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This past year has proved to be challenging for food access and distribution in Maryland. But there’s a lot to be learned from the challenges and responses.

The final day of the Western Maryland Food Council virtual conference focused on the realities of food access and distribution in Maryland.

Caitlin Mislaszek, a program officer with Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future, discussed the results of a Johns Hopkins survey of food access during the pandemic, specifically the successes and problems faced by the food policy councils in providing food and getting that food into the hands of those in need.

The Western Maryland Food Council is one of over 300 food councils in the country.

The Johns Hopkins survey revealed some interesting information in relation to the year-long pandemic, one point being that food councils and the local government were only slightly or moderately prepared for the pandemic.

Some of the successful actions taken by food councils across the country in response to the food crisis were coordinating the available resources with the expressed needs of the communities, and using social media to educate and inform the public about the food challenges and some of the solutions available.

The survey also asked what projects the food policy councils endorsed for the future. Among the top endorsements were improving food access, working to eliminate hunger and poverty, and policies to support food production.

When asked what actions the councils planned in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, actions included signing petitions and advocating for policies of partner organizations, making policy recommendations to governments, meeting with those policy makers to discuss food network policies, and educating the public about food networks and policies.

A deepening concern about racial and social equity and taking these inequities into consideration when making decisions was important to 81% of the food policy councils.

New Challenges in the Face of a Pandemic

After the survey results were discussed, Amy Moyer, executive director of the Western Maryland Food Bank, spoke about the front-line reality of food access and distribution in western Maryland.

She said that virtually overnight everything changed for their food bank. Who needed food and how those in need could obtain food became broader and deeper problems.

The food bank had to figure out how to protect its workers preparing and delivering food as well as those facing food shortages.

Moyer said the food bank offered drive-by pickup that was able to serve hundreds of cars within hours. The food bank saw a 60% increase in needs.

An unforeseen dilemma with food distribution has been transportation. If the needy do not have access to cars, how can they get enough food?

With a grant from the United Way, the Western Maryland Food Bank is instituting a “Jump-Start Carts” program, and will distribute roller carts so walkers can easily carry away enough food from the food bank.

These carts also encourage people to go to markets where they can buy fresh food rather than buying a few processed food substitutes at a convenience store, Moyer said.

The food bank is also working on a program to show people how to prepare the fresh produce they’re receiving from the food bank.

Future Harvest

The third presenter was Dena Leibman, executive director with Future Harvest CASA.

Leibman spoke about the food network of the Chesapeake Bay region and how Future Harvest is working to strengthen it.

Future Harvest developed a report on the concerns of farmers, ecologists, government and individuals.

The six areas of concern are: racial injustice and inequity throughout the food network, obstacles to small and mid-size agriculture, achieving environmental goals in farm practices, how to inform and educate the public about agriculture, the need to continue research, and how to expand food access.

Among the initiatives undertaken by Future Harvest is the reparation of land to Black, Indigenous and people of color, also referred to as BIPOC.

Legislatively, Future Harvest is working on right-to-farm laws and on-farm sales. It is also establishing a “Food Systems Czar” to oversee food networks and distribution on a national level. Other issues include incentivizing government facilities, restaurants and grocers to buy local; and addressing the issues of bar coding, geo-locating and expanding access to meat processing facilities on the local level.

One long-term project being undertaken by Future Harvest is the development and maintenance of data collection for a State of the Chesapeake Food System Report.

Data for this report will be gathered annually, including the number of food-producing farms in the region, the number of acres in regenerative agriculture, and the number of BIPOC farms.

Leibman said that government, research institutions and private industry will be able to use the data in the report to make sound policy and business decisions to protect and strengthen the food network — locally, regionally and nationally.

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