Nestled at the edge of corporate Columbia, the new Howard County Food Bank, retrofitted with shiny shelves, two check-out counters and humming freezers, resembles a mini-Giant Food — a shopping experience staff and volunteers deliberately designed to preserve the dignity of the less fortunate as they shop for food and other essentials.
The food bank celebrated its relocation from its nearly 10-year-old home off Route 108 to an expanded, permanent facility on Gerwig Lane in Columbia Tuesday.
Despite its prominence as one of the wealthiest counties in the country, Howard County is grappling with increasing food insecurity and living costs.
Over the last seven years, the number of people stopping by the Howard County Food Bank to shop from racks of diapers and nonperishable foods such as jams and jellies and other items has increased by 310 percent to 27,000 county residents last year.
The community is meeting increasing demands for food head-on, said Bita Dayhoff, president of the Community Action Council, the county's designated anti-poverty agency. CAC runs the food bank along with Head Start and other local programs.
"This location represents collective responsiveness to a changing Howard County," Dayhoff said at the official opening ceremony Tuesday afternoon.
The cost of living in the county is up 69 percent, according to a 2016 report by the Maryland Community Action Partnership, an nonprofit that serves the low-income community.
The move is long-anticipated as the organization grapples with increasing demands for its services. The food bank distributes roughly 687,000 pounds of food per year to its county clients. Nearly 7.1 percent of Howard County residents are food insecure.
The new location, which cost roughly $1 million to purchase, is about 8,000 square feet — nearly triple the size of the old location where 13 chairs in the waiting area filled quickly. People often brought their own chairs as they waited to pick up food items.
Jim Ehle, a volunteer with the food bank, said the community's need are indiscriminate and intersect every demographic.
"The appreciation from the people is the most valuable aspect. They exit with a smile on their face," said Ehle, 73, a Columbia resident who has lived in the county for 40 years.
Ehle began volunteering when he saw a sign for the old facility through a window as he took an exercise class. That casual encounter turned into nearly three years of volunteering with the organization
At the old facility, clients often stood outside as staff let up to 20 people in the food bank's tiny room to check-in when the food bank it opened doors at 1 p.m
"The check-in process is much easier and the shopping experience is much more relaxed," Ehle said.
Poverty levels are rapidly rising among children in the county. Over the last three years, the number of children living in poverty in the county has doubled from 5 to 10 percent, according to the CAC's data.
Nearly all of the food bank's clients earn less than $18,000 per year, according to CAC estimates.
Organizers hope the new location serves as a one-stop-shop for clients.
CAC offers other services linked to the root causes of food insecurity, like housing assistance and Head Start programs.
The new location is on a public transportation route and is just one mile away from a new nonprofit center, which is an ongoing project by the county government to house the county's key service organizations under one roof. Howard County Executive Allan Kittleman said the center, scheduled to open in March, is designed to allow the county's nonprofits to collaborate and share resources.
Staff at the food bank also organize and help run food pantries throughout the county. Partners in the nonprofit and faith-based community have set up more than a dozen pantries across the county from North Laurel to Ellicott City — up from just a handful in the county six years ago.
The food bank's permanent location was made possible with more than $700,000 in state funding, along with local county funding.
"This type of program is a good example of how we can change Maryland for the good," said Lt. Gov. Boyd Rutherford.
The food bank is located at 9385 Gerwig Lane, in Columbia. Food is distributed between 1 and 6 p.m. every Monday and between 1 and 4 p.m. every Tuesday and Thursday. Donations are accepted between 9 a.m. and 3 p.m. Monday through Friday.