WHEATON – In response to a federal policy that discourages the use of government aid, District 4 Councilmember Nancy Navarro and four Maryland legislatures hosted a family resource fair at the Wheaton Recreation Center on Dec. 7.
The fair provided information to families about how to take advantage of the government, small business and nonprofit services in the county. It offered a food pantry, flu shots and medical screenings for attendees.
Navarro joined with State Delegates Jared Solomon, Emily Shetty and Al Carr and District 18 state Sen. Jeff Waldstreicher to hold the fair in Wheaton. For her, the fair was an opportunity to show the value and purpose of the co-located library and recreation center, which opened in September.
“Wheaton really is a microcosm of the world,” said Navarro. “We do have the highest percentage of the Latino population in this area, and so it is so important to be able to bring information and resources to the community.”
In 2017, the county executive office cited Wheaton as one of the six most food insecure areas in the county. Solomon was inspired to hold the fair to address the food insecurity in his district as the federal government raises restrictions on the resources it is willing to provide.
“It started out making sure that people had the resources they needed to be able to get food on their tables for their kids and their families,” Solomon said, “families who may have a little bit of difficulty getting everything they need for the holidays.”
On Dec. 4, the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced a proposal to mandate work requirements for able-bodied adults under the age of 50 without dependents to qualify for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as the Food Stamp Program.
The department predicts about 750,000 people will lose SNAP benefits as a result. It is expected to go into effect in April 2020.
Amanda Nesher, food security program manager for the Montgomery County Food Council, hosted a table that offered a list of more than 70 food assistance providers such as the Manna Food Center or small churches that regularly give out free food.
The fair included a pop-up food pantry, where attendees could pick up vegetables and canned goods. Jennifer Renkema, the director of the food pantry at Silver Spring Christian Reformed Church, suggested the pantry after learning about Solomon’s plans to hold the fair.
“If they’re going to do a resource fair, they ought to have a food pantry,” Renkema said.
The pantry partnered with Manna Food Center and the Capital Area Food Bank to carry food for at least 144 households at the fair.
As a choice pantry, the pop-up allowed attendees to take whatever they like, however much they want. Choice pantries, Renkema said, reduce waste and provide dignity to families as they are allowed to choose what fits their own diets.
“If you’re really struggling to make ends meet, don’t spend your money on food that you can get for free, and you can save that money for your electricity or your medicine,” Nesher said.
The need for resources, Nesher said, comes from a number of reasons, such as limited English proficiency, a lack of transportation or immigration status, all of which make it challenging to get the help families in need to find food and housing.
Nesher said that families also often do not believe they need food assistance programs. But if you’re skipping meals or exclusively eating fast food because it’s cheaper, that’s food insecurity.
Along with SNAP, the Trump administration has also increased restrictions on green cards and zeroed in on undocumented immigration, discouraging immigrant communities from using government resources.
“With all the hateful things coming out of Washington and all the scare tactics about the resources that are available,” Solomon said, “we wanted people to know that the resources are here, that they shouldn’t be afraid to use them.”
Haja Cande, an attendee at the fair, hoped to talk to someone at the fair regarding housing, as being a homeowner was a “big goal” for her and her family. The fair’s resources did not disappoint.
“I’m very much impressed,” Cande said. “Everyone has been just so amazingly wonderful, kind and open. This is something I’ll definitely come to again.”
Solomon also encouraged families to register to vote and take census forms home to fill out, both of which were available at the fair.
“The only way that we get the resources that we need for our community is by having a full and complete census, and making sure that people understand how important that is.”