By Amena Talajawala
The writer is an undergraduate student at the University of Maryland, College Park.
Food insecurity is a growing concern for many Marylanders, especially those in Prince George’s County. About 17% of Maryland’s total food-insecure population is concentrated in Prince George’s County, many of whom belong to minority communities. One in seven people in the county is affected by food insecurity.
Maryland’s most food-insecure area, located in District 24, encompasses ZIP Code 20743, which includes cities like Capitol Heights, Fairmount Heights, Walker Mill, Seat Pleasant, Coral Hills, and Pepper Mill Village. Too many Georgian princes don’t know where and when their next healthy meal will come from – it’s a growing problem.
The lack of a stable food system also contributes to declining public health outcomes. The food-insecure population faces problems such as higher rates of anemia, cognitive impairment, depression and chronic health conditions, such as diabetes, hypertension and obesity, due to lack of access to healthy and affordable meals. Children, in particular, are affected by this growing problem, contributing to a childhood obesity rate of more than 16% in the county. Deteriorating health in turn leads to increased health care costs for an already struggling population. Marylanders, especially Georgian princes, need a long-term, sustainable solution to food insecurity because they deserve a fair and equitable opportunity to live their best lives.
While state, county and local leaders have made significant progress in addressing food inequality, there is still more to be done. Prince George’s County released its Food Desert Relief Plan, the county created its Food Equity Council in 2017, and there are over 30 local food pantries in the area. Local District 24 community activist Christopher Stevenson, who suffered from food insecurity and malnutrition as a child, has organized a number of community events to address food insecurity.
Among other things, Stevenson organized the “District 24 Feed the Community” program to feed District residents in need and provide families with gifts and toiletries for the holidays and “District 24 Adopt-a-Senior Day.” to provide the seniors on the other side with hot, hand-delivered meals, groceries and other resources during the COVID-19 pandemic. These actions have contributed to reducing the county’s food insecure population.
However, there needs to be stronger action at the state level. Maryland must address food insecurity by improving access to healthy foods in public schools, increasing the number of supermarkets, and expanding access to locally grown foods. Aggressively pursuing these policies will ensure that quick and impactful action is taken to help families and children in difficulty.
Improving access to healthy foods in public schools is the first step in addressing child food insecurity and the high rate of childhood obesity. Elementary schools are currently allowed to pass out items like ketchup and salsa as vegetables in lunches. Protein often includes fried and fatty meats. The overall sugar, fat and salt content of school meals is very high. Implementing higher school lunch standards at the state level will ensure children have access to at least one healthy meal a day.
Increasing the number of supermarkets is key to reducing food insecurity. Maryland’s National Capital Parks and Planning Commission identified more than 20 food deserts, areas with little or no access to supermarkets, in Prince George’s County in 2017. Grocery stores tend to leave food deserts due to a high concentration of low-income residents. , high operating costs, eroding profit margins and increased competition in the industry. The state should incentivize stores to operate in food deserts by offering higher tax credits to grocery stores operating in food deserts and allowing these markets to sell alcohol, which will reduce financial losses for stores. .
The state should expand access to locally grown foods through the expansion of urban gardens and farmers’ markets so that all Marylanders can enjoy fresh local meat and produce.
The expansion of urban agriculture encourages community growth of food. Residential gardens in communities allow green spaces to be used creatively while instilling a sense of community in residents. Maryland should ensure that a certain percentage of all urban space is dedicated to urban agriculture.
Although the state is home to a number of farms, there are few farmers’ markets in Prince George’s County. The cost of produce at farmers markets can also be much higher than at a typical grocery store. The state should encourage the expansion of farmers’ markets and subsidize the cost of certain products and create a coupon system so low-income residents can afford to shop at farmers’ markets. All Marylanders deserve the right to enjoy food grown in our state.
Food insecurity is a growing problem in Maryland and Prince George’s County. Although the government and local leaders have taken steps to address food insecurity, it is not enough. Too many families and individuals struggle to eat healthy, nutritious meals every day.
It’s time for leaders to act by providing access to healthy foods in public schools, increasing the number of supermarkets, expanding access to locally grown foods, and more. Please join me in demanding action from our local leaders.