Council finds COVID has worsened food insecurity in Maryland, recommends improvements

As grocery stores and restaurants closed during the COVID-19 pandemic, the number of food insecure Marylanders nearly doubled to more than one million.

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As grocery stores and restaurants closed 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 that tracked changes from 16 months before the pandemic began, in March 2020, up to 16 months later. .

“The pandemic has exposed the fragility of our local food system, particularly our reliance on non-local food sources, the millions of Marylanders at risk of hunger, and weak distribution and storage infrastructure,” Heather Bruskin , co-chair of that council and executive director of the Montgomery County Food Council, said in a statement.

In the last legislative session, lawmakers created the Maryland Food System Resiliency Council, which is to meet for two years to develop policy recommendations and address pandemic-induced food insecurity. The law also requires the council to address the issue by coordinating different food insecurity services and creating a food insecurity map across Maryland.

In its interim report released this month, the council recommended that the state spend $ 3 million to increase cold storage capacity statewide, which was in high demand but in short supply during the pandemic. More cold stores would improve the ability of local institutions to store fresh produce after their growing season, according to the report.

In an emergency, purchasing temporary cold storage units should be a priority, the report said, and an assessment should be done to determine where cold storage facilities are needed.

The council report also recommended providing incentives for Maryland school systems to purchase locally grown food, which is often more expensive than out of state food. This would provide children in Maryland with better access to fresh and healthy local food choices. As an example, the report cites a Michigan program that provides schools with up to 10 cents per meal in co-funding to purchase Michigan-grown fruits and vegetables.

The council also recommended that the state spend $ 10 million to establish a Food and Agriculture Resilience Mechanism program, which would provide funding to food aid organizations to purchase food directly from farmers to ensure that locally grown products reach those most food insecure.

The report says the state should provide technical assistance to communities for establishing food waste sites, referring to a recent state law that requires supermarkets and cafeterias that generate two or more tons of food waste per week to divert this waste from landfill to an organic recycling facility if that facility is within 30 miles and the recycling fee would cost them, at most, 10% more than the landfill fee.

And he said the state should work with schools and farmers to divert food waste to compost or anaerobic digestion.

The Johns Hopkins University Center for a Livable Future mapped access to food across the state and showed areas of limited supermarket access in parts of Charles, Calvert and Prince George counties and parts of western Maryland. The JHU map also includes agricultural data, such as the location of poultry farms and food producers, and health data, such as the incidence of diabetes, obesity, heart disease and the rate. overall mortality in each geographic area.

The council recommended that the state produce its own map that illustrates food insecurity statewide and incorporates data on health and poverty, as well as the number of registrations for food aid services such as Supplementary Nutritional Assistance Programs (SNAP) and school-based nutrition programs. This could be done by updating or expanding an existing map like John Hopkins’ one, the report notes.

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 strong food web within Maryland that ensures food security even in an emergency.

“A resilient Maryland is one where our systems and services meet the needs of all of our communities before disasters, and are built not only to withstand impacts, but also to be successful in the face of added stress during and after disasters,” Russell Strickland, acting secretary for emergency management and co-chair of the board, said in a statement.

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