Food insecurity in Maryland decreased with additional government benefits, but improvement was short-lived photo by Mark Stebnicki.

As jobs disappeared and large swathes of the economy shut down during the coronavirus pandemic, long lines formed outside food banks and experts warned of spikes in hunger.

After the subsequent expansion of government assistance, fewer Marylanders relied on food pantries and meal assistance programs — but only temporarily, according to a recent report.

Comparing data from March 2020 to July 2021, the Maryland Food Bank found fewer people visited their pantries after additional pandemic relief measures were announced and after safety net programs were announced. like the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), which provides benefits to low-income families to buy food, have been expanded.

The Maryland Food Bank — which distributes food to more than 1,450 pantries, schools, faith-based organizations and nonprofits across the state — also found the reverse to be true. When pandemic relief programs ended, more Marylanders requested help from food pantries and the request rate – measured in pounds of food distributed – returned to previous levels.

For example, shortly after Maryland distributed funds from a federal emergency nutrition program to eligible school children in the summer of 2020, the Maryland Food Bank distributed fewer pounds of food. And after the passage of the US bailout last spring, there was a similar drop in the needs of their pantries.

And when unemployment benefits ended last summer, the Maryland Food Bank saw a steady increase in demand.

When the second round of stimulus checks were announced last winter, the Maryland Food Bank registered about 180 new Marylanders in food pantries. But several weeks after the checks were mailed and spent, about 500 new Marylanders were visiting the pantries.

While the results aren’t unexpected, it’s important to understand the collective impact of public benefit programs and food charities like the Maryland Food Bank across the state, said Meg Kimmel, executive vice president and chief strategy officer of the Maryland Food Bank.

The findings underscore the volatility of everyday life for Marylanders, who face a mix of instabilities beyond food insecurity, Kimmel said.

“People go in and out of food insecurity. Often it’s a temporary situation, but more often it’s cyclical,” she said. The research also highlights that people with strained finances make difficult choices about food and other areas of life such as transportation, housing and childcare, Kimmel said.

“Investments in pandemic safety nets, especially when recognized as one-time, short-lived emergency assistance, cannot be expected to bring about lasting and systematic change, and even fewer eradicate the root causes of financial hardship and food insecurity,” the report said.

Over the past year, up to two million Marylanders have faced food insecurity, and the Maryland Food Bank predicts increased needs this year as pandemic relief benefits expire. , like the expanded child tax credit that ended last month after Congress failed to extend it. .

The Maryland Food Bank has spent $28 million buying food over the past year, a 405% increase from what it was spending before the pandemic, Kimmel said.

Since the start of the pandemic, the Maryland Food Bank has distributed nearly 84 million meals, an increase of 70% over the same period before the pandemic.

Although food banks and charitable programs are critically important in breaking down barriers to food access, Maryland will not be able to make meaningful changes to food insecurity unless it there are structural changes in the system that create food insecurity in the first place — like poor public schools and lack of affordable housing, Kimmel said.

Kimmel said SNAP is a critical tool for reducing food insecurity as the cost of living rises, but expects the extended benefits of SNAP to end soon. Nationally, the SNAP program provides nine times more direct food assistance benefits than Feeding America — a network of 200 food banks across the country, including the Maryland Food Bank — according to Feeding America.

Expanding free, healthy school meals is also key because that’s usually when children in need get their healthy meals for the day, Kimmel said. Additionally, more funding is needed to make fresh produce available to food-insecure Marylanders and to help food banks clean, process and package fresh produce, Kimmel said.

Fresh produce is important for a healthy diet, but in some communities there is no grocery store nearby that sells it. And even when there is, it’s usually expensive, and families opt for a lower nutrient option if it’s cheaper, Kimmel said.

Of the. Lorig Charkoudian (D-Montgomery), who serves on the Maryland Food System Resilience Council, said the state needs to build a fair economic system with family wages and adequate health care coverage to truly fight the coronavirus. food insecurity. But as such policy changes take time, she said food assistance programs and food banks will continue to be pillars in reducing food insecurity.

Charkoudian is sponsoring a bill this year that encourages a shift to a localized food system for food-insecure Marylanders. This includes a “Farm to School” program that encourages schools to work with local farmers to incorporate more fresh, local produce into their meals.

“Not only are we ensuring that food insecure people have access to food, but that the food they have access to is local, fresh and high quality nutrient rich food,” Charkoudian said. Investing in a local food system is also better for the environment and critical in the event of supply chain disruptions, which have occurred during the pandemic, Charkoudian said.

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