By: Rachel Eldering
What do you think of when you hear “food bank”? Maybe you think about large donations or volunteering to sort food. That’s what I thought of before interning with the Maryland Food Bank. My experience, however, showed me an organization that does so much more. My main undertaking while interning at the Maryland Food Bank was to write a preliminary research paper on senior hunger in Maryland. This was my first time creating a research document and presenting it in a professional setting.
The purpose of this exploratory research was to determine if and where more senior specific nutrition programs are needed in Maryland. My goals were to get a better understanding of where the seniors reside, what senior-specific nutrition services are currently being used and where there are gaps in service.
The process of this project was a bit challenging for my type-A personality. Since this was a preliminary project, there wasn’t a strict set of guidelines to follow. Making some assumptions and judgements on my own ended up being a great way to grow my confidence as a novice professional.
The first step in my research was to scour the internet for data on seniors and hunger in Maryland. I sifted through a lot of data looking for solid, specific information on the target population. I found some great information from the Census Bureau and the Maryland Food System Map. Additionally, much of my research came from interviewing employees of the Maryland Food Bank and Maryland Department of Aging. To best complete my research, I needed to talk with professionals who are knowledgeable about the hunger needs in Maryland. Maryland is split into 5 regions: Northern Maryland, Western Maryland, Eastern Shore, Central Maryland and Southern Maryland. Each area has different obstacles and hurdles to address. Maryland Food Bank employs five Regional Program Directors (RPDs), one for each region. It was imperative to speak to each of these RPDs as they are experts in their region’s hunger challenges. By speaking with each RPD, I was able to get a feel for the counties and towns that have a higher senior population and struggle with hunger. Each RPD provided great information and input on where they felt there were gaps in nutrition services in their region. Additionally, I met with a few employees of the Maryland Department of Aging (MDOA). In my research I needed to outline senior nutrition services that are currently in use so I could form a clear idea of what exactly is lacking. The MDOA provided insight on the impact of COVID on their nutrition services and what their funding looked like. This gave me a better view of how services have changed since March and how they are looking as we enter the new year. Finally, I was asked to include a map data visualization to communicate my findings most effectively. The Maryland Food Bank has a hunger map on their website with a plethora of layers. Some of these layers include the population below the federal poverty line, pounds of food distributed by MFB, and population below ALICE. The acronym ALICE stands for Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed and is a new method to define families that live above the federal poverty line but still struggle to meet basic needs. I met with the Vice President of Learning, Measurement, and Evaluation two times to help brainstorm what layers could be added to the map to strengthen the research. He worked to put those layers onto the map and later showed them to me so I could use them when I presented to the Senior Vice President of Programs.
After all my meetings and research, I was able to put together a nine page report on all my findings and present it to the Senior Vice President of Programs. First, I summarized how well the senior hunger need is being met right now. Government funding, like the Coronavirus Food Assistance Program and the CARES act, has increased since COVID in an effort to aid in this crisis. So, hunger needs are being met fairly well at the moment. However, there is concern because a lot of this funding will end at the start of the new year. Members of the MDOA and MFB are unsure how well the need will be met in the coming months. Next, I made a list of hunger hotspots that needed more attention. I made this list based on my conversations with the RPDs and data I found online. The main areas of concern were East Baltimore City, Somerset and Allegany County. Baltimore City has the highest percentage of food insecure individuals in Maryland. East Baltimore, compared to the West side, has fewer partner sites that distribute food to senior programs. Somerset county has the second highest percentage of food insecure individuals and the second highest percent of seniors living below the federal poverty line in Maryland. Allegany county also has a high percentage of seniors living below the poverty line. Furthermore, it is rural and has areas with limited access to affordable and nutritious foods. There also are very few partner sites that distribute food in Allegany County. People can live up to 40 miles away from the nearest grocery store, so creating central food distribution sites is a challenge.
Finally, I offered some ideas that could potentially aid in senior hunger. One solution to provide more assistance became clear: better transportation. Baltimore City does not have great public transportation and rural areas don’t have a system at all. Additionally, it’s likely that seniors have problems accessing transportation no matter where they live. In order to help seniors there needs to be a better way to either get the food to the client, or the client to the food.
Overall, I received positive feedback on the completed research paper. I’m hopeful that it will aid Maryland Food Bank as they provide healthy food to seniors, when and where they need it most. I learned so much during my time at the Maryland Food Bank. My biggest takeaway would be the importance of working with others. I learned so much from getting input from knowledgeable stakeholders. It taught me the importance of collaboration and teamwork for producing the best outcome.