As a thank you to customers, Latino grocery chain Megamart planned to sponsor a half-million-dollar, two-hour, food-giveaway promotion Friday at its Maryland and Virginia stores in the D.C. suburbs, handing out staples including rice and milk. But store owners were instantly overwhelmed, with thousands of people crowding into queues in multiple locations, risking coronavirus infection as they tried to ward off another threat: hunger. News coverage of the event showed lines that were hundreds of people deep — a stark snapshot of our country’s mounting hardship.
“I don’t want to come out, because I worry. I take care of my life … but I need food,” Anarel Mejia, an out of work cashier, told one news station. “That’s why I'm here, because now I think everybody needs help."
In the past month, 22 million Americans have filed for unemployment, with most losing jobs because of COVID-19 related shutdowns. In Maryland, more people filed jobless claims in the past four weeks — nearly 300,000 — than in all of 2019. Others are barely getting by on reduced business or employer-mandated pay cuts. That’s sent the demand for food soaring.
At the Maryland Food Bank, which distributes groceries at 1,200 sites with the help of 350 partners, demand was up 50% in March, and it had doubled by the first two weeks of April, with the organization handing out roughly 2.2 million pounds of food compared to about a million pounds during the same period a year earlier.
At the same time, food donations are down about 90%, which means the food bank has had to purchase most of the food it distributes amid rising prices, as the country’s supply chain is stretched thin and others stockpile goods. In the past month, the Maryland Food Bank has spent $2.6 million on food, compared to $220,000 in a typical month. CEO Carmen Del Guercio estimates they’ll need to raise $12 million just to get through the next 90 days.
“Food banks are built to respond to crises like this, but this one is beyond anybody’s expectations.” Mr. Del Guercio said in an interview.
Dollar donations have been steady at food banks throughout the country, including in Maryland, but the contributions can’t keep up with the skyrocketing need. Cars are lining up several miles long at collection points in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. A San Antonio, Texas, food bank has warned it may have to ration resources. And in Cleveland, Ohio, one food bank expects to be 26% over budget by September and has had to stop buying peanut butter amid price increases.
The Maryland Food Bank has had to change its model to fit the circumstances — and stay safe. Instead of allowing families to select goods as they typically do, the organization has begun prepackaging food in boxes for pickup to minimize the interaction with customers and speed up collection. The available food selection has dwindled, anyway, as more people compete for fewer goods, and social distancing requirements have shrunk the number of volunteer positions able to hand out goods.
The last time the Maryland Food Bank was significantly stretched was during the monthlong government shutdown that lasted from December 2018 into January of 2019. But that was a slow ramp-up, Mr. Del Guercio said, whereas “this happened immediately.” What’s more, he always knew an end was around the corner.
“The challenge here is that we can’t see where the end game is,” he said.
Behind health care, food is arguably the biggest need in communities right now. Those who can afford it should make every effort to support distribution centers — perhaps with those federal government stimulus checks many are getting. You can deliver food donations to the Maryland Food Bank’s Halethorpe location (2200 Halethorpe Farms Rd.), though cash will go a lot further; the food bank has greater purchasing power than individual shoppers. Donation information is available online at mdfoodbank.org or by calling (410) 737-8282.
And while coronavirus has got your attention, may we suggest you make that donation recurring. Nearly 240,000 households in Maryland are food insecure even without a pandemic.
The Baltimore Sun editorial board — made up of Opinion Editor Tricia Bishop, Deputy Editor Andrea K. McDaniels and writer Peter Jensen — offers opinions and analysis on news and issues relevant to readers. It is separate from the newsroom.