When the pandemic closed businesses in March 2020, pastor Mark Parker knew that the ramifications of COVID-19 would hit his Southeast Baltimore neighbors hard.
With the help of a Maryland Food Bank program that provided free food to partner organizations, Parker’s church, Breath of God Lutheran Church in Highlandtown, began distributing fresh food and pantry staples every weekday, shifting to once a week in June 2020. Parker said now about 150 families pick up food every Saturday, with lines lengthening this fall as inflation rose.
“This stopped being about the pandemic response in Highlandtown a long time ago,” he said. “There are a lot of families struggling with access to food now.”
On Dec. 31, the food bank’s pandemic grant that provided $40 million worth of free food to about 330 local Maryland organizations is ending. For Breath of God, losing about $3,500 worth of food a week means scaling back food distribution to just once a month.
Before the pandemic, food banks like Maryland’s typically provided food to nonprofits, churches and schools through three channels: a federal surplus program called the Temporary Emergency Food Assistance Program, donations from retailers, and items that the food bank purchases in bulk.
When the pandemic started, the Maryland Food Bank realized the need would be enormous, said President and CEO Carmen Del Guercio, and acted quickly to reduce costs for its partner organizations.
“We didn’t charge for anything: donated, purchased, delivery, nothing,” Del Guercio said. “Almost every food bank in the country did that.”
Since 2020, the Maryland Food Bank has spent about $40 million to provide free food to local organizations, with some money supplied by private donations and about 40% funded by government pandemic aid, Del Guercio said.
“The reality is, it’s just not a sustainable funding stream,” Del Guercio said. “We don’t have unlimited resources.”
The food bank will report an $8 million loss for the last fiscal year, Del Guercio said, and he estimated a $10 million loss for the current fiscal year.
Although the grant, called Food to the Network, is ending, the food bank will cover more partner costs than it did before the pandemic. Organizations will pay only for the cost of purchased food, minus fees that went to handling, distribution and storage costs, Del Guercio said, and produce will still be free.
The food bank notified organizations about the change months ago, and increased its budget for capacity grants to organizations from $2 million to $3 million. Del Guercio said the food bank is also holding webinars to help teach organizations within its network how to fundraise.
Tehma Smith Wilson, CEO of The Door in East Baltimore, said the grant allowed her organization to give out not just food but also needed household items like toothpaste and diapers. Smith Wilson said that during the pandemic members of her community became used to cooking and eating more fresh fruits and vegetables, which tend to cost more than less-nutritious canned or shelf-stable items.
“Now we will be distributing based on our limited budget. We will only be able to distribute the items we can pay for. And we are a small organization that doesn’t get a lot of funding,” Smith Wilson said.
While the few hundred people who receive items from The Door on Tuesdays and Thursdays will still get fresh produce through a Baltimore City program, they may not get meat, noodles or spaghetti sauce, items that can complete meals, she said.
Smith Wilson and other nonprofit leaders said that while the need in their communities hasn’t decreased over the past 2 1/2 years, it fluctuated during the pandemic as people benefited from government aid and a resurging economy. Now, inflation has brought many families back to food lines, including older adults on fixed incomes and families whose SNAP benefits run low by the end of the month.
The Morning Sun
“It was a blessing to the people in our community,” she said. “We hate to see it go because this is something we could always use, but we understand it would be hard to sustain.”
The Franciscan Center in Old Goucher was one of the food bank’s largest buyers before the pandemic, said executive director Jeffrey Griffin, spending about $100,000 a year. About half of the prepared food the center serves and 90% of its pantry come from the Maryland Food Bank, Griffin said.
Reducing that bill to zero has helped the Franciscan Center expand its operations. Typically, the organization serves about 200,000 meals a year at its center, at schools and at homeless encampments, reaching up to 6,000 people. During the first year of the pandemic, it produced 440,000 meals with the aid of the National Guard, delivering food pantry items as well as meals in every City Council district.
“We’re looking at everything: what can we do, where can we cut back, where can we find the money,” Griffin said. “I’m worried about ourselves, but I’m more worried about the smaller pantries and how they’re going to be able to find the money to get the food that they need.”
He also said food insecurity that waned as people become more comfortable with COVID has picked back up as inflation increased — which has also added to the Franciscan Center’s costs.
Parker said that in Highlandtown his church has given away every piece of food in the building each week for the past six months, showing how families are struggling to make ends meet even as pandemic programs wind down.
“People are living in a state of food insecurity where every dollar counts,” he said. “The money goes away, but the need doesn’t disappear.”
A previous version of this story misidentified the part of Baltimore where Breath of God Lutheran Church distributed food. The Sun regrets the error.