Bridging the meal gap

In a year that has seen it share of disasters from hurricanes and floods, wildfires to mass shootings, Carmen Del Guercio frets that an outreach as basic as combating hunger may be shortchanged. For the president and CEO of the Maryland Food Bank, this is no idle thought. With Thanksgiving approaching, the non-profit has experienced a drop in financial contributions. Perhaps things will pick up in December, he offers encouragingly, but there is no guarantee.

“It’s a little bit concerning,” Mr. Del Guercio admits. “We are seeing a downward trend.”

For most of Maryland, the holidays are a time of feasting, of turkey with all the trimmings, mashed potatoes, green beans, cornbread and, of course, in Baltimore, that inexplicable bowl of sauerkraut. But it is also a good time to remember those who go hungry — not so much on Thanksgiving when there is so much food outreach geared toward the homeless and disadvantaged — but during the other 364 days of the year. The Maryland Food Bank and other organizations fighting hunger take donated food and volunteer help, of course, but what is so often needed is money — to fill in the gaps, to purchase essentials, to supplement what’s on the pantry shelves.

The numbers can be discouraging. The nonprofit hunger relief organization Feeding America estimates that 41.2 million Americans live in food-insecure homes — meaning households that are so poor that there is limited or uncertain access to adequate nutrition. In Maryland, there are more than 682,000 who fit that definition, about one in nine residents of the state. The problem is most acute in Baltimore (where more than one in five are food insecure) and the lower Eastern Shore, but no jurisdiction, urban, suburban or rural, is considered hunger-free.

Mr. Del Guercio, a former M&T Bank executive who joined the Maryland Food Bank 11 months ago after a 30-year career in commercial banking, recalls being surprised at just how many people — and from so many different walks of life from young children to the elderly — can’t afford three meals a day. Much of the food bank’s clientele, he noted, are working poor who don’t qualify for government assistance but don’t make enough money to pay all their bills. Even in a state as prosperous as Maryland and a time when unemployment rates are falling and the stock market is hitting record highs, the lines for food show no signs of shortening and may actually be getting longer. Last year alone, the Maryland Food Bank distributed 45 million pounds of food. This year, it’s likely to be more.

What’s less obvious — but no less concerning — is the harm that hunger is doing as both a symptom of economic distress and a cause of further problems. Food deprivation can have lasting negative effects on children. One study suggests children who go hungry can have health problems that show up a decade or more later. Others have found malnutrition having a profoundly negative impact on a child’s cognitive abilities and school readiness. And the impact is not limited to children. Adults who go hungry are more likely to suffer from obesity (eating snacks or sweets in the absence of balanced meals), be in greater need of medical care and face shortened lives. In Baltimore, as many as one in four African Americans are thought to live in a “food desert,” meaning parts of town where food markets are few and far between.

That’s not to suggest progress hasn’t been made. A few years ago, the number of food insecure Marylanders was about 70,000 more than it is today. The proliferation of school-based food pantries, the campaigns to put more eligible families on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (formerly known as food stamps) and other outreach efforts have obviously helped. The Maryland Food Bank has contracted with a dozen farms to provide fresh produce. Schools are cutting back on snacks, sodas and other non-nutritious items when they send home food with youngsters.

Still, the problem of hunger doesn’t exist in isolation. It is wrapped up with poverty, drug addiction, mental illness, crime and a host of other maladies. None will be solved tomorrow, but progress is possible — as recent history has demonstrated. It can begin with a donation to your local food bank, which can be found at Feeding America’s web site, www.feedingamerica.org/find-your-local-foodbank/.

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