By Anna Hargrave, Executive Director for Montgomery County
Since the pandemic struck, I have watched with deep admiration as our region’s food security leaders stepped up to the challenge of a lifetime. On top of skyrocketing need, our nonprofits and faith-based partners faced plummeting food donations, massive disruptions to the supply chain, and a significant drop in their volunteer workforce. It was clear that our community had to act fast to prevent our neighbors from going hungry, and we did!
In addition to the investments from our COVID-19 Emergency Response Fund, The Community Foundation launched Food for Montgomery, a public-private initiative leading a coordinated response to the hunger crisis. This effort is marshalling over 100 nonprofit & faith-based food distributors, farmers, restaurants, county agencies, and generous donations from hundreds of donors. As a result, we’ve expanded access to healthy foods throughout the county to reach the 1 in 10 residents who otherwise didn’t know where their next meal would come from.
While talking with food security leaders about what they’ve accomplished and their projections for the coming year, I’ve noticed a shared concern. Many vividly recall the lopsided recovery from the 2008 economic downturn, when our lowest-income neighbors were hit the hardest and took the longest to recover. They worry that between the rise in vaccinations and improvements in the economy, donors and volunteers might think the pandemic is effectively over. In truth, our nonprofits and faith-based food distributors are serving thousands of children, seniors, adults, and people with disabilities who are still struggling. This includes many low-income essential workers (who were heralded as heroes just last year) plus families rebounding from the loss of breadwinners and caregivers due to COVID-19.
After reflecting on the herculean efforts of our food security partners over the last year and the work ahead, I have three pieces of advice for anyone who is passionate about fighting hunger:
Support Creative & Nimble Partnerships
The most effective organizations foster strategic partnerships with other nonprofits, local businesses, farmers, etc. If you’re thinking about starting a brand new effort, I encourage you to first look into volunteering for an existing organization or explore how you might foster connections between new partners. For donors, I strongly recommend providing flexible general operating support which was pivotal over the last year, enabling nonprofits to problem-solve quickly and work strategically to increase the number of people they could serve. If you’re looking inspiration, you give to one of The Community Foundation’s strategic response initiatives or browse our grantee lists for vetted organizations you can support directly.
Invest in Building A More Equitable Food Security System
The deepest impact came from organizations that set racial equity as a top priority guiding all they do. For many, that means taking the time to develop relationships with the people relying on their food distributions. By listening and learning, they’ve continuously improved their services and how they reach people. I’ve also been inspired by nonprofits that partner with grassroots community leaders, empowering them to serve as connectors, identify solutions, and drive change in the neighborhoods where they live. If you are a prospective volunteer or donor, be sure to browse our grantee list to learn about the impact of these organizations. For nonprofit leaders wanting to deepen their impact, be sure to connect with your peers and The Community Foundation so we all can continue to learn together.
Scale Innovation & Efficiency
In the early days of the pandemic, many partners across the region could not obtain the food, equipment, and supplies needed to keep their doors open. Fortunately, the advocacy of key local conveners — such as the Montgomery County Food Council and Prince George’s Food Equity Council — enabled nonprofits and faith communities to partner with each other and local government. By working together, we’ve been able to maximize both public and private dollars to meet the need. However, without leadership and investment, there’s a risk that we’ll fall back to the pre-pandemic levels of support to food partners. That was not enough to meet the need back then, let alone now. In addition to supporting vital advocacy and convening partners, all of us — nonprofits, volunteers, and donors — must tell our local government leaders that food security is a top priority that requires system-wide solutions. To learn about some ideas in the works, check out this recent Washington Post article featuring quotes from local government and nonprofit food champions.
One silver lining coming of this crisis is that it forced us to reimagine what’s possible and stretch the limits of what we can achieve. For those of us who are passionate about food, that means we must continue to work together toward the goal of a community free from food insecurity.
I hope you will join us in this work!