Opinion: Happy Thanksgiving — But Not for All…

This Thanksgiving holiday, hundreds of thousands of Marylanders are facing food insecurity. Lawmakers and advocates are working on solutions. Photo by mizina, stock.adobe.com.

By Katie Fry Hester and Lorig Charkoudian

Hester, a Democrat, represents parts of Howard and Carroll counties in the Maryland Senate. Charkoudian, a Democratic member of the House of Delegates, represents Montgomery County’s District 20.

Many of us will celebrate Thanksgiving with a full plate of food and much for which to be grateful. A recent report, however, found one of every three households in Maryland is food insecure — meaning they do not have reliable access to a sufficient quantity of affordable and nutritious food for themselves and their children.

During the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic, the number of food-insecure individuals in our state nearly doubled from 665,000 to over 1,000,000 Marylanders. As demand skyrocketed, food banks saw their typical sources of donations — individuals, grocery stores, and restaurants — dry up from a variety of challenges. Farmers similarly lost substantial income as supply chains were disrupted and purchasers either shrunk their typical orders or went out of business altogether.

COVID rates have gone down and access to normal food support services such as schools and senior centers has begun to resume, but lines at food banks remain long.  Food providers and distributors still face staffing shortages and supply chains that are out of whack. Consumers are encountering higher prices at the grocery store, stretching meager food budgets even further.

Last session, we succeeded in passing legislation (SB723/ HB831) that established the Maryland Food System Resiliency Council — a collaborative, multi-agency effort to engage governmental, academic, non-profit, farming, and private sector stakeholders dedicated to enhancing food security across the state. Specifically, the council is charged with:

  • addressing the food insecurity crisis in the state resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent economic crisis,
  • developing equity and sustainability policy recommendations to increase the long-term resiliency of the food system, and
  • drafting a strategic plan to increase the production and procurement of Maryland-grown food.

After several months of intense study, the council presented our first interim report and recommendations for the Governor and General Assembly to consider. As a result of this report, we have written to the Department of Budget and Management to request immediate and short-term funding for key priorities, including $20 million for emergency food distribution to a range of providers to respond to the immediate need; $3 million for increased cold storage at emergency food distribution facilities so that they can save and distribute food that is otherwise going to waste, and $1.5 million for ongoing operations, research, and policy development to address food insecurity.

These investments will ensure immediate emergency food responses are sufficient, while we continue the urgent work of building a sustainable, resilient, and equitable food system.

The pandemic exacerbated and highlighted our local food system’s fragility.  It also showed how food security is a critical element of Maryland’s ability to not just withstand crises, but to succeed as we recover from them and prepare for impacts from an uncertain climate future.

With a significant budget surplus and additional funds flowing into our state from the federal government, we must invest in the most basic needs of our residents. Let’s make sure Marylander’s plates are full of nutritious and delicious food every day of the year.

That would be something for which we can all be truly thankful.