ROCKVILLE – More than 63,000 county residents are food insecure, meaning they are not able to get enough nutritious food regularly.
And half of those hungry people are children, according to Dr. Travis Gayles, chief of public health services for the Montgomery County Department of Health and Human Services.
Without a proper diet, developmental disorders, anxiety and chronic diseases often occur, Gayles said during the county’s Food Security Plan Community Update. The event was held June 28 in the Montgomery County Executive Office Building.
Among people considered food insecure, rates of diabetes, hypertension and osteoporosis are considerably higher, he said.
The county is entering year three of its five-year strategic plan, which aims to reduce food insecurity by 22 percent in 2020.
In 2016, 7 percent of the county’s population, about 78,000 people, was food insecure. That has been reduced to six percent, “so we are definitely moving in the right direction,” said Amanda Nesher, food security programs manager with the Montgomery County Food Council.
Those most at risk are children, senior adults, immigrants and those working two or more jobs, she said.
College students also are at risk. Some 56 percent of the students at Montgomery County College are food insecure, said Carmen Poston-Farmer, senior affairs operations director at the college.
Because all three of its campuses are commuter schools, the college does not offer food plans, she said. According to school records, the average student is 26 years old and paying rent and transportation including for their schooling.
It is hard to study when you are hungry, she said.
Nesher urged an already involved audience to do more by volunteering; locating more food pantries, kitchens and gardens; and raising money.
It is important to understand that “a pound of pastries is not equivalent to a pound of fresh fruit,” Nesher said.
The federal government’s SNAP, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, provides debit cards that enable eligible people to obtain food.
But in Montgomery County, 64 percent of those eligible are not participating. Therefore, about 110,000 residents who could be on the program are not, according to a study by Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future.
There are several reasons for this, Gayles said. Some people are not able to fill out the forms, and some undocumented immigrants fear deportation if they sign up for a federal program.
“Folks are missing meals because they are afraid to utilize it,” Gayles said.
JD Robinson, an anti-hunger program assistant at Maryland Hunger Solutions, said the groups of people most likely not to be enrolled in SNAP are immigrants, seniors and able-bodied adults without dependents.
“Families are simply scared to access these programs,” he said.
Language barriers also play a role, noted Susan Topping, senior director of partners and programs with the Capital Area Food Bank.
She noted that 32 percent of county residents were born in another country.
Executive Marc Elrich spoke at the two-hour program. He said that food insecurity is interrelated to many problems, including low employment, inadequate pay and lack of transportation.
“Nobody wants to talk about it. Nobody wants to say they can’t feed their children,” Elrich said.
Helping people obtain enough nutritious food “is just one of the fights we have to tackle,” he told the audience.
It is especially important to work on this issue in the summer, Elrich said, when children often do not receive a free breakfast and lunch. Currently, the county does offer a Summer Meals program for students to receive a meal at their local school.
He criticized the “pathetic school breakfast, which you know is mostly made of sugar and carbohydrates.”
A former elementary school teacher, Elrich said he “will never forget” a crying student who said his stomach hurt but refused to go to the nurses’ office.
“What I found out was, he hadn’t eaten since Friday.” when the school provided him with lunch, meaning the child had not eaten all weekend, Elrich said.
“Kids who are hungry don’t learn very well. That’s just a fact,” he said.
Closing the school achievement gap will take more than rearranging enrollment, Elrich said. All students need good food, health care and decent housing, he said. “It’s pretty easy to connect the dots.”
“It is not enough to have food pantries; there also must be a plan to address food insecurity at its roots,” said Sharon Feuer Gruber, chair of the Montgomery County Food Council.
Also included in the county’s strategic plan is the goal of expanding the summer meals program to middle schools. Currently, the program is in elementary schools only.
Another goal is to reduce the average trip time from home to a food store in lower-income areas of the county, said Thomas Tippett, performance manager analyst with CountyStat. The county is reviewing census data stats to achieve that, he said.