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Maryland’s other epidemic - hunger - isn’t going away | COMMENTARY

Gus Bengel, left, and Ted Root, right, work to move the last of the Maryland Food Bank boxes inside as they and other volunteers come together at the Assistance Center of Towson Churches at the Trinity Episcopal Church in Towson on Nov. 18 to prepare hundreds of food bags for the group's annual Thanksgiving deliveries.
Gus Bengel, left, and Ted Root, right, work to move the last of the Maryland Food Bank boxes inside as they and other volunteers come together at the Assistance Center of Towson Churches at the Trinity Episcopal Church in Towson on Nov. 18 to prepare hundreds of food bags for the group's annual Thanksgiving deliveries. (Matt Button / Baltimore Sun Media/Baltimore Sun Media)

Thanksgiving is a time to count one’s blessings and to share in the harvest bounty with friends and family. Even in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, many of us will take part in this most essential of North American traditions (preferably, among an appropriately scaled or virtual gathering), with its historic roots that go back four centuries and menu stalwarts, from turkey to stuffing, mashed potatoes, gravy and pumpkin pie. Perhaps more than any other meal of the year, eating to excess is not regarded on this day as, well, excessive. Tables and plates are piled high. No one is supposed to go hungry.

Except, of course, they do.

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This year, as Marylanders from Friendsville to Pocomoke City give thanks during a holiday overshadowed by a virus unknown a year ago, they might reserve a moment to consider how the pandemic has dramatically increased food insecurity. Even before the coronavirus, about 1.5 million of this state’s 6 million residents were thought to be food insecure, meaning they do not have consistent access to affordable and nutritious food. With the virus and the economic downturn that has accompanied it, there are believed to be 1 million more. An uptick in hunger is a constant whenever unemployment rises, but this has been aggravated by a variety of factors including the abruptness of the crisis, the closing of schools (and with them, easy access to school-based nutrition programs) and the strain on resources temporarily offset by unemployment and stimulus checks that are now depleted.

At the Maryland Food Bank, the state’s preeminent purchaser and distributor of food to local food pantries, soup kitchens and shelters, the numbers tell the story: Between March 1 and Oct. 31, the organization distributed enough food to provide 35 million meals to Marylanders in need. That translates to 42 million pounds or just about double what was distributed during the exact period one year ago. Such a sharp increase has no parallel in modern history. And that war against hunger is being waged at a time when troop strength is down — older volunteers are understandably reluctant to work in close quarters and risk exposure to the virus. Nonprofits have had to get creative to supplement their manpower.

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Those who have taken up the cause, who have donated to hunger-related charities, volunteered on the front lines or collected food for distribution deserve our thanks. Government programs have helped from initial CARES Act funding to Gov. Larry Hogan’s recent release of $10 million for food banks statewide have helped as well. But what’s concerning is not what’s happened these past 10 months, it’s the outlook for the next 10 months and perhaps beyond. That uptick in hunger? There is no sign it’s dissipating, and the immediate outlook for the pandemic, even if vaccines are successfully manufactured and distributed, is worrisome. Before the first Thanksgiving turkey was sliced, Maryland set a record for confirmed cases of COVID-19 for the month with rural Western Maryland counties suffering the worst. The daily death total is now the highest since June. Nationwide, COVID-19 hospitalizations have surged past 85,000, a record.

The sad fact of the matter is that hunger is here for an extended stay. Even if the virus is conquered, it will take time for the economy to return. And so the burden is not to marvel at how much anti-hunger efforts have accomplished in 2020, it’s to gear up for the challenge ahead. To that end, the Maryland Food Bank recently announced a $28 million fundraising goal to underwrite 70 million meals. It won’t be easy. Food prices are up about 20%. Traditional resources are taxed. Staff is exhausted, and volunteers are needed. “One of my greatest worries is how we can sustain the ability to respond at the level we’ve been responding,” frets Carmen Del Guercio, the nonprofit’s president and CEO. “Maybe it’s not the same as first responders or health care workers, but we’re in the ballpark.”

And so this might be the year to start a new Thanksgiving tradition, to pledge our support to fight hunger. One of the best ways is to donate your time or resources to the charity of your choosing, whether that’s the Maryland Food Bank (mdfoodbank.org/donate) or the Capital Area Food Bank, which serves Montgomery and Prince George’s counties, or to a local pantry, soup kitchen or shelter. It is also important to remember that while financial and volunteer support is always welcome around the holidays, food insecurity remains a year-round problem afflicting families in every community. They need our help now and they will need it next year, too.

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.

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