Three-year-old Ray Walsh tugs a bag of donated food during a distribution event at St. Paul’s United Methodist Church in Kensington. His mom, Shanna Walsh, stands nearby. Photo by Victoria St. Martin
Maryland Suburbs, ‘Hidden Pockets’ of Hunger
For some suburbanites, being food insecure is a way of life. There’s high rent, stacks of bills to pay and, even with government assistance, not enough food.
No. 13 is called, and it’s Jessica Lovejoy’s turn. She gets a loaf of bread. Some chocolate milk; her 3-year-old daughter loves it. It’s like any other shopping trip, except Lovejoy isn’t rolling a cart through a supermarket. She’s at a church in Kensington and the aisles are large plastic folding tables. Scattered atop are cans of tomato sauce, chicken and assorted fruit. Lovejoy – a single 25-year-old mom who knows how to stretch meals to feed herself, her daughter and two sisters – carried out three bags of donated food. “I try to just take it one day at a time, and if I’m good for today, and, you know, just plan on leftovers and stuff,” said Lovejoy, who lives in Clarksburg with her daughter, Janine Adams. “I try not to get too overwhelmed.” Lovejoy is not alone in her persistent worries about food. According to Feeding America’s Map the Meal Gap Report, 81,130 people in Montgomery County were “food insecure” in 2012, covering nearly one out of every 10 residents. The U.S. Department of Agriculture defines food insecurity as the “limited or uncertain availability of nutritionally adequate and safe foods or limited or uncertain ability to acquire acceptable foods in socially acceptable ways.” Lovejoy knows all too well about limits and uncertainty. She is unemployed and currently receives $333 in food stamps – an average of about $10 a day – for her and her daughter while she’s enrolled in a substance abuse treatment program. When Lovejoy is unable to keep her shelves full, she relies on the help of free food pantries run by churches and other charitable organizations.
“It’s definitely something to be able to count and depend on,” Lovejoy said in April, as she toted several shopping bags full of bread, canned goods, pasta, fruits and vegetables from St. Paul’s United Methodist Church’s monthly food donation. “So it lightens the load considerably.” Elizabeth Kneebone, a fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program and co-author of “Confronting Suburban Poverty,” said that in 2000, 61 percent of the poor population in the D.C. metro area lived in the suburbs. By 2012, she said 71 percent of the area’s poor lived
in suburbs while the poor population held steady in the District, Arlington and Alexandria, Va. “We saw a continued shift of poverty in the metro region towards the suburbs,” Kneebone said. She cited two basic drivers of the growth in suburban poverty: low-income residents are moving into suburban communities and long-term residents are becoming poorer over time. The recession helped people in the suburbs become poorer, while jobs and more affordable housing options attract the poor to suburbs, Kneebone said. And suburbs have grown faster than every nearly every major city during the 2000s. “As they added more population, they became more diverse both demographically and economically,” she said.
AUDIO: Listen to Kneebone talk about the future of suburban poverty
As the population increases and cost of living continues to rise in the nation’s most affluent suburbs near Washington, D.C., many Montgomery County families say they are left wondering where their next meal will come from. Advocates say it doesn’t matter whether families there receive government assistance or not – the fear of not having enough to eat still hovers over their heads like tiny black rain clouds.
In Silver Spring, ‘making just enough’
One Montgomery County mom said some nights she goes to bed hungry. Zainabe Kamara, a 44-year-old single mother of four, said she’s happy that her son takes cooking classes at a community center near their Silver Spring home. But, when the bills pile up and food is scarce, she only cares that her children are fed. “Just imagine: you are a single [mom], paying $1,790 every month for rent, I have to pay the phone and the bills – it’s hard,” she said. “Sometimes I go without it, most of the time I have to. They are my kids, I have to sacrifice for them.I can have nothing, but as long as they have something, I don’t care if it affects me.” One local man started an organization to stop suburban families from going hungry. Brett Meyers was a manager at a Montgomery County restaurant when he noticed that a lot of uneaten food just went to waste. In May 2011, he started a Rockville non-profit called Nourish Now that collects leftover and surplus food from restaurants and caterers, then donates it to needy families. So far, he said his organization helps 5,000 county residents a week – including 300 families once a month – and has donated nearly 200,000 pounds of food. “There’s a lot of need there, and there’s hidden pockets and you really just have to look into,” he said. Slightly more than 27,600 residents were enrolled in the Food Supplement Program, Maryland’s mechanism for SNAP benefit distribution, in fiscal year 2012, according to Montgomery County’s annual report. “Some families are caught in that between, where they’re making just enough money to not receive food stamps,” Meyers said. “But because Montgomery County is so expensive, they still need food assistance.” And even if families do receive assistance, the help sometimes runs out before the month is over. Or, he said, other issues arise. “Some families, unfortunately, the funding that they’re getting from food stamps, they’re only able to buy less expensive food,” he said. “So then it becomes a nutrition issue where kids are eating Cheetos for breakfast ‘cause it’s less expensive.”
Once hungry, now helping to fill in the gaps
The leader of a Kensington church said he knows all too well what it’s like to be hungry. After college, Adam Snell, senior pastor at St. Paul’s United Methodist Church, said he had a car, a suit, a nice job and nothing to eat. “I remember I looked in the cushions of my couch for loose change, I was so hungry,” said Snell, who’s 49, describing how he once went four days without food 25 years ago. “And I found a dollar.” Snell said he found $1.04. And since he didn’t have enough money to put gas in his car, he walked to the supermarket. Macaroni and cheese there was on sale: four for a dollar.
AUDIO: Listen to Snell talk about what happened after he purchased four boxes of macaroni and cheese
Years later, while sitting on his couch, Snell came up with the idea of starting the monthly food event with handful of teenagers at his church. That was in 2010, and since then the event has swelled to feed 45 families, including Lovejoy’s. For the first time this month, Shanna Walsh and her 3-year-old son, Ray, strolled through the makeshift aisles of
St. Paul’s monthly little supermarket. They picked up whole-wheat pasta, peanut butter, carrots and cereal. All the while, Ray dragged his bag of goodies proudly behind him. “All in all it comes together – we’re not starving,” said the 30-year-old single mother, who receives public assistance while she works for a real estate appraiser; she is also going to school to become one. “But places like this really help to fill in the gaps.”