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Student Support Network, food bank volunteers go to great lengths the past year to feed Baltimore County

Laurie Taylor-Mitchell, center, founder of the Student Support Network, is joined by site coordinators Julie Miller-Breetz, left, and Phoebe Evans Letocha during a food distribution March 24 at Loch Raven Technical Academy.
Laurie Taylor-Mitchell, center, founder of the Student Support Network, is joined by site coordinators Julie Miller-Breetz, left, and Phoebe Evans Letocha during a food distribution March 24 at Loch Raven Technical Academy. (Brian Krista)

In times such as these, it’s good to see smiling people helping others.

It happened over and over again on a rainy day in late March in the front parking lot of Loch Raven Technical Academy, as a hardy band of Student Support Network volunteers braved a deluge to make sure that at least some relief — fresh vegetables, dairy products, packaged kids’ meals, canned goods, toiletries, feminine hygiene products and diapers — was available for those in need.

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A year after the COVID-19 shutdown began and the importance of helping people in difficult circumstances remains a major issue, the volunteers manned four stations to aid the distribution effort.

With a cheerful “hello” and a wave of his hand, Ali Jafri, a Towson resident who works in the financial sector, welcomed those who drove their car and parked in front of the first station.

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Patty O’Brien, a Towson Presbyterian congregant, then leaned toward the car and asked its occupants the number of people needing assistance.

She quickly turned and said, “Two families, four kids,” setting off a whirl of activity by fellow volunteers Jenna Pack and Matthew Hart, members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.

After loading the prepackaged donated food, toiletries and paper products into the vehicle’s trunk — the back seat is sometimes preferred — recipients were given another round of friendly waves and told to “come back next week.”

Other volunteers, such as Larry Magder, who forgot to bring an umbrella, directed traffic as the rain picked up intensity during the two-hour process.

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He didn’t seem to mind.

“I’m just trying to contribute a little bit,” said the University of Maryland statistics professor from Timonium. “And I’m kind of trying to figure out the kind of thing I’d want to do when I retire.”

He’s part of the push to alleviate the vexing problem of food insecurity that afflicts so many in Baltimore County, the rest of the state and across the nation. Feeding America says 21.3% of the population in Baltimore City/County is experiencing food insecurity.

The problem has only intensified since March 2020. Fortunately for locals in that situation, 80 to 90 Student Support Network volunteers chip in to help with the weekly food distribution program, which is held on Wednesdays at Loch Raven and two other county locations — Parkville and Owings Mills high schools.

Typically, a line of more than 120 cars that snakes south on La Salle Road and often spills onto a westbound lane on Goucher Boulevard starts to form as early as three hours before the distribution is slated to begin, according to the Student Support Network’s Laurie Taylor-Mitchell, executive director and founder of the Towson-based nonprofit.

The Chatterleigh resident started what was then known as the Loch Raven Network in December 2015 after she said that she was “stunned, and horrified” to discover that nearly 300 students, or nearly 30% of the school’s enrollment, lived below federal poverty guidelines.

“There was a terrible sadness about what it would be like at that time of year to be a parent who could not buy their children presents, or be a child who knew nothing was coming in the [holiday] season,” she said.

To that end, she and a small group of Loch Raven students donated food baskets, laundry detergent and toiletries requested by 25 families.

An assortment of gift bags, winter clothing, sheets, blankets and dozens of smaller gifts followed as the organization grew and changed to its current name, servicing Loch Raven Technical Academy, Dumbarton Middle School and Cockeysville Middle School in the Towson area and several other county schools as well.

Although the county public schools’ poverty level was already a stunning 44%, it has risen to nearly 52% of all BCPS students during the pandemic.

“There’s been a big increase in poverty since the pandemic,” Taylor-Mitchell said. “And that will continue. It’s going to take a long time for low-income families to recover.”

The president and CEO of another organization dedicated to feeding the hungry, the Maryland Food Bank, which is headquartered in a Halethorpe warehouse, echoed Taylor-Mitchell’s thoughts on the likelihood that the food insecurity crisis will continue post-pandemic.

“It’s not going to end when this is over,” said Cockeysville resident Carmen Del Guercio. “”It’s going to be a longtime journey, the effects of which will be felt for years.”

Once schools closed during the shutdown, Taylor-Mitchell’s organization saw the need to go beyond serving just students and their families.

At the food distribution events, everyone is welcome.

“All of our school programs used to be in-house,” Taylor-Mitchell said. “But that stopped when schools shut down last March. Within a week, we pivoted and set up food distribution sites.”

Under the leadership of Rob Santoni, in addition to making a weekly bread donation, Weis Markets in Baltimore County has contributed $10,000 in gift cards and over $3,000 in monetary donations since the pandemic began.

Baltimore County, however, has been the program’s funding backbone, giving $80,000 weekly for a total of just over $2 million.

“I’m deeply gratified by the tremendous engagement of our volunteers, donors and elected officials across the county,” Taylor-Mitchell said, noting that storage space provided by Goucher College for nonperishable items also has been a big help.

One food recipient, who requested to use just her first name, said that hard times have magnified even more during the pandemic, ever since her husband died (not from the virus).

“I worked as a cook for 47 years,” said Doreen, as she waited in her car for food in the fourth station. “My husband worked for the city. And when he passed, they took away all his benefits. So I’m just living on Social Security and a pension. I need this.”

Doreen is a prime example of why the volunteers do what they do.

“It is a diverse group of people who we serve,” said volunteer and Stoneleigh resident Phoebe Evans Latocha, a medical records archivist for the John Hopkins medical institutions. “Just to see the car line grow as it has over the last year is very humbling. We’ve gotten pretty good at figuring out what food supplies we’ll need each week. It’s great because I can go there and be with people while I’m helping others.”

Jafri put it another way.

“We’re here to spread joy,” he said. “Everyone deserves that. It’s good for the people and good for the volunteers, too. It’s good on both ends.”

The same can be said for Del Guercio’s larger organization which benefits daily from two shifts of 35 volunteers for its distribution effort.

As if the job of feeding so many people wasn’t difficult enough before the spread of the virus, the last year has made the struggle that much more challenging.

“It’s been an unbelievable year, filled with challenges and demands that linger today as we continue to see increasingly high levels of need for food assistance,” said Del Guercio, who has helmed the nonprofit for four years. “The Maryland Food Bank has been pulled in so many different directions, but through it all, we’ve remained steadfast in our ability to distribute food at levels we’ve never before experienced as an organization.”

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The volume of food distributed by the Maryland Food Bank has nearly doubled during the pandemic, skyrocketing to more than 61 million pounds of food as compared to 32 million pounds during the previous year.

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However, money the organization spent purchasing food has risen by more than 385%, jumping from $5.6 million to $27.2 million during the same period, with 80% of the funding coming from individual and corporate gifts and the rest from federal and state aid.

The Maryland Food Bank’s recipients are numerous and widespread, reaching every county in the state except Prince George’s and Montgomery, which are part of the Capital Food Bank.

A vast assortment of food pantries, soup kitchens and community and faith-based organizations all benefit from the nonprofit’s largesse of food, toiletries and diapers.

Its southwestern Baltimore County recipients include the Holy Nativity Church Food Pantry, Stillmeadow Food Pantry and the Our Lady of Victory Food Pantry in Arbutus and the Westside Shelter, ISKCON Emergency Food Pantry, Catonsville Emergency Assistance and Woman’s Missionary Outreach in Catonsville.

They are all among what the Maryland Food Bank lists as its network partners, as are Towson-area locations such as the Loch Raven United Methodist Church, Babcock Presbyterian Church and the Assistance Center of Towson Churches.

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