For a county as wealthy as Montgomery County, the statistics on hunger can be surprising. One in three students qualify for free-and-reduced meal plans in public schools. Manna, the large food distribution charity based in Gaithersburg, hands out about 4 million pounds of food each year. In 2008, Manna served 2,070 households a month. Now, the organization is serving 3,760 households.
Nourish Now, which tries to reduce the waste of unused fresh food, says 80,000 Montgomery residents live with “food insecurity,” which means they uncertain access to food. The Montgomery County Center of Catholic Charities, which distributes food in Wheaton, is seeing more people come to its doors, said Faye Frempong, a family support specialist with the organization.
If there’s any more sure sign of the uncertainty of today’s economy, it’s in the work of charities like this and others who are trying to stamp out hunger. Mark Foraker, Manna’s director of development and communications, said people have gone from having one full-time job to holding multiple part-time jobs.
“We’ll see pepole relatively often enough, frustrated with tears of embarrassment. They couldn’t imagine coming here for food support,” Foraker said.
There’s an effort to try to make a big dent in the problem. Community Food Rescue aims to collect useable food from caterers, suppliers, warehouses, grocery stores – anyone who has excess food. It’s grown out of a proposal for a food recovery program that former County Councilwoman Valerie Ervin spearheaded before she resigned a year ago. Ervin saw how students at the University of Maryland were collecting leftovers from food businesses and delivering them to organizations that can get them to the hungry. It was an idea that could work in Montgomery, she believed.
After some preliminary planning, Community Food Rescue [www.communityfoodrescue.org] was created. Cheryl Kollin, the organization’s program manager, said last week that the effort is about to launch a test of a new system that would see if a dozen licensed food businesses can get useable food to recipient organizations. It’s a small test, she said, which will be adjusted and then rolled out in a big way next year.
The goal, Kollin said, is for the rescue to be “inclusive” – in this case, she means not just nonperishable food, but also fresh, frozen and prepared foods as well as meats and dairy. Whatever people can donate.
In the end, she said, it won’t just mean feeding the hungry, but also reducing food waste, which she said makes up 23 percent of trash — or 246,000 tons — Montgomery residents throw away each year. The organization is taking a tiered approach with the first objective to find food that’s fit for human consumption. Then food that can be fed to farm animals. And after that, food that can be composted.
“We’re trying to solve the issue of food waste on the one hand and end hunger on the other. Both of those are great community issues that have a common solution,” Kollin said.
With Thanksgiving only a few weeks away, the thought of people hungry in our community will be hard on our minds. Many Montgomery residents will see food donation drives at work, at their churches or at grocery stores. Scouts will be leaving bags on doorsteps, asking that they be filled for hunger charities.
Can your reusable grocery bag fit an extra jar of spaghetti sauce? Can your arms carry an extra bag of rice or a box of cereal? Can your budget handle an extra can of beans?
But as Foraker pointed out, the food Manna needs, it needs year round. Too many households a day are depending on it.