Despite Maryland’s consistent ranking as one of the wealthiest states in the nation in terms of income levels and large number of millionaires per capita, hunger and food insecurity have been increasing in our state for a long time.
Research conducted by Share our Strength/No Kid Hungry before the pandemic showed that 25% of our middle school students and 28% of our high school students in Maryland suffer from food insecurity, the anxiety of not knowing when they would have their next nutritious meal. This toxic stress has terrible consequences on the physical and mental health and behavior of our children. Among the risks: children in middle school experiencing food insecurity are significantly more likely to feel sad and seriously consider suicide; children in high school are more likely to be overweight, use tobacco or marijuana, be suicidal, have had a fight at school, and carry a weapon at school.
In addition, food insecurity disproportionately affects children of color. For example, in Baltimore County a total of 28.5% of middle school students experience food insecurity, but this proportion is far higher among children of color, as 40% of Black students and 36% of Hispanic students were food insecure before the pandemic.
The COVID-19 crisis has made these unacceptable numbers even worse.
Most unfortunately, the Hogan administration does not appear to understand the urgency of this problem statewide. According to Feeding America, the budget shortfall needed to successfully address food insecurity in Maryland before the pandemic was $361 million; in Baltimore County alone, it was $49 million.
The $10 million for food assistance statewide recently announced by the Hogan administration, even when combined with the $4 million announced this spring, is only a quarter of what Baltimore County alone would need for a year. In addition, this $14 million was not given directly to local governments to purchase food, but was given instead to food banks, providing little flexibility for spending in areas not necessarily being covered by food banks or pantries.
In contrast, according to announcements and news releases, the state of Maryland will spend at least $500 million on businesses and economic recovery this year. There is no doubt that our businesses need help — but a statewide total of $14 million for food this year compared with $500 million for economic recovery, is grossly unbalanced.
We hope that Governor Hogan will communicate more pro-actively with local governments in Maryland — not only to provide more funding for food, but also to develop statewide plans for a consistent system of food distribution, which will be crucial if severe winter weather disrupts food distributions. The families waiting in line for hours for food at sites have no reserves, and if storms disrupt these distributions, they may have no food for days. And it is not just food that is lacking. Food assistance programs do not pay for soap, diapers, period products, and many other household items essential for hygiene and mental well-being.
I would invite Governor Hogan to go to a food bank and start waiting in line two hours early, as many of our families do, to make sure that they will get food, and then calculate how long the food will last the family before having to go to the next food line. Or to visit a family that cannot get to a food site because they have no car, no money for gas, no child care, are in quarantine, etc. and ask them how they are getting food.
This winter, we are on the verge of the worst humanitarian crisis perhaps since the Great Depression in terms of hunger, illness and job loss. Let us hope that one day we will not look back on this time and wonder how the wealthiest state in the nation did not adequately provide for its own people during the pandemic. Shouldn’t seeing that its citizens do not go hungry be a fundamental responsibility of state government, particularly when the state has committed so many resources to economic relief in this time of crisis?
Laurie Taylor Mitchell (firstname.lastname@example.org) is president of the Student Support Network in Baltimore County.