As grocery stores and restaurants shuttered during the COVID-19 pandemic, the number of food-insecure Marylanders nearly doubled to more than one million.
And the Maryland Food Bank increased its food distribution by 88%, according to a report from the Maryland Food System Resiliency Council which tracked changes from 16 months before the pandemic began, in March 2020, through 16 months later.
“The pandemic laid bare the fragility of our local food system, in particular our reliance on non-local food sources, the millions of Marylanders at risk for hunger, and weaknesses in distribution and storage infrastructure,” Heather Bruskin, a co-chair of that council and executive director of the Montgomery County Food Council, said in a statement.
Last legislative session, lawmakers established the Maryland Food System Resiliency Council, which is required to meet for two years to develop policy recommendations and address food insecurity induced by the pandemic. The law also requires the council to address the problem by coordinating different food insecurity services and creating a map of food insecurity across Maryland.
In their interim report released this month, the council recommended that the state spend $3 million to increase cold storage capacity across the state, which was in high demand but in short supply during the pandemic. More cold storage would improve the ability of local institutions to store fresh produce past its growing season, the report stated.
During emergencies, purchasing temporary cold storage units should be a priority, according to the report, and an assessment should be done to determine where cold storage facilities are needed.
The council’s report also recommended providing Maryland school systems incentives to purchase locally grown food, which is often more expensive than out-of-state food. This would provide Maryland children better access to fresh and healthy local food choices. As an example, the report cited a Michigan program that provides schools with up to 10 cents per meal in match funding to purchase Michigan-grown fruits and vegetables.
The council also recommended that the state spend $10 million to establish a Food and Agricultural Resilience Mechanism program, which would provide funding for food assistance organizations to buy food directly from farmers to ensure that locally grown products reach those with the greatest food insecurity.
The report said the state should provide technical assistance to communities on establishing food waste sites, referencing a recent state law that requires supermarkets and cafeterias which generate two tons or more food waste weekly to divert that waste from landfills to an organic recycling facility if that facility is within 30 miles and if recycling fees would cost them, at most, just 10% more than dumping fees.
And it said the state should work with schools and farmers on diverting food waste to compost or anaerobic digestion.
The Johns Hopkins University Center for a Livable Future has mapped food access across the state, and showed limited supermarket access areas in parts of Charles, Calvert and Prince George’s counties and parts of Western Maryland. The JHU map also includes agriculture data, such as locations of poultry farms and food producers, and health data, such as the incidence of diabetes, obesity, heart disease and the overall mortality rate in each geographic area.
The council recommended that the state produce its own map which illustrates food insecurity across the state and incorporates health and poverty data, as well as enrollment numbers for food assistance services such as supplemental nutrition assistance programs (SNAP) and school-based nutrition programs. That could be done by updating or expanding an existing map like the John Hopkins one, the report noted.
The council recognized that the COVID-19 pandemic will not be the last crisis to impact the state’s food system and stressed the importance of building a sturdy food network within Maryland that ensures food security, even during emergencies.
“A resilient Maryland is one where our systems and services meet the needs of all our communities before disasters, and are built to not only withstand impacts, but to be successful in the face of additional stress during and after disasters,” Russell Strickland, acting secretary of emergency management and co-chair of the council, said in a statement.