Feeding the hungry [Editorial]

As the Thanksgiving holiday approaches, we urge readers not to forget that this year there are still hundreds of thousands of Marylanders who won't be able to count on a dinner of turkey, mashed potatoes, green beans and cranberry sauce to celebrate the occasion. Far too many Marylanders don't have enough to eat, not just today but during the rest of the year as well. As we gather around the table with family and friends to give thanks for the blessing of good food and drink, it's fitting we also remember those forced to live with hunger.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, there are more than 720,00 people in Maryland who are considered to be "food insecure," the official designation for those who are uncertain as to where their next meal is coming from. Many were once donors to groups like the Maryland Food Bank, a private nonprofit group that distributes food year round to needy families in the region, but now find themselves unable to put food on the table without help. And their numbers are likely to grow if Congress adopts a House Republican plan by to cut the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, also known as food stamps, by some $40 billion over the next decade.

During the last recession, many working- and middle-class parents were forced to seek help feeding their families for the first time when they lost their jobs and began to swell the ranks of the long-term unemployed. In contrast to the rhetoric about "makers" and "takers" that's prevalent among those who support cuts to federal food assistance, most of those now in need had previously been hard-working, self-reliant people who were proud of their independence and never would have dreamed of accepting government food assistance. But they quickly found that even if they managed to find part-time, minimum-wage jobs to cover some of the income they had lost, it was rarely enough to make ends meet.

The scrimped and saved and watched every penny, and still came up short when the bills arrived in the mail at the end of the month. And they found that when it came to a choice between buying food or paying the electric bill and putting gas in the car, cutting back on food purchases was sometimes the only thing they could do to get by. Maybe the parents missed a meal or two at first so the kids could eat their fill. The grown-ups pretended they'd already eaten or weren't feeling well. But after a while it wasn't just the adults who went hungry some days.

The Maryland Food Bank calculates that even among families who qualify for food stamps, Marylanders miss some 74.6 million meals each year because they do not have consistent access to sufficient amounts of food. This is the gap that private charities like the Maryland Food Bank and other food assistance providers must bridge to end hunger in our region. In the five Maryland jurisdictions where the need is greatest — Baltimore City and Somerset, Prince Georges, Dorchester and Wicomico counties — as many as a third of all residents are food insecure, including tens of thousands of people who do not qualify for federal food assistance and who must rely on charitable organizations.

To meet that challenge, the Maryland Food Bank now works through some 950 distribution points across the state — including local churches, schools, community centers and other organizations — to make food available to those in need. Over the last decade the group has nearly tripled the amount of food it distributes, to 36 million pounds in 2012, from its central facility in Halethorpe and satellite branches in Hagerstown and Salisbury. And it has grown a lot more sophisticated in overcoming the daunting logistical and structural obstacles that such an enormous effort requires. It's no longer simply a matter of collecting fresh produce and canned goods from local supermarkets and restaurants that otherwise would be thrown away but of organizing what amounts to a massive relief effort that reaches into virtually every corner of the state.

That's why charities like the Maryland Food Bank depend on community support to carry out their mission. People can help through gifts of non-perishable foodstuffs, utensils, pots and pans and other items needed by the feeding centers and food pantries the group operates. But the most effective way to contribute is through cash donations that help support the development of new infrastructure and methods for getting food to those who need it. No one organization or government program alone can completely eliminate hunger in America. But as Marylanders gather around the table for this year's Thanksgiving dinner, let us remember that each of us can play a small yet important role in bringing our communities and state another step closer to that goal.

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