Anne Arundel County Executive Steuart Pittman signed an executive order this month creating a food council to devise solutions to food insecurity in the county.
As residents struggle to recover financially from the pandemic and federal assistance launched during the public health emergency comes to an end, hunger experts encouraged Pittman to bring together people who are affected by food insecurity and those who work in food assistance to come up with creative, longer-term remedies to the county’s food access gap.
“I asked some questions first. I said, ‘Really? We’ve already got like 40 boards and commissions. Do we really need another?’” Pittman said Wednesday. Eventually, the Democrat agreed after examining the proposal made by an Anne Arundel County food access work group and talking to the Anne Arundel County Food Bank about recent demand.
While some in the field expected the need for food banks to go down once lockdowns lifted and the pandemic began to subside, that wasn’t the case for the Anne Arundel County Food Bank, said CEO Leah Paley. The organization is still experiencing a much higher level of demand than before the pandemic.
From July 2022 through March 2023, the food bank has averaged around 41,600 instances of service each month, still a significant increase from the months preceding the pandemic, July 2019 through March 2020, when the food bank was averaging 12,800 points of service a month. In early 2021, around the time the need was highest, the food bank had 81,000 instances of services in one month. Paley speculates some residents who hadn’t used the food bank in a while are returning after federal food assistance and other emergency benefits expired in February.
“It’s not an emergency anymore; it’s an endemic,” Paley said. “We’ve got to find a different approach, a deeper approach, a more systematized approach.”
Providing food will not by itself overcome the complex set of issues that lead to food insecurity, said Paley and Pamela Brown, executive director of the county’s Partnership for Children, Youth and Families, which will manage the council. Determining why people don’t have access to healthy food, including lack of transportation, child care and stable housing, is also necessary, they said.
The council’s members will be appointed by the county executive and include representatives from the local food bank, public school system, the agriculture community, residents who have faced food insecurity, representatives from the food service industry and government officials. While a few jurisdictions and collections of jurisdictions already have food councils, such as Montgomery County, Anne Arundel is an early adopter, Brown said.
“I realized that people need help in this economy,” Pittman said. “It’s really hard in Anne Arundel County to be poor, even working poor.”
The issues that lead to hunger have been compounded in recent months by rising rents, inflation and work hours getting cut, Brown said.
“Families who are already poor tend to live in housing that is not well maintained. They tend to pay more for electricity because their houses are not well insulated. They tend to have more health problems because they don’t have the same level of access to preventive care. The water is worse in poor communities,” Brown said. “All of those things are in the stew and all of those things are made worse by what has happened to us all.”
While the food bank, based in Crownsville, partners with 80 food pantries throughout the county, Paley knows there are residents who are food insecure and who, for a variety of reasons, don’t or can’t access those pantries.
“I imagine that we are not touching everyone who is food insecure, Paley said. “Frankly, many food insecure residents are not even eligible for public benefits.”
A 2022 community health needs assessment of Anne Arundel County found 74,522 of the county’s nearly 600,000 residents, or 13%, are living in food deserts, communities lacking adequate access to healthy food. Most of those residents are concentrated in Brooklyn Park, Glen Burnie, Linthicum, Eastport, Fort Meade, Jessup and Severn.
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Brown, whose organization helped develop the needs assessment, said these aren’t issues that only affect a small subset of residents. About 50,000 people in the county currently live on less than $49,000 a year and about 200,000 struggle to pay for all their basic needs, she said. She has worked with the Partnership for Children, Youth and Families for 15 years and said the pandemic has created a level of need that is unprecedented in the county.
Pittman noted that hunger not only affects an individual’s health but can cause psychological damage.
“Hunger and housing are trauma-inducing conditions. I kind of realized, ‘Wow this is something where we have to deliver and where it’s a good investment to deliver,’” Pittman said.
In addition to the food council, the proposed fiscal 2024 county budget contains funding to improve food access, including an additional $1 million for the food bank, funding to maintain the Brooklyn Park food pantry, which was previously funded through federal assistance, and a salary for a coordinator position in county government to work on food insecurity issues.
The council will meet at least once a month after members are selected, Brown said. Those interested in serving on the council can apply online.