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Thanksgiving 2021: Taking stock of wins, losses in Maryland’s fight against hunger | COMMENTARY

Maryland Food Bank president and CEO Carmen Del Guercio helps regular volunteer Denise Phillips of Catonsville, right, sort food items. File. (Brian Krista/Baltimore Sun Media).
Maryland Food Bank president and CEO Carmen Del Guercio helps regular volunteer Denise Phillips of Catonsville, right, sort food items. File. (Brian Krista/Baltimore Sun Media). (Brian Krista)

As families across Maryland gather for the traditional holiday feast this week from roasted turkey to mashed potatoes to cranberry sauce, they ought to give more than the customary thanks. One year ago, such Thanksgiving gatherings, at least beyond one’s immediate circle, were uncommon because of COVID-19. This year, thanks largely to the vaccines, there’s a return to something closer to a normal holiday. But not for everyone. And not without struggle and labor and lingering uncertainty.

Last year saw a dramatic increase in food insecurity in Maryland because of the pandemic. This year is better, but still far from hunger-free. Even in one of the wealthiest states in the nation, there is cause for concern — not so much that Marylanders will be denied a holiday feast on the fourth Thursday of the month — but that there will remain a struggle to put food on plates in the months ahead as poverty, an anticipated drop in donations, inflation, supply chain issues and maybe a bit of volunteer burnout loom in the year ahead.

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At the Maryland Food Bank, President and CEO Carmen Del Guercio marvels at what has been accomplished over the past year but worries about the challenges still to come. In 2021, it is estimated that about 2 million people in Maryland lack reliable access to food (the definition of food “insecurity”). In a normal year, that number would be closer to 1.4 million. That increase is almost entirely about the pandemic, the job layoffs and lockdowns, the loss of income and rise of poverty. The good news is that organizations like the Maryland Food Bank, its network of 350 pantries and partners, and a team of volunteers sprang into action. There may be record need but there has also been record supply: The Maryland Food Bank is cranking out one million pounds of food per week, a volume 50% above the norm. Last year, it was double the norm. This dramatic increase was made possible in large part by federal emergency aid (total MFB food purchasing has swelled from $8 million to $29 million annually) but also by those ordinary men and women who took it upon themselves to volunteer as corporate partners were forced by circumstances to retreat. And remember many of those folks stepped up before vaccines were available risking their own health to pack supplies and staff limited-contact, drive-through food centers across the state.

Yet, here is the bad: While inventories are high today, they are certain to shrink as government aid runs out and inflation reduces purchasing power. Not today or tomorrow, but perhaps by mid-2022. Pre-pandemic, it cost the Maryland Food Bank about 49 cents per pound to keep its shelves filled. Today, it’s about 80 cents per pound. Meanwhile, the virus has not quite run its course. Recently, there’s been a nationwide uptick in cases of COVID-19. A winter surge of infections, hospitalizations and deaths is now predicted. Resistance to getting vaccinated (and to vaccination mandates) has proved a stubborn problem in many parts of the country. Meanwhile, one wonders how much more can be asked of intrepid volunteers who have risen to the hunger challenge. “It’s like people just ran a marathon,” Mr. Del Guercio admits. “There’s been an incredible effort but the fatigue factor is a concern.”

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There is also reason for optimism. One thing that pandemic has taught us is that hunger is not limited to areas of extreme poverty. It can be as close as the loss of a job, as a health emergency, as a family crisis. What gives people like Carmen Del Guercio hope, however, is the capacity of ordinary people to rise to the challenge. Remember those volunteers who came to staff pantries and drop-offs in the middle of the crisis? Here’s a fact you should know about them. Of those thousands who came to help, 75% had never done it before. They had no expertise. They had no corporate sponsor offering them time off if they’d put in some hours. There was no draft or formal recruitment. They were ordinary Marylanders who knew they were needed. That’s who we should be giving thanks for on Thanksgiving this year. “It’s been incredibly heartwarming,” the Maryland Food Bank CEO says. “They were people who showed up telling me, ‘Hey, my calendar right now is more open than my wallet. How can I help?’ People just wanted to give back.”

Baltimore Sun editorial writers offer opinions and analysis on news and issues relevant to readers. They operate separately from the newsroom.

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