Councilmember Valerie Ervin

Councilmember Valerie Ervin.

By:  Valerie Ervin, Montgomery County Councilmember
Following Poverty in America Awareness Month in January, I joined with hundreds of non-profit providers, residents, and elected leaders to “SNAP the Silence” about poverty and hunger by living on no more than $5 per day for our food budgets.  This amount is comparable to the assistance eligible residents receive under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).

Formerly known as the Food Stamp Program, SNAP supports those whose wages are too low to lift them out of poverty, helping them put food on the table. In October 2012, approximately 65,200 County residents participated in the SNAP program. While the challenge was in no way similar to the struggles encountered by low-income working families, it provided a new perspective and greater understanding for many of those who took the challenge.

I could have kicked off the “SNAP the Silence” challenge anywhere in Montgomery County, but as a former rank and file member of the UFCW, I selected Giant Food because of its commitment to paying it workers fair wages and benefits.  In my younger days, as a single mother raising two sons, I know I couldn’t have made ends meet, unless I had my union job as a grocery cashier. My union job was the difference between self-sufficiency and reliance on public assistance.

At the SNAP the Silence kick-off event, I was delighted to be joined by Josh Williams, President of the Metropolitan Washington AFL-CIO, who took the challenge, and Santino “Sonny” Garibay, UFCW representative, who introduced me to several members working at the store, so it felt like a bit of a homecoming for me.

Ervin with Local 400 member Vincent Miles from Giant #319

As the week progressed under the challenge, my mind quickly began to fixate on food.  On Wednesday, I was in Annapolis to testify before a Maryland Senate committee, and it hit me how hungry I was. It was only the third day of the challenge.  I began to wonder, if I am this hungry, what do people who have physically demanding jobs feel like? How does a parent who works two jobs find the time to prepare and cook nutritious meals? How are these folks making it?

I am humbled by the outpouring of support we received from the hundreds of residents who temporarily left their comfort zones to better understand the struggles that many of our neighbors face on a daily basis. Above all, though, I am energized by the coalition we have formed—including elected officials, non-profit food providers, students, religious groups, and local organizers—that is committed to turning our momentum into action.

On the last night of the SNAP challenge this coalition gathered to discuss next steps. We know that sequestration cuts will cause a severe cut in SNAP benefits, and we plan to use that as a major lobbying point at the federal level.

At the state level, we lobbied to increase funding for universal breakfast programs; because of those efforts, next year 57,000 additional Maryland students will receive free breakfast each day at school.

We have also expanded meals for our students through the Summer Food Program, where 9,000 students receive 320,000 meals at 100 locations throughout the county. A dozen of these locations are walk-in sites where students do not have to be engaged in other programs to receive a meal.

We are also taking steps to create a county-wide Food Recovery Initiative, where we would create a network to collect surplus food that would otherwise be wasted and redistribute it to those in need.

We are investing in community gardens and helping local farmers markets get registered to accept SNAP benefits.

And we are starting to think more about other elements of fighting poverty on a holistic level, including affordable housing, accessibility to reliable transportation and transit, and increasing the minimum wage.

In 1966, Sargent Shriver, who was President Johnson’s Director of the War on Poverty said, “Most wars are declared by old men, but fought by the young.  But our war on poverty asks everyone to get into the fight.”

We are fighting our own war on poverty right here in Montgomery County.  There is ground to be gained. Our challenge has only just begun.