morning to walk to the Hillendale Police Athletic League Center, hours before other Baltimore County residents picking up food for the week began lining up around 10 a.m.

The Parkville resident, who asked her last name not be used, has come frequently since the county began offering free meals in March as Maryland closed nonessential businesses, and the coronavirus put more than 180,000 residents on unemployment benefits.

Michelle counts herself lucky. She’s found work screening visitors for coronavirus symptoms at the police department’s Towson Precinct. It’s still not enough money.

“I’m just working hard, trying to keep my head above water,” she said.

Funded through the county’s $144 million apportionment of federal CARES Act relief money, the program has provided more than 6 million meals to families. It’s an initiative Naron said the county is seeking to continue when that money dries up.

“That’s what the government is here for,” he said.

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Food insecurity already existed in parts of the county, said Laurie Taylor-Mitchell, executive director of the nonprofit Student Support Network.

“COVID has exposed a very distressing” issue, she said. It’s a “mirror that COVID is holding up to us, in terms of inequities that have been systemic for a long time, but now they are so much worse for people.”

Feeding America in 2018 found that nearly 100,000 county residents were facing food insecurity, on par with the 11% national food insecurity rate in the same year.

The hunger relief nonprofit predicts food insecurity in the county will have risen to 15.9% by the end of 2020.

Phong Le, assistant professor of mathematics and computer science at Goucher College, said that projection sounds accurate.

“We’ve seen the unemployment rates [among] people who make less than $60,000 a year are 10 times higher” than those who are paid more, Le said.

And residents who live in areas like Parkville and Loch Raven, where access to nutritious and diverse foods is already starkly lower than in wealthier towns like Towson, could feel more pain should the virus continue hitting meat processing plants and warehouses, disrupting food supply chains, said Le, who through a partnership with Student Support Network teaches a class that surveys food availability in the school districts of Towson, Parkville and Loch Raven high schools.

“Nearly 40% of people waiting in these lines have never had to do this before,” said Taylor-Mitchell, citing a statistic from a Feeding America report.

“The need for food and essential nonfood items is not going to go away," she said. “It’s going to continue to increase until we have some kind of relief.”

Relief would mean more job opportunities in a rebounding economy or if the pandemic subsides, whether that’s through herd immunity or the availability of a coronavirus vaccine, she said.

Until then, food distribution sites, like the three run by the Student Support Network and the 21 sites operated weekly by Baltimore County, likely will continue to see demand well into 2021 on what Naron called “an unprecedented scale.”

Saniya Marks-Hamilton, 14, said her work passing out food at the sites has been a learning experience in more ways than one.

“Sometimes they want more,” the Overlea High School student said of the families that pick up.

“I’m gaining knowledge about how much privilege I do have personally, how much privilege I have where I live, how much food I get, money,” she said. “I don’t have to worry about that.”

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