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Fewer Maryland families going without enough to eat

A new federal report shows that fewer families in Maryland are going hungry, but advocates say despite the progress too many people still don’t have enough to eat.

In Maryland, 10.1 percent of Maryland’s 2.3 million families faced food insecurity from 2014 to 2016, according to the report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Some 13.3 percent of families in the state did not have enough to eat from 2011 to 2013.

When families are food insecure they don’t always have enough money to buy food. A mom may skip meals so that a child can eat, or a family may run out of money to buy food between paychecks.

Maryland was one of 16 states nationwide that saw significant declines in rates of hungry families.

“There are a lot of organizations successfully trying to help people facing hunger and poverty,” said Michael J. Wilson, director of Maryland Hunger Solutions, a nonprofit established to fight hunger and improve the nutrition, health and well-being of children and families. “But these are still challenging times for a lot of people. We will take the good news where we can find it, but the challenge is how can we continue to make progress.”

Wilson attributed the decline in food insecurity in part to a drop in the unemployment rate. State lawmakers recently approved legislation allowing non-violent drug offenders once prohibited from participating in the federal food stamp program to qualify for benefits upon leaving prison.

Schools also have been integral to ensuring children are getting adequate amounts of food.

In Maryland, 382,726 of the 890,795 students in the state during the last school year qualified for free or reduced school meals. In Baltimore County, 53,342 or 47 percent of school district students got such meals. In Anne Arundel County, 27,349 or 34 percent of students qualified.

Because Baltimore City stopped collecting data in the same way as surrounding counties, no comparable data exists for the city. The city currently offers free breakfast and lunch to all children attending its schools.

The number of “hunger free schools,” or those that provide free meals to all of their students has increased from six in 2014 to 227 statewide, Wilson said. Providing free meals to entire student bodies helps reduce the stigma and embarrassment poor students may feel when getting free meals.

Wilson said there are other ways the state can make sure more families don’t go hungry.

“There are still pockets where we are having real challenges,” he said.

Immigrants are less likely to access public assistance programs because of fear of dealing with government agencies, or other cultural or language barriers. Some low-income adults also do not qualify for food stamps. And increased funding is needed so that more schools can offer free breakfast, Wilson said.

Nationwide, the percentage of food insecure households fell from 14.9 percent in 2011 to 12.3 percent in 2016. The problem is more prevalent among black families, where 22.5 percent of households are food insecure, and Hispanic families, where 18.5 percent of households don’t get enough to eat.

Duke Storen, senior vice president of the advocacy group No Kid Hungry, said the U.S. risks setbacks in this trend if Congress approves proposed cuts to federal nutrition programs.

“We must fight to provide children with the nutrition they need to thrive,” he said.

Liz Bowie contributed to this report.

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