MCPS food distribution hubs provide assistance to families in need
April 15, 2021
More than 100,000 residents of Montgomery County, one of the most affluent counties in the nation, struggle with food insecurity as of August last year. These residents are unable to get enough food and are uncertain where their next meal might come from. To help families struggling to put food on the table, nonprofit organizations are providing weekly food distributions to the community.
One of these operations, So What Else (SWE), provides 19,000 meals daily through walk up pantries, neighborhood distributions, car deliveries and church pickups.
“Our mission for a long time was to serve kids, serve the community and get the kids we serve to give back as well,” Dave Silbert, the co-founder and executive director of SWE, said. “When the pandemic hit, we had to be humanitarians and switch to what we could do.”
SWE had to alter its provision of in person youth development services to underserved children in the Baltimore-Washington metro area. The organization launched an emergency response unit dedicated to meeting the overwhelming need for help from the community.
“In 2019, we served 3600 kids from 85 different neighborhoods. We essentially reached out to those areas to help,” Silbert said. “From there, we connected with a resident coordinator who said they’d love to have us set up a food drive there once a week.”
Charities and food banks, such as the Capital Area Food Bank, provide food to SWE for distribution. Restaurants that include Silver Diner and Mama Lucia’s have also partnered with the organization.
“We can’t do this without the community,” Silbert said. “We’re really lucky to live in Montgomery County where people really care and want to help.”
There are no requirements to acquire food. SWE has an easy access system to avoid making life any more difficult than it has to be.
SWE’s impact has drawn attention from local news channels. Since the onset of the pandemic, 7.6 million meals have been served.
“I think our pandemic response has been very swift and really impressive. We’ve opened up a whole new division whereas other places have shut down and closed their doors and went totally virtual,” Silbert said. “I think we’ve really floated to the top of the service providers here in Montgomery County.”
Another organization, the Montgomery Village Center (MVC), runs large food distributions two to four times a month that serves between 500 to 700 families. Similar to SWE, families do not need to provide information to receive assistance.
“We started our service in December due to the high levels of need in Montgomery Village during the pandemic. Prior to the pandemic, 1 in 10 people lived in poverty in Montgomery Village according to the US Census Bureau,” Faith Whang, the operation’s coordinator, said.
MVC gets access to food through various private and county organizations that include Catholic Charities, which has been providing 10lb assorted frozen meat boxes for a few distributions.
“Our job is to help the Gaithersburg Cares Hub reach more people by operating in higher need areas like Montgomery Village,” Whang said. “To execute this, we need to secure the food and funds to purchase the food first through grant proposals and other coordination efforts.”
For each distribution, around twenty volunteers ranging from high schoolers wanting to earn service hours to community members with extra time on their hands help out.
“I started working with them in January,” *Lynn, a volunteer for MVC, said. “ I’ve been home for too long and I miss being a volunteer and being of value to somebody else.”
Lynn and other volunteers sort produce into boxes ready for pickup and deliver items to households. On Saturdays, they fill up bags with items people signed up for online. In addition to food, toiletries, kids clothing and adult outwear for the winter are also provided if requested.
“It’s good exercise, you’re lifting 50 pound bags of potatoes and onions and large boxes of all kinds of produce,” Lynn said. “I’ve gotten there at 9:30 some days and there are already people in line for something that doesn’t start until noon.”
Nonprofits rely on the support of the community through money, volunteering and donations. Like any other function, they are not immune to challenges.
“We don’t know if people are hopping from distribution to distribution or once in a while there’ll be a client taking advantage of the system and coming back twice and trying to sell your stuff,” Silbert said, regarding their easy access system. “But, it’s just more important to us to be accessible.”
The positive impact these nonprofit organizations have on the community is a result of hard work and commitment.
“We know what we’re doing is the right thing to do and really good work,” Silbert said. “When times get tough, I remind myself that if it wasn’t hard, it wouldn’t be as rewarding or as fun.”
Likewise, Whang acknowledges what keeps her motivated to move forward.
“We have so many dedicated volunteers and other people who work in this space so tirelessly,” Whang said. “I identify as a woman of color and seeing so many other people, especially women of color, working for equity in their communities is truly empowering.”
Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS) is working hard as well to provide free breakfasts, lunches and dinners to these students four days a week amid school closures. Around 33 percent of MCPS students are on the free and reduced-price meals program. There are 24 grab-and-go sites at several elementary and secondary schools.
“My family received meals in the earlier months of the pandemic, when my mom was out of work,” *Ciel, an MCPS student, said. “I had to come early and wait in a long line of people desperate for food.”
Students can take part by donating food to local food drives or encouraging family members to volunteer and participate in food drives and distributions.
*Some names have been changed to respect students’ wishes for privacy.