Tackling Hunger in Baltimore City: The So What Else Baltimore Food Program

The So What Else Baltimore Food Program was born out of critical necessity. While hunger exists across the many DMV locations So What Else serves, Baltimore has been and continues to be one of the most deeply food-insecure regions in our program. 

Twice as many households are food insecure in Baltimore when compared to the state of Maryland as a whole (St. Vincent De Paul Baltimore). While a significant amount of food resources and funding are allocated to Baltimore each year, it’s evident these resources have only put a dent in the city’s unmet needs, with the Maryland Food Bank’s Hunger Map reporting that over 49,350,000 pounds of food would be needed to entirely eradicate hunger in Baltimore (Maryland Food Bank). Just a glance at the Maryland Hunger Map, and it’s clear Baltimore and its surrounding counties suffer from some of the highest concentrations of hunger hotspots in the state. 

 

Map of ALICE Hunger Hotspots by region (Source: Maryland Food Bank)

 

Map of ALICE Hunger Hotspots by county (Source: Maryland Food Bank)

 

To explain why Baltimore uniquely suffers from ongoing and pervasive hunger, we can look at the historical landscape the city is situated in. Baltimore was one of the first cities in America to institutionalize segregation, enacting a law to codify years of discriminatory practices in 1910. While eventually the law was overturned due to unconstitutionality, it was followed by a series of redlining practices by banks in the 1930s, which led to the subsequent divestment and underdevelopment of Baltimore’s predominantly black neighborhoods (Baltimore Hunger Project). Combined with blockbusting, and later, gentrification, these discriminatory policies are directly correlated with food insecurity, inequitable food access, and food desertification in Baltimore (National Low Income Housing Coalition). Compare any map of food insecurity in Baltimore with a map of historic redlining, and it’s clear that the two are intertwined.

 

Map of current food deserts or “Healthy Food Priority Areas” in Baltimore City (Source: Baltimore City)

 

Map of historic redlining in Baltimore (Source: ABC 2 News)

 

Today, 146,000 Baltimore residents reside inside a food desert, which is over a quarter of the population of the city as a whole (Baltimore Sun). However, some sources believe the percentage of residents affected by food deserts is much higher due to Baltimore’s car dependency and lack of public transportation. In a 2018 report, Morgan State University researchers found that as many as 42% of residents live in a food desert when vehicle access is considered (Morgan State University).

The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic further exacerbated the issue, resulting in an unprecedented increase in food insecurity from 18% to 21.7% as of 2021 (Baltimore City). In a city already suffering from systemic hunger, the aftermath of COVID was devastating. And while public health and economic conditions have improved in the years since, national inflation levels for grocery staples have only continued to worsen, with 2023 seeing a 4.3% increase in grocery prices from 2022, which saw an 11.4% increase in prices from the year before that (Baltimore Fishbowl). Yet despite these conditions, many local, state, and national food assistance programs, including the SNAP benefits program, have either seen major cutbacks or ended altogether, leaving vulnerable Baltimore residents to fend for themselves in the aftermath (Reuters).

 

So What Else Baltimore neighborhood food distribution during COVID lockdown in 2020

 

It’s within this context that the So What Else Baltimore Food Program was founded in 2020. In response to the COVID-19 pandemic and looming hunger crisis, So What Else Baltimore jumped into action, transitioning a small youth programming team into a food recovery and distribution network. Sourcing food from several businesses, including Sudanos, Trader Joes, Whole Foods, and more, the newly created Baltimore branch of the So What Else Emergency Hunger Relief Program developed a coalition of nonprofits, churches, and schools across the city to distribute millions of pounds of food.

 

So What Else Baltimore food distribution in front of City Place on the Avenue Apartments during 2020

 

By developing a largely mobile distribution model, So What Else Baltimore could bypass historic food and transportation deserts and deliver food to at-risk zip codes directly, bridging systemic access barriers. By rescuing edible food slated for landfills, whether due to company policy or excess supply, the team could keep the cost of sourcing that food low, allowing the program to rapidly scale up to meet the needs of the community. 

Today, So What Else Baltimore hosts over 28 food distributions, community deliveries, and ad-hoc drop-offs in all four corners of Baltimore and beyond. On average, the team serves over 242,790 lbs of food a quarter to over 87,000 clients*, making So What Else one of the largest food providers in the city. While the program is primarily focused on serving West Baltimore, there are distribution locations in Hamilton, Highlandtown, Downtown, and beyond.

 

Map and schedule of So What Else Baltimore food distributions

 

Food insecurity in Baltimore cannot be solved by any one organization alone. That’s why So What Else Baltimore’s success lies in collaborative hunger solutions with partnering organizations. It takes time to build community trust and client rapport, and by working with dozens of organizations that have a demonstrated need and years of community relationship-building, the team can quickly and equitably allocate resources to Baltimore residents.

 

So What Else Baltimore distribution with Comité Latino de Baltimore, the Esperanza Center, and the Salem United Methodist Church in 2023

 

In addition to So What Else Baltimore’s Mobile Distribution Program, as of 2023, the chapter also opened their first brick-and-mortar pantry, located in the heart of southwest Baltimore, an area plagued by redlining and food desertification. Providing other household essentials, including clothing, furniture, diapers, hygiene kits, and more, the program has been a huge success since its opening.

 

A community grab-and-go shelf at the So What Else Baltimore Resource Center

 

Despite these feats, there’s much left to be done in order to entirely eradicate hunger in Baltimore. While nonprofits like So What Else are making strides, the food insecurity crisis is vast and deeply embedded, the result of decades long policy decisions and social norms. Without increased government, business and community support, the status quo will likely continue. 

Hunger isn’t always a glamorous or news-catching crisis, but it’s one with far-reaching effects for the people suffering from it. Join us in our battle to end food insecurity and food scarcity in Baltimore by supporting our organization today. All of us can make a difference if only we work together. 

 

So What Else Baltimore clients receiving food during a “Back to School Night” event

 

To learn more about the Baltimore Food Program click here. To volunteer with So What Else Baltimore, sign-up here.

To make a donation to So What Else food programs click here

 

Sources:

https://www.vincentbaltimore.org/what-we-do/hunger/#:~:text=One%20in%20eight%20people%20in,left%20school%20the%20day%20before

https://experience.arcgis.com/experience/fe4fdacfd20b46c08dac240ca8dd6192

https://www.baltimorehungerproject.org/blog/segregation-and-hunger-in-baltimore/ 

https://nlihc.org/resource/new-study-explores-connections-between-housing-discrimination-and-food-access 

https://planning.baltimorecity.gov/baltimore-food-policy-initiative/food-environment 

https://www.wmar2news.com/infocus/taking-a-closer-look-at-baltimores-map-past-and-present 

https://www.baltimoresun.com/2022/09/01/east-and-west-baltimore-are-beset-by-food-deserts-heres-how-the-city-is-trying-to-change-that/ 

https://www.morgan.edu/Documents/ACADEMIA/CENTERS/NTC/Chavis%20Final%20Post.pdf 

https://arp.baltimorecity.gov/news/newsletters/2023-03-23-arpa-insight-stories-food-insecurity#:~:text=In%20October%202021%2C%20Feeding%20America,rate%20was%20estimated%20at%2033%25

https://baltimorefishbowl.com/stories/with-the-new-academic-year-underway-how-are-baltimore-schools-and-families-coping-with-food-inflation/ 

https://www.reuters.com/world/us/us-food-benefits-poor-shrink-pandemic-provisions-end-2023-02-16/ 

 

*Note on So What Else metrics: quarterly data is calculated on a repeating basis. Many individual clients are recurring users, meaning the total number of unique individuals served is likely lower.

Supporting Healthy Babies and Healthy Families: An Overview of So What Else’s Baby Pantry Services

As a resource provider, So What Else feels that it is critically important that we take a whole-family approach to the support we provide our clients. That’s why in 2020, So What Else expanded support to underserved families by providing diapers, baby food, nursing pads, and formula, free of charge. In addition to our core mission to provide hunger relief to food-insecure communities, we believe every family deserves access to basic necessities, and by providing expensive infant items to those struggling the most, So What Else can help to ensure happier, healthier babies and their families.

Since implementing our baby pantry in 2020, we’ve scaled operations considerably. In 2023 alone, we provided over $320,000 worth of baby items to over 3,000 families across Baltimore, Montgomery County, DC, Frederick County, PG County, and Virginia.  All of this is possible due to our extensive network of partners including the wonderful team at the Greater DC Diaper Bank. We’re especially proud to have distributed over 765,000 diapers last year, a staple resource that has become increasingly expensive due to inflation and supply chain issues, improving access and easing critical financial decisions for our clients. 

In expanding our infant resource services, over 4,000 infants were able to receive the care they need to grow up strong and healthy, creating a positive foundation for the next generation of leaders, change makers, and advocates. To learn more about So What Else’s work to support  local families in 2023, see the data below. Thank you to our supporters and the Greater DC Diaper Bank for making this program possible. We could not have done it without you.

Learn More About the So What Else Home Delivery Program

When you think of the So What Else hunger relief program, you probably picture long lines at a food distribution and crowds of people carrying large boxes filled to the brim with food. But did you know we also serve the community through a robust home delivery program, almost entirely powered by volunteers?

 

Immediately after we began our hunger relief operation in 2020, we recognized there was a real need to connect clients with disabilities and insufficient transportation to more accessible hunger solutions. Every day, food insecure individuals reached out to us looking for help, but were unable to leave their homes. We didn’t think it fair to deny them access to our free food resources just because they couldn’t drive to a pantry or wait in a line or carry a heavy box. And thus our Home Delivery Program was born!

 

Today the Home Delivery Program serves over 600 families every single week. Dozens of volunteers work with our hunger relief team to prepare bags filled with all the groceries a family would need. Then, our superb team of volunteer drivers fill their cars with bags and hand deliver them to families across Montgomery County and beyond!

 

Our program is a lifeline for the families that need it. As one client wrote to us, “We have no transportation, income, or food stamps and were starving before we connected with So What Else’s delivery program. Now we are thankful to have food for ourselves and also help pick up food for others”. 

 

However, as gas prices continue to climb, it’s been harder and harder to find committed volunteers willing to use their personal vehicle to make home deliveries. Every day new families reach out to us in hopes of being added to the list, but without an influx of new volunteers, we’re forced to put them on a waiting list. 

 

If you’re interested in volunteering with the So What Else home delivery program, please reach out to Megan at (240)-705-4345, or Emmanuel at (301)-613-6459.

We Must Take a Stand

Our nonprofit, So What Else (SWE), is the largest food distributor in Montgomery County, and yet we may lose the ability to fully provide for our clients because of a financial deficit at year-end caused by worsening inflation, increased demand for services, and a lack of funding from the Montgomery County Government for our food program.

Since the onset of the pandemic, SWE has distributed 35 million free meals in Montgomery County in less than four years. In late 2021, after our work began attracting attention, the Montgomery County Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) approached us and asked us to help feed the County HUBS, a partnership of eight community-based organizations and DHHS, because they could not continue to buy food for them as federal Covid-19 funds ran out. We immediately began feeding the HUBS throughout the county, and all we requested in return was modest support from Montgomery County to help offset these costs.

However, since July of 2023, we have received no financial support from the county for our services, totaling 4.5 million meals in a six-month span, while likewise receiving no answer on 2024 support after an appropriation was denied and the grants process for nonprofit awards was delayed with no announcement in sight. As a result, we are now in grave danger of having to deny critical, lifesaving access to hunger relief for our thousands of clients due to a $250,000 dollar budget deficit.

The County has a $7 billion budget. All we are asking for is $360,000 to supplement the millions of dollars we are already raising in order to ensure their constituents, their HUBS, can continue to receive the food access they desperately need. As prices continue to rise in grocery stores and demand for food across the county continues to grow, we are being pushed beyond our current capacity and financial means and cannot continue to operate without significant cutbacks posed to hurt our clients, staff, and volunteers.

So we are calling all individuals, all community organizations, local businesses, and supporters, both former and current, to please join us in taking a stand to fight for food access in our county. Donate at the bottom of this page, petition your county representatives to financially support our work, and share this message far and wide. All donations will be matched up to $150,000 and are vitally needed. Every single dollar counts.

We cannot bridge the gap without you, and we cannot afford to wait. Thank you.

Donate Today & Help Us Bridge the Gap: https://sowhatelse.salsalabs.org/bridgethegap/index.html

Sign the Petition: https://chng.it/yPMN5HvdDg

Thank you for making this Thanksgiving our most successful yet!

Coming into November, we were unsure if we’d be able to meet the demands of our clients. It’s been a tough year for nonprofits, and So What Else is no exception. With 10,000 families relying on our Montgomery County, DC, and Baltimore teams to provide them with the poultry and produce they needed for Thanksgiving, we had our work cut out for us.

Thanks to the tireless efforts of our staff and volunteers, the many organizations and community members that hosted food drives on our behalf, and the hundreds of supporters that donated over $17,000 to our Thanksgiving Giveback, we were able to meet the challenge head-on and give our clients the Thanksgiving they deserve. Here are some of the highlights:

  

In Baltimore, we distributed 770 chickens to families in need and supported 16 food distributions across the city with produce and other holiday items, the largest of which fed over 1,000 people! One of our wonderful partners, Rev. Dr. Sheila Davis, shared, “Thank you so much for your generous donation of fruits, vegetables, and bread to our Empowerment Temple AME Church. It was a huge success, and it blessed so many people. God bless So What Else Inc. for the great work you do to help those in need.”

   

Our Washington, D.C. team was also able to distribute 800 chickens throughout the community! We were also able to distribute 800 chickens across 10 sites in Washington, DC!

   

The impact didn’t stop there! Across Montgomery County, we gave out nearly 2,000 chickens to families in need. While we weren’t able to purchase poultry for every client, we worked our hardest to ensure everyone could put food on their table for the holiday. When combined with other recovered food and donations, we were able to feed a total of 4,000 families in North Bethesda, Gaithersburg, and neighboring communities.

 

None of this would have been possible without the support of each and every one of you. From our donors to our partners to our volunteers and our sponsors, our So What Else community is what enables us to move mountains for the families we serve. Thanksgiving may be over, but the winter holidays are right around the corner. We will need your help once again to continue supporting families moving into December. Get involved in our Holiday Hearts of Gratitude movement by going to https://sowhatelse.salsalabs.org/2023holidayheartsofgratitude. Thank you, and happy holidays!

A Full Circle Moment: Daryl’s Story

Daryl’s life didn’t start off easy. Growing up in the Wingate community of Washington, DC, he often recalls there being rampant violence in his neighborhood growing up. His mother, hoping to give him a better way, enrolled him in a So What Else youth program, and while she couldn’t have known it then, this soon became one of the major themes of Daryl’s life – and his family’s. 

You see, Daryl isn’t just one of our former students. He’s also a former volunteer and current employee, spending nearly his entire life involved with So What Else in one capacity or another. As time went on, many of his family members became involved in the So What Else movement, with many of them still working as So What Else staff members today. 

Years ago, after aging out of the program, Daryl made the decision to come back to volunteer, feeling that it “put him in a better mindset” and “added positivity” to his life. So when he was given the opportunity to work for So What Else as a paid teacher, he couldn’t resist. “So What Else showed me a lot,” shared Daryl. “Teaching is hard, but I like that I can pay it forward and be a good role model for today’s kids.” 

At So What Else, our youth programs don’t just end when our students age out. By offering positive, productive opportunities to teens and young adults, we give our students the ability to grow with us and give back to the organization they’ve known since childhood. In doing so, we’re creating an intergenerational community of students, volunteers, teachers, and supporters working together to address the root causes of violence and create a better future for all.

Yesterday’s students are today’s teachers and mentors. When you support So What Else, you’re supporting the creation of productive outlets for young people living in the communities we serve. “I have no idea what I’d be doing if I wasn’t working at So What Else,” said Daryl, reflecting on his life. And we’re glad he’s here working with us.

Join the Launch Cares Student Challenge

For Students 18 and Younger

If you’re a student looking to make an impact- and get rewarded while doing it, join the So What Else / Launch Cares Student Challenge! From now until October 20th, help us promote this year’s race and receive a free gift card in return. Students who encourage 10 friends or family members to sign up for the race will receive a $10 gift card. Students who encourage a business or organization to sponsor the race will receive a $50 gift card. Email dsilbert@sowhatelse.org with the list of runners/sponsors you’ve signed up in order to receive your reward. Good luck!

Sending Donations Where They’re Needed Most

Months ago, our team in North Bethesda received a large donation unlike any other. While the team is used to receiving miscellaneous items and unrecognizable food items, they’d never imagined they’d be asked to take in hundreds of thousands of surgical gowns from Blessed in Tech Ministries. Never one to pass up a donation, they accepted, though at the time, they were unsure when or who they’d give them away to. For months they sat in our warehouse while we searched for someone to take them. But On Monday, July 24th, with the help of FC Group, we were able to send all 253,972lbs of surgical gowns where they will be needed most: the frontlines of Ukraine.

It’s moments like we’re humbled by the scale of our work and the global impact we’re able to have during exchanges such as these. Thank you to FC Group for facilitating this exchange and sending these gowns to a good home.

   

New Food Pantry Grand Opening

On Saturday, July 22nd, we unveiled our newly relocated Montgomery County Pantry and Thrift Store and were humbled by the outpouring of support we received. Sponsors, dignitaries, and supporters from all over the state joined us in ushering in this newest chapter of the So What Else story and sharing our mission with the world. Notable speakers included representatives from the offices of Senators Ben Cardin and Chris Van Hollen, State Delegate Julie Palakovich Carr, Councilmembers Gabe Albornoz, Laurie-Anne Sayles, and Will Jawando, and Patrick M. Campbell of Montgomery County DHHS. Catering was provided by Mamma Lucia and Sardi’s Restaurants, and coffee was provided by the incredible volunteer team from the Plaza del Mercado Starbucks.

     

We began the day by tying our festivities to the essence of why we do this work: our clients. Highlighting our Saturday outdoor food distribution, attendees were able to witness firsthand the magnanimity of the food crisis in our community and the thousands of pounds of food we recover in order to end it.

     

We then gave a tour of the new facility, one of the largest food distribution centers in the State of Maryland, while highlighting the importance of our other efforts to recover items such as clothing, books, diapers, and more.

But the real showstopper was the unveiling of our Brick in the Wall mural, showcasing the many sponsors that donated to help us reach this momentous day. With their support, we were able to find a home where we could not only continue to feed Montgomery County but expand and grow to feed more communities and more counties than ever before. It was only fitting that they have a permanent presence in our home, and we were honored to make them the focal point of the day’s festivities.

The day concluded with speeches, remarks, and a ribbon-cutting ceremony we’ll never forget. While this marks the conclusion of our search to find a new home, our story in North Bethesda is only just beginning, and the need for resources is only growing. Day by day, week by week, the number of clients we serve grows higher, and the need for financial support becomes more pertinent. But it’s not too late to etch your name into this era of So What Else and help us meet this challenge head-on. If you would like to be a part of our ever-growing movement to join us as we continue to write history, click here to donate a brick to our wall. Thank you.

 

Food Access For All!

Since the onset of the pandemic, So What Else has launched headfirst into the world of food recovery with one singular guiding principle: everyone deserves access to food. So we could think of no better way to demonstrate this than by sharing our much-needed food resources with our friends across the Chesapeake Bay last week during a pop-up distribution in Pocomoke City on the Eastern Shore. 

While most people think of food insecurity as a predominantly urban issue, many forget that over 87% of rural counties in the US suffer from food insecurity, and with limited transportation options and fewer resources available, if at all, many find food support scarce and inaccessible. 

So last month, So What Else teamed up with a number of participating apartment complexes in Worcester County to help bring food resources directly to rural residents in need, bridging transportation barriers and making our food as easy to access as possible. Despite being over 150 miles away, we jumped at the opportunity to support a community traditionally forgotten by most safety nets. 

Thank you to our incredible team for making the trek across the bay and to TM Associates for organizing this event. We couldn’t have done this without all of you. We can’t wait for the next opportunity to support our rural neighbors and feed more families in more communities! 

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