Updated: Aug 12
In the aftermath of the Anne Arundel County Tuesday May 5 teleconference “Building Back Better: Preventing Hunger” it became clear that the event had coalesced around a common theme. The commercial food chain is buckling under tremendous pressure created by the COVID-19 emergency. The county needs to think outside the box to meet needs, which included leaning into the idea of becoming more self-reliant.
Ideas on how to do that spanned the gamut, from opening a deer season in summer for certain farmer’s properties, to encouraging “Victory” gardens, to bolstering local crop production.
Brian Riddle from Homestead Gardens garden center in Davidsonville, also works in agriculture. County Executive Pittman invited him to speak during the conference regarding the food supply situation in the county.
Speaking to intermittent food shortages, Riddle did not beat around the bush.
“Plants are the nature of what I spend most of my time on. We understand the supply chain, the seasonality of our crops and how sensitive they are. I do not want to be an alarmist,” Riddle said. “But I do find that this is a problem that is going to persist in the food chain for quite some time—especially with proteins. You’re going to continue to see these ups and downs in the grocery stores because demand is exceeding supply.”
To help his community, Riddle said Homestead Gardens was able to procure a 53 foot truck trailer full of 30,000 pounds of frozen chicken recently, and sell it at a marked-down rate to local residents.
“It was all pre-sold within 24 hours,” Riddle said. “Thirty-thousand pounds of chicken was gone. Those folks were so appreciative to have access to this. There are shortages and they're real. It's not like it's depleted and it's gone, but it's definitely in short supply. It is just another indicator that we really need to shore up food supply.”
Monica Alvarado is spokesperson for Feed Anne Arundel, a grassroots group formed to
support local restaurants in their effort to feed the hungry in the county. Her experiences back up Riddle’s observations about the food supply.
“We have agencies coming back every week, and running out of food,” she said. “Typically, around this time of the year, we would give out about 85,000 pounds of food a month. And in the past seven and a half weeks, we gave away over 360,000 pounds of food. The need just keeps growing.”
She observed that those residents once thought to have a buffer against hunger, because of stable long-term employment, now find themselves in need of help too.
Alvarado offered the example of one local resident to illustrate the point. The man (she did not supply his name) is a veteran and a very successful entrepreneur. He had almost bought Alvarado’s restaurant a few years back. Then the virus came and his financial situation was turned upside down.
“He's doing all these different things,” she said, “He's fully in control (and) is suddenly finding himself in a position needing to ask for help.
Like Riddle, Alvarado sees potential trouble ahead with the food supply system. She considered that more people may be affected and that the quality of food available for sale could also deteriorate.
“What that brings to mind for me is that the people that are doing okay right now, they can afford to go and get a little bit of chicken as the food prices continue to climb, we're gonna see that become more and more difficult. And for me that makes me worried that we're going to be leaning more on processed food instead of the fresh foods that people really need to build their immune systems.”
Pittman recognized that many of the challenges in bolstering the food supply chain were coming from outside the county, and that they involved governmental red tape.
“We have to think outside the box and don’t take nor for an answer,” he said.
The County Executive said that an idea that has been advanced to the Department of Natural
Resources is permitting the harvesting of deer by farmers during the summer on their private property. Venison would be donated to the needy, would be free to be processed, and farmers would have enhanced protection against the deer eating their crops.
He said the county has four to five times the deer than is healthy for the ecosystem.
“It would be good for the forest,” he said. “It would be good for the trees. We’re working on that.”
Bolstering local farm production was also a focus of the discussion.
“We have about 20,000 acres of farmland in this county, only about 180 are in vegetables,” Pittman said. The main reason for the limited land that was being cultivated for vegetables was that it was labor intensive to farm and supplied less of a profit to farmers.
Riddle had some hope that the production landscape of farming in the county could be transformed.
“I do think we still have some opportunity, depending on crops, to take that production up a notch.”
Pittman was somewhat skeptical on getting a larger crop planted this season for harvest this year.
“It’s such a big project that I know it’s not going to happen this year to get food on the table this year,”he said.
Community and household gardens might bear more fruit and vegetables, however.
"I think industry wide you see incredible spikes in vegetable demands and all the supplies that go with it,” Riddle said. “So I think that the Victory Garden, Community Garden...I think there's a lot of efforts along those lines.”
Pittman suggested the idea of creating more community gardens was a viable strategy to increasing some produce production. Interested community groups and leaders were encouraged to reach out to the county. Susan Thomas, head of the Anne Arundel County Food Bank said excess fertilizer is available from last year.
Current community gardens that are available in the county are already oversubscribed, Pittman said.
While the food chain is feeling a heavy burden, current commercial establishments do have a supply. But with an eye toward an unknown future, and recognition that much has changed for county residents in the first half of this year, county leadership is looking for all the tools it can get to meet the challenges to come. They want to make Pittman’s vision to build back better a reality, not just a slogan.
Pam Brown, head of the Partnership for Children, Youth and Families, had headed off Tuesday’s teleconference. She recognized the challenges the emergency continues to impose, but chose to put a positive spin on Anne Arundel’s future.
“At the moment we’re managing pretty well,” she said. “And it's because we have been innovative. And there's a lot of partners that bring a lot of different skills. But going forward as we try to think what is better. We have to think about real innovation. Let's not use the old tried systems that we know were already pretty creaky and not working very well for most people. Let's involve young people, and not just the usual characters, but kids who live in subsidized public housing, who are some of the funniest, best, most creative kids I've ever, ever known. And so really, let's think outside the box, about how we move forward, who we involve in that, and what kind of system we build for the future, and let’s build it with heart.”