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Advocacy into Action: How Local Government Can Build Food Justice Coalitions

By Valerie Ervin September 4, 2013

valerieSome of my constituents have started referring to me as “the food lady”. This is a title I’ve come to take a great deal of pride in. Though I live in an affluent county that is admired nationwide, thousands of our residents face the daily struggle to put healthy, nutritious food on the table.
Food insecurity is a nationwide challenge. In our area, the Capital Area Food Bank reports that 40 percent of its clients must choose between food and other necessities like housing, utilities, medical care, and transportation.
In Montgomery County, the economic downturn has forced more people than ever before to ask for public assistance. In 2012, the county’s self-sufficiency standard, which is the minimum income for a family of four to achieve financial security, is approximately $82,877; and one-third of our students receive Free and Reduced Meals (FARMS).
Following Poverty in America Awareness Month last January, I joined with hundreds of non-profit providers, residents, and elected leaders to “SNAP the Silence” about poverty and hunger by living on no more than $5 per day for our food budgets. This amount is comparable to the assistance eligible residents receive under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).
Formerly known as the Food Stamp Program, SNAP supports those whose wages are too low to lift them out of poverty, helping them put food on the table. In October 2012, approximately 65,200 county residents participated in the SNAP program. While the challenge was in no way similar to the struggles encountered by low-income working families, it provided new perspectives and a greater understanding of the issue for many who participated.
As the challenge progressed, my mind quickly began to fixate on food. I began to wonder, if I am this hungry, what do people who have physically demanding jobs feel like? How does a parent who works two jobs find the time to prepare and cook nutritious meals? How are these folks making it?
As an outgrowth of this experience, I am excited to report that Montgomery County is taking action to help those who are living with food insecurity. On September 10, I will join with the County Council’s Food Recovery Work Group, which I spearheaded, to announce an action plan to implement the first county-wide food recovery program in the nation.
The Food Recovery Work Group includes representatives from the University of Maryland’s Food Recovery Network, Manna Food Center, Share Our Strength, Montgomery College, the Department of Health and Human Services, private sector partners, and faith-based institutions who serve the hungry. This group was charged with evaluating the costs associated with creating a county-wide food recovery program and developing a strategic action plan for implementation. The Food Recovery Work Group also evaluated best practices; identified existing resources and ways to enhance communication among non-profit organizations, service providers, and food suppliers; and recommended needed policy changes to assist in these efforts. These recommendations will help us create a road map for establishing a streamlined process for collecting unused, edible food and distributing it to non-profit providers who serve the hungry.
As a policy maker, I didn’t want a top down approach to deal with this issue. The County Council needed to hear first-hand from our non-profit providers, faith-based institutions and community advocates who deal directly with helping those in need about where the gaps are and what they wanted to see. My hope is that the Council, which unanimously voted to create this work group, will again join with me to implement these recommendations, so we can start a streamlined distribution system to get unused food directly to those who need it most.
I was motivated to start a food recovery effort in Montgomery County, when I saw the amazing work that student volunteers were doing at the University of Maryland. I was inspired by Ben Simon and Mia Zavalij, who have created a successful model of food redistribution called the Food Recovery Network at the College Park Campus. As of May 2012, the organization donated more than 30,000 meals from the University of Maryland. After helping to launch many other chapters at colleges across the United States, the organization is becoming a 501(c)(3) nonprofit with the mission of replicating the model in other communities.
Hunger is an ever increasing problem in our community, and many working families struggle to put food on the table. Since we have numerous public institutions and private sector partners who dispose of unwanted food, it seemed like a no brainer for the county to follow the lead of the students who began the food recovery movement.
In 1966, Sargent Shriver, who was President Johnson’s Director of the War on Poverty said, “Most wars are declared by old men, but fought by the young. But our war on poverty asks everyone to get into the fight.”
We are fighting our own war on hunger and poverty right here in Montgomery County. It is a daunting mission, but we are making progress.