In less than an hour on Monday, 540 cardboard boxes of fresh produce stacked outside Ridgely’s Run Community Center in Jessup were almost all gone.
“Times are so tight right now,” Guilford resident Bentley Fowler, 85, said as volunteers loaded the boxes into his truck. “People need food and need help, so this is a good thing to do for the community.”
Since its inception in December 2020, a pop-up food pantry organized by the Howard County Martin Luther King Jr. Holiday Commission and Harriet Tubman Foundation has distributed more than 290,000 pounds of food to more than 10,000 families, according to MLK Commission member Bert Hash Jr. It is part of a growing network of local food pantries supporting residents in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We are certainly meeting a need that’s there and continues to be there, especially in this inflationary period,” said Hash, 75, who lives in Ellicott City. “People are able to come and get food to augment their purchases from the grocery store.”
Hash, a retired financial services executive, conceived the pop-up pantry as a way to broaden the work of the MLK Commission, which was established in 1985 to coordinate activities and ceremonies to honor the birthday and ideals of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in the county.
“The mission is to make sure that we keep Martin Luther King’s dream alive of giving back to the community and people helping people,” said Hash, who often brings fellow Morgan State University alumni to help distribute the food.
The commission’s pop-up in Jessup is one of the Maryland Food Bank’s 10 active Howard County Pantry On The Go locations, mobile pantries that help serve regions most affected by food insecurity. MFB, a nonprofit working to end hunger across the state, delivers thousands of pounds of locally sourced food to its partner sites on selected distribution dates each month.
“Since it’s a pop-up and it’s in one location, it’s consistent,” said Yekatit Bezooayehu, MFB’s regional program director for Southern Maryland. “The biggest caveat is that we can serve a lot of people at one time.”
Organizers say the fresh fruits and vegetables help increase healthy food options for recipients, especially those living in food deserts and areas underserved by other pantries.
“Howard County is really limited to a lot of people [who] can’t get to the stores and don’t have the money,” said Bessie Bordenave, president of the Harriet Tubman Foundation. “We actually provide another avenue.”
Nearly one in six county residents said they were worried about running out of food before being able to purchase more, according to the 2021 Howard County Health Assessment Survey. About 30% of county public school students are enrolled in the Free and Reduced Price Meals program this year, according to Superintendent Michael Martirano.
“The monthly pantry shows the number of people that actually physically come to get food,” said Claudia Allen, a community outreach supervisor with the county’s Office of Human Rights & Equity. “Whatever assumptions you might have about any county in the state of Maryland, there’s always going to be pockets where there’s food insecurity.”
Monday’s pop-up pantry also marked the beginning of this year’s MLK Day festivities, which center on community service.
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“The commission is really intentional about saying that MLK Day is not a day off, it’s a day on,” Allen said.
Programming continues Thursday with a 5 p.m. screening of the documentary “Shared Legacies” at the Miller Branch library in Ellicott City. The film showcases Black and Jewish collaboration during the civil rights movement and will be followed by a panel discussion.
“Our hope is that this will help to build the relationship between the Black community and the Jewish community in Howard County to go forward to make positive change,” said pantry volunteer Bonnie Sorak, the Jewish Community Relations Council of Howard County’s liaison to the commission.
The annual MLK Holiday Celebration will take place Sunday at Howard Community College’s Horowitz Center Smith Theatre in Columbia and feature a keynote speech by college President Daria Willis. On Monday, the commission will host a variety of activities including COVID and flu vaccinations, a food drive and peace building workshop as part of the MLK Day of Service at the Harriet Tubman Cultural Center in Columbia.
To learn more about the pop-up pantry and this year’s MLK Day events, visit: https://www.howardcountymd.gov/OHRE-mlk.