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In Affluent Maryland County, Pandemic Exacerbates Food Insecurity

Photo caption:

Photo by Xueying Chang NPR

Volunteers from St. John's Episcopal Church in Bethesda help hand out food to a local resident at an event earlier this month.

An hour before the food distribution event began in Bethesda, Md., on a recent Friday, a long line of cars was already winding through the parking lot.

Volunteers from St. John's Episcopal Church worked to unpack boxes of bread, prepared meals and coffee — enough for the first 200 people to arrive. Nourish Now, a Maryland-based nonprofit food bank, provides food for the weekly events.

Waiting in his car, Peter Warner was sure to arrive early this time. Last week, the group ran out of meals within a half hour.

"I was fortunate to get a spot, and they had almost run out of food 20 minutes after the starting bell," he said. "Anyone who got here after 1:30 p.m. was totally out of luck."

Nearly all of the people who had lined up for those meals said they lacked reliable access to safe, nutritious food as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.

Since March, food insecurity has grown throughout the U.S., including in Montgomery County, one of the wealthiest counties in the country.

Before the pandemic, at least 35 million people in the U.S. were unable to get enough food or were uncertain where their next meal might come from. That number is projected to go up by at least 17 million for this year, according to the nonprofit Feeding America; researchers at Northwestern University say food insecurity has actually doubled from before the pandemic.

In Montgomery County, Feeding America projects food insecurity to go up from 8% in 2018 to 13% this year.

Warner relies on a $1,000 monthly disability check for all of his expenses, including food and shelter.

"I also am now getting $194 a month in SNAP food stamps, which is invaluable," he said, but it wasn't quite enough to cover his food for this month. "Today is the 18th, my food stamp award comes in on the 22nd — I have to eat for the next four days."

The line of cars eventually spilled into the busy street outside the parking lot of the Bethesda-Chevy Chase Rescue Squad, a volunteer firefighting group that loaned out its space for the event.

For some, being food insecure is a source of shame. Many of the people in line didn't want to provide their last names.

Linda, who was laid off from her housekeeping job in May, hoped to pick up food for her daughter and five grandchildren.

Her unemployment application hasn't gotten approved yet, and five months without work or any financial aid is taking its toll.

"It's too difficult really — I'm struggling," she said. "I hope the pandemic, it's finished soon. It's so difficult, but we are still blessed to have somebody to provide some food for us."

Adam and his wife, parents of two children, are both collecting unemployment and seeking food assistance for the first time in their lives, after they were each furloughed in March.

"Any little bit helps now, because you never know what's going to happen tomorrow, or the next day, so it's good just to be prepared because you never know how long this is going to last," he said.

Until last month, there was no food distribution in the Bethesda-Chevy Chase area, located just outside of Washington, D.C. That's when Andrew Friedson, the Montgomery County council member for the area, pulled together a coalition of nonprofit, commercial and faith-based groups to help distribute food. He said the pandemic has only increased an existing need for food assistance in the area.

"It has always been needed," Friedson said. "I think there is more poverty in Montgomery County — and even places like Bethesda — than people realize in normal time," he said. "And during COVID, it has just gone through the roof, the challenges that we face."

Since the start of the pandemic, Friedson said, rental assistance and food security are the two biggest issues his office hears about from constituents.

Even with local grant programs, he said, the county can't keep up. "We desperately need federal government support."

In late April, Montgomery County received about $183 million in federal funds after Congress passed the $2 trillion Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act that Congress passed a month earlier. A portion of that money has gone toward small businesses, rent relief, child care, public transportation and food assistance programs, including Nourish Now.

Still, Friedson said, "it's nowhere near enough."

While feeding the food insecure is the goal of Nourish Now's distribution event, volunteer John Ross said it's about more than just the food — "it's the care that comes along with this too."

"COVID and the economic disruption is an equal across-the-board disruptor of people's lives," said Ross. "What we want to do out here, too, is show people that people care ... that we're all together in this and we all need to be part of that."

NPR's Kira Wakeam, Eliza Dennis and Natalie Friedman Winston produced and edited this story for broadcast. Emma Bowman produced it for the Web.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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