The COVID-19 pandemic brought to light a reality that the Maryland Food Bank (MFB) has tried to convey for years: Too many Marylanders are one missed paycheck or unexpected emergency away from being food insecure.
Food insecurity across MFB’s 22-jurisdiction service area increased significantly throughout 2020 due to a surge in furloughs and layoffs as businesses shuttered, schools closed, children and seniors lost regular access to meals, and supply chain disruptions caused food shortages and rising food prices. But with quick action, the Maryland Food Bank collaborated with a network of hundreds of resilient partners to rapidly expand our operations and distribute more food than ever before.
Today, some of the effects of the pandemic are receding, yet hunger persists at heightened levels. With the COVID-19 protection policies expiring soon, including the eviction moratorium and enhanced unemployment benefits, we know that it will be a long road to recovery for the populations we serve. Put simply, the food bank that operated before the pandemic cannot be expected to do the work required today. That’s why we are investing in our operations, ensuring that our programs produce both outputs and better outcomes, and creating solutions that address the root causes of hunger.
To do this work, we’re prioritizing data to more accurately depict the current hunger landscape so we can better understand the true scope of hunger in all corners of Maryland. Pre-pandemic, we launched the Maryland Hunger Map — a tool that combines national and localized data to provide a clear picture of where our efforts are most needed. In June, we released our latest updates to the map, and based on this analysis, we estimate that up to 2 million Marylanders may face food insecurity in 2021.
But that’s not all we’ve learned. With this map, we are able to assess the existing need for food assistance services, and refine programs that can serve Marylanders more equitably, while tailoring initiatives to satisfy specific communities’ diverse needs. We can also make decisions on where to focus specific efforts based on “Hunger Hotspots,” areas where the need outweighs the amount of food being distributed based on our analysis.
Vulnerable populations in these Hunger Hotspots will benefit from initiatives like customized Back Up Boxes, which also contain healthy foods and nutrition education materials appropriate for older adults, Latin communities and people with diabetes. Additionally, our first Mobile Market — currently traveling across the counties of the Eastern Shore — is using this same data to identify communities where resources are not easily accessible, bringing food directly to those locations in an effort to eliminate long-standing barriers to food access. These are just a few examples of how we intend to use this critical information to identify areas most in need of service, deploy the most appropriate solution, and combat the inequities in our state.
What’s more, this Hunger Map outlines the different locations where Marylanders can find food through our statewide network of community organizations. By making our program sites publicly available, our neighbors in need will be able to easily access food resources in their communities, while at the same time, we can ensure other food distribution efforts avoid overlapping with these already existing efforts.
This unique resource also underscores the interrelation of hardship “drivers” like unemployment, low income, and housing instability, all of which can have significant impacts on food insecurity (and vice versa). With the addition of two new external data layers — the Urban Institute’s Emergency Rental Assistance Priority Index and the US Department of Labor’s Unemployment Insurance Claims statistics — the 2021 Maryland Hunger Map highlights food security and financial stability in an easy to digest and understandable way.
Marylanders continue to seek out food assistance at nearly double previous rates, and this level of need is unlikely to dissipate anytime soon. In fact, we at the food bank anticipate that things will get worse before they get better, in light of the early end to various government policies that were implemented to provide relief over the last year, and we expect to be dealing with the economic fallout from the pandemic for years to come. That’s why now is the time to expand our capacity to meet the need today, while also working to provide broader solutions that break the cycle of poverty tomorrow.
Meg Kimmel (MKimmel@mdfoodbank.org) is executive vice president and chief strategy officer of the Maryland Food Bank. From making financial contributions to signing up to volunteer to spreading awareness, there are multiple ways that you can support our efforts to feed Maryland’s recovery. To learn more about our renewed focus and shift toward the future, please visit www.mdfoodbank.org.