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Note to Republicans in Congress: ‘It’s an awesome blessing to provide for people in need’ | COMMENTARY

Volunteers with We Our Us, an anti-violence men's movement in Baltimore, unload packages of food for distribution to people in need during the coronavirus pandemic. The group gives away food from refrigerated trailers each week.
Volunteers with We Our Us, an anti-violence men's movement in Baltimore, unload packages of food for distribution to people in need during the coronavirus pandemic. The group gives away food from refrigerated trailers each week.

If you’re out of work and struggling, fearful that Congress won’t come up with more help for you and millions of other Americans during the pandemic, then you’re probably worried about where your next few meals will come from — not whether you can deduct the full cost of them from your income taxes.

And yet, there it is: In the Republican version of the next big relief package, a proposal to raise from 50% to 100% the deduction for business meals at restaurants. Sen. Tim Scott, Republican of South Carolina, added the proposal to get more executives into restaurants for Mad Men meals in the second half of the year.

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Nice idea, even somewhat logical — assuming restaurants are open in the second half of the year — and you could almost support it if Senate Republicans were willing to extend emergency food stamps and unemployment relief for hundreds of thousands of families.

But they’re not. In fact, they propose just the opposite.

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“They’ve got a tax break for the three-martini lunch and zero for additional food stamp benefits,” says Sen. Chris Van Hollen, the Maryland Democrat.

I hate to sound so dreary about Republicans in Congress, but you almost get the impression that they care more about subsidizing the wealthy than making sure families with little or no income, through no fault of their own, get to eat.

The new relief package approved by House Democrats includes an additional $10 billion for food stamps. Says Van Hollen’s Democratic colleague, Sen. Ben Cardin: “We should be negotiating how much, not whether, to provide additional nutrition assistance for our most vulnerable populations during a public health and economic crisis when need is at an unprecedented high.”

According to Michael Wilson, director of Maryland Hunger Solutions, some 600,000 Marylanders were receiving food stamps before the pandemic. The number shot up to 689,530 in April, he says, and thousands more have applied since then.

The original pandemic relief package that came through Congress earlier this year provided an additional $15.5 billion for food stamps, known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP.

Congress also provided a $600 weekly benefit on top of regular unemployment benefits. With some 30 million Americans out of work, and no clear end to the coronavirus crisis, Democrats want to extend the unemployment relief. Republicans want to cut it back to $200 a week.

People need help with rent. They need to pay their utility bills. And they need to eat.

“Definitely, food has been the top concern for the last three months,” says Ann Johnson, community resource specialist with United Way of Central Maryland’s 211 helpline. “Rent has been the second-to-top call, and we’ve seen a resurgence of calls from people asking about [coronavirus] testing.”

Johnson says the pandemic revealed a big need for home delivery of food to people who are vulnerable to the disease, felt unsafe in supermarkets or didn’t have transportation to one. So United Way, the Maryland Department of Human Services, the Salvation Army and other organizations set up a delivery program. During the week of July 27, the 211 center took 576 food-related calls, about 40% of them for home delivery. Other callers wanted to know how to apply for food stamps.

“The Maryland Food Bank told us the best way to relieve pressure on them was to expand SNAP,” says Van Hollen. “It’s the primary food assistance program for needy families.”

Carmen Del Guercio, the food bank’s CEO, says demand is running high with no end in sight. Distribution of food is up 85% over last year at this time, he says, and the food bank has been aggressively making purchases to keep ahead of need. He’s been consulting with public health experts and economists to plan for the future, the expectation being that the food bank will see increased demand well into 2021.

“The silver lining,” Del Guercio says, “has been a tremendous outpouring from people who wanted to help out.” And he’s not just talking about people who made financial donations, but about volunteers.

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Some of the food bank’s partner organizations had to close distribution operations because of the pandemic, but 220 new ones stepped up to fill in the gaps across the state.

Other groups have taken up the cause of getting food to people during the pandemic.

One is a grassroots organization called We-Our-Us, an anti-violence men’s movement that has been quietly at work in the streets of Baltimore. The men take walks through city neighborhoods, spreading a message of nonviolence.

“But once the pandemic came, we had to restrategize,” says Derek Hart, a retired Air Force chaplain and We-Our-Us member. “We could no longer walk in large groups.”

So now the men give away fresh meat, produce, eggs and dairy products from refrigerated trailers. They do this every Thursday at Liberty Heights and Garrison Boulevard in northwest Baltimore, and Wednesdays at either the Mack Lewis Boxing Gym on Bond Street in East Baltimore or the FACE organization (Freedom Advocates Celebrating Ex-Offenders) outside the old Frederick Douglass High School on North Calhoun Street in West Baltimore.

They’ll be at FACE this Wednesday, from 2 p.m. “until supplies last.”

Hundreds of people come out for food each time, and the trailers are always emptied, Hart says, adding a few words that Republicans in Congress should contemplate: “It’s an awesome blessing to provide for people in need.”

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