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COVID Vaccine Not Ending Long Lines For Food

Dulaney High School Senior Malek Debrabander volunteers at the Student Support Network's food distribution site at Parkville High School
John Lee
Dulaney High School Senior Malek Debrabander volunteers at the Student Support Network's food distribution site at Parkville High School
"The snake" of cars lined up in the Parkville High School parking lot.
John Lee
"The snake" of cars lined up in the Parkville High School parking lot.

When the COVID pandemic hit one year ago, hunger increased dramatically throughout the nation as the economy shut down and people lost their jobs.

In Baltimore County, enough food for more than 15 million meals has been given out since last March to people in need.

Although there are signs the pandemic may be easing, there is no end in sight to the hunger crisis.

Hyginus Obi was in his car one day last week, waiting in line for food that was being distributed at Parkville High School. Obi said he left his job a couple of months ago as a corrections officer after he contracted COVID-19.

“So, doctor recommended for me to take about three or four months for my inner body, due to the shortness of breath and weakness of the body,” Obi said.

He has two children, and his wife is not working. Obi was picking up food for three families, including his own.

“Good food like egg, and milk, sometimes they give us frozen chicken, fruits, vegetables, even baby diapers too,” he said.

The line of cars he was waiting in is called “the snake” by the volunteers for the Student Support Network, which runs the weekly food curbside pick-up. The cars snake around the school parking lot and spill out onto Putty Hill Avenue.

Yara Cheikh, who coordinates the pickup, said the line begins to form around 7 am for the program, which starts at 11. On a typical day, Cheikh said they help around 600 families.

“We try to give you a week’s worth of groceries,” Cheikh said.

Baltimore County residents have filed 245,000 unemployment claims since the pandemic began according to county officials. But things appear to be getting better. Statewide, the unemployment rate dropped to 6.4% in January from a pandemic peak of 9% last spring.

Despite the declining unemployment rate, Cheikh said they are not seeing a drop in demand at Parkville High or either of the other two food distribution programs the Student Support Network operates.

“This is a systemic problem of wage inequality,” Cheikh said. “And so that is not ending with the pandemic. There’s no stimulus package to solve wage inequality.”

The pandemic exacerbated a serious problem that already existed.

According to an analysis by Feeding America, a nationwide network of 200 food banks, more than 35 million Americans had food insecurity before the pandemic. That increased to 45 million in 2020.

Carmen Del Guercio, president and CEO of the Maryland Food Bank, said it will take years to recover from the COVID economy.

“This is a whole new dynamic and the number has gotten to the point where it’s going to take us awhile to serve,” Del Guercio said. “We have the work in front of us to make sure people are aware this isn’t over when there’s a vaccine.”

Del Guercio said the pandemic is causing them to rethink how to get food to people who need it. He said they are using data like community unemployment rates to target where they should go.

Del Guercio said, “There are situations where we don’t have a presence in a given community, and that we say to the local organization that has the trust and relationship with the folks in that area, it could be a religious institution, it could be some other non-profit, for us to say, ‘let us work with you. How can we become a partner to help you do this work?’”

Del Guercio said during the pandemic they’ve increased the number of community organizations they are working with by more than 200.

Baltimore County is using the same approach, according to Dave Bycoff, the county’s director of homeland security and emergency management. He said when the pandemic hit one year ago, it quickly became clear distributing food safely would be critical.

“It was one of the first things we addressed as an emergency operations center when we opened,” Bycoff said. “And we’ve managed to sustain it and grow it over the past year.”

Elisabeth Sachs, the county’s director of government reform and strategic initiatives, said churches have asked them for help to set up food distribution in their parking lots.

“We have been able to provide them with product,” Sachs said. “If organizations want to get in on this, please contact us through our website because we’re trying to grow the network of who can meet this need around the county.”

Sachs said there are a lot of moving parts setting the network up. It’s not just about getting food to churches and organizations.

“Do they have the volunteers? Do they have the storage? Do they have the refrigeration? Can we transport it around the county?”

Baltimore County continues to run its own food distribution program, including 21 sites on Saturdays. The county’s public schools have meal distribution two days a week at dozens of sites.

Back at Parkville High, the people in their cars at the head of the snake make their way to the Student Support Network volunteers handing out food, like Malek Debrabander, a senior at Dulaney High School.

Debrabander asked through a rolled down car window, “Bread, eggs, milk, vegetables, canned goods, all sound good?

There was no contact. People stay in their car while the volunteers load the trunk.

Once the car was loaded, Debrabander told them, “Have a good week. We’re back here Wednesday.”

For those people who can’t get to the school, volunteers take the food to them. Beth Wolff coordinates that.

“These are people who, they don’t have a car, they could be in quarantine, sick with coronavirus, or families who have kids with severe multiple disabilities,” Wolff said.

Nancy Riess delivers food to four families.

“I haven’t met them in person,” Riess said. “They prefer to be private which is totally fine. But I do let them know I’m on my way to make sure there’s someone there to take the food inside. I just leave it at the stoop. And they send lovely messages of gratitude and God blessings.”

Yara Cheikh, the coordinator of the Parkville High pickup, said the Student Support Network raises money to pay for essentials to distribute, like toilet paper, paper towels and diapers. The county buys food for them from the Maryland Food Bank and makes deals with local farmers for things like milk, fresh eggs, and turkeys at Thanksgiving.

But county support is not guaranteed after June 30. Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski’s administration is working on its next annual budget, which goes to the County Council April 15 for approval and takes effect July 1.

Cheikh said the work will continue in some form no matter what.

“We’re committed to all of these people,” Cheikh said. “Where are they going to go after June 30th? So, we’re going to find solutions.”

In a statement, county spokesman Sean Naron said they are “actively exploring opportunities to continue support for community-based partnerships to address food insecurity.”

John Lee is a reporter for WYPR covering Baltimore County. @JohnWesleyLee2