Meg Kimmel is the Executive Vice President and Chief Strategy Officer with the Maryland Food Bank. She talks with Quinton Askew, president and CEO of 211 Maryland, about programs and services to help food insecure Marylanders.
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You’ve likely heard of the Food Bank, but food distribution is just one of many services and programs.
If you need help with food, you can find resources locally. Not sure where to look? Call 2-1-1, search for food resources from 211 or search the Maryland Food Bank’s Find Food resource. Kimmel talks about the community-based partnerships that make it easy to get food locally.
The Maryland Food Bank Hunger Map, identifies hot spots for food insecurity and gaps in food resources. Kimmel talks about how the Food Bank uses that data to roll out new programs and services and how partners can use the data too.
Food insecurity and mental health are interrelated. Kimmel talks about the drivers of being food insecure, and how the nonprofit is addressing the root causes of stress and hunger.
The Food Bank added new programs during the pandemic, including the addition of a Backup Box. Kimmel discusses what that is, and the new ways they can provide food support to the community.
The Food Bank workers never thought of themselves as First Responders until the pandemic. They still had to work, to feed Marylanders. Kimmel talks about how the organization worked through the pandemic safely, and how they support workers well-being.
One in 3 Marylanders are impacted by food insecurity. This data came from Marylanders, in a public perception poll done by the Maryland Food Bank. Kimmel talks about this data and what it means.
The FoodWorks Culinary Training program provides a unique opportunity to learn culinary skills and get teamed up with workforce opportunities. Kimmel talks about the expansion of this program.
If you need food, what should you expect? How will the process work? The reality – 40% of people who are food insecure won’t seek out the help they need. So, it’s important to understand how the process works and the expectations of seeking food support.
The Maryland Food Bank added a Director of Government Relations to be more intentional about legislative advocacy work. Kimmel talks about efforts to solve hunger statewide.
Kimmel talks about ways you can connect with the Food Bank.
Partnerships fuel the Food Bank’s work. Kimmel talks about all the ways they partner with nonprofit and state organizations.
Good morning. Welcome to What’s the 211 podcast. We are excited to be joined by Meg Kimmel, Executive Vice President and Chief Strategy Officer with the Maryland Food Bank. Meg, Good morning. How are you?
Meg Kimmel, Maryland Food Bank (1:45)
Good morning, Quinton. Thanks so much for having us.
Maryland Food Bank Services
Quinton Askew (1:48)
No problem. Glad you were able to join us. So can you tell us a little bit about the Maryland Food Bank and the role it has statewide?
Meg Kimmel (1:54)
Yeah, absolutely. I mean, I think the Food Bank is a name that most people recognize. But, what most people don’t quite fully understand is the breadth and scope of our services.
So, our mission in a nutshell is to feed people, strengthen communities and end hunger for more Marylanders. And, now more than ever, after coming out of the pandemic, we have really seen that the Food Assistance safety net that we’ve built, and that we support, has been able to withstand any kind of crisis.
We have a lot of subject matter expertise around programs, we have some wonderful partnerships across the state. In fact, a network of more than 1100 community-based partners.
And, our job is to make people in Maryland able to access food today when they need it. And, also to put a lot of effort into our programming around ending or addressing the root causes of food insecurity.
How to find food in your community
Quinton Askew (2:43)
That’s great. I know it’s, you know it’s by a lot of partnerships, but how do individuals actually seek help or connect with them Maryland Food Bank? And, who do you actually serve?
Meg Kimmel (2:51)
Right, so I’ll take the first question part of that question first. So, the way people access help is through those community-based partners.
So, food banks, large food banks, like the Maryland Food Bank, we mostly work through what we’d call last mile organization. So, those would be a food pantry, a shelter, a soup kitchen, a community organization, a faith based organization that’s in the community where people live. And, we provide food and resources for those organizations and increasingly funding.
And, so when people are looking for help, they can look in their communities, and they can find resources locally. And, one of the things that we do to make that easy is we have a page on our website, we call it our Find Food. And it’s a sort of like a store locator where you can type in your ZIP code, and you can look and see what Maryland Food Bank supported organizations are in your neighborhood. So, that’s a really easy way for people to find resources.
And, the other thing I’d say in terms of who we serve, it’s anyone who needs help accessing food, our partners, our school pantries, we have pop-up pantries, we deliver to senior centers, we have food pantries in different communities.
So, we do not advocate that there should be any kind of restriction on who can access services. Self-declaration of need is an indicator of need. And, we think that that’s the best way for people to get over the hurdle of asking for food assistance, which we know can be challenging.
Identifying hunger hot spots with the hunger map
Quinton Askew (4:08)
Yes, definitely. So, I saw on your website where the Maryland Food Bank has created a hunger map. And, so tell us a bit why that’s important. What what does it show?
Meg Kimmel (4:18)
Sure. So, our Hunger Map is a great tool for us. It shows a couple of important things. One, it shows what we’re doing. So, you can look and see on there, there’s a series of dots by color that shows all of the different programs that the Maryland food bank operates. And, you can see where we’re deploying resources and in terms of food, how much is going out and who’s doing that work in partnership with the food bank.
And, then the second thing is we have another sort of series of datasets that feed into what we call a layer of indicators of needs.
So, what we want to be able to accomplish with the hunger map is twofold. One, we want to be able to look at the work that we’re doing and compare that to levels of need in the community. So, we can see If there’s a community where we’re adequately meeting the need in terms of food, or there’s parts of Maryland where there’s still a gap. Whatever is happening isn’t enough, maybe there’s not anything happening at all.
So, we want to be able to visualize where there are areas that we call hunger hotspots. And, these are areas that are underserved either because of traditional lack of access to food, or maybe there’s a higher level of need, because of something like the pandemic.
So, the last thing I’ll say about that is that we really wanted to also do this as a way to be transparent. Coming out of the pandemic, there’s a lot of organizations now entering the food assistance space, and a lot of new energy, but sometimes not as much knowledge about what’s already going on.
So, we want anybody that’s interested in helping provide food in their communities to be able to look on this map, see where the Maryland Food Bank is already doing work, so that we’re not duplicating.
Quinton Askew (5:49)
It sounds like a great way for organizations and partners to really see you know, where gaps are and learn about those gaps. Have you, based on the data and information that you will have been able to learn from this, has there been any particular programs initiatives created as a result of that?
Meg Kimmel (6:02)
Yes, there have. And we are very actively working on a strategic plan, which is a great tool in terms of helping all of our folks at the food bank work together, which is always takes a lot of effort, as you know.
And. so what we’ve been able to do is we’ve been able to focus our programming, and that includes food distribution, but also other partnerships to address those root causes of hunger, on what we’ve now conceded are the hunger hotspots.
So, instead of looking at sort of, we had tools before that we used, but they were just much more like basic measurement in terms of how much food is going into Howard County, how much food is going into Allegheny County. And, now we can actually look and see in a ZIP code or even in a census-designated area, are there places where there’s high levels of need, but not enough resources? So, our program staff now has much more information around where to deploy new services and programs. So, that’s a huge step forward for us.
And, then we’ve also done some more tactical things like we launched a new program called a mobile market. And, we’ve always done mobile pop-ups. We have a pantry on-the-go program that we’ve been running for about a decade. But, the mobile market is like a food truck-sized vehicle. It’s designed to be a shop through pre-pandemic, we created a course designed to be a shop through client choice neighbor choice that people can go through and take the food that they want. A high percentage of produce fruits, vegetables, proteins, the highly nutritious shelf-stable foods, so designed to be a mobile grocery store. And that is something that we’re deploying in those hunger hotspots where there literally aren’t any other options for food. So, we are definitely using that hunger map and more to come as we continue to build that out.
Mental health and food insecurity
Quinton Askew (7:34)
That’s great. I definitely would encourage anyone to go to the website to take a look at that. And, so we know May is Mental Health Awareness Month and access to nutritional food is really a critical Social Determinant of Health. So you know, understanding that a person has access to healthy food can really affect their mental health. What have you learned regarding your work with the Food Bank and mental health and those that are seeking support?
Meg Kimmel (7:55)
That’s a really good question. You know, one of the conversations that we’ve been having internally, over the past couple of years, as we talk about how to address the root causes of food insecurity, you know, we’re looking to define what those are. And, so we have some access to data and research and things like that, that indicate that more often than not, the key driver of food insecurity is a lack of financial resources.
But, we also understand that there’s a universe and ecosystem of drivers and results from being food insecure. And, as we look at chronic disease, chronic food insecurity, you know, and even in a in a clinical hospital setting, the clinicians are focused on malnutrition, which is, you know, really a chronic lack of adequate nutrients. And, so we understand that if we’re not really partnering in this healthcare space, and trying to address the implications, physical or mental of food insecurity, that we’re not really going to be touching all of the root causes of stress and actually hunger itself.
So, doing a lot more with healthcare partnerships, we have about a half a dozen established currently and more in the works, and we’re going to be prioritizing this work even further as we go forward.
Quinton Askew (09:08)
We understand not having food or access can be stressful. You know, speaking of mental health and the pandemic that’s really affected everyone, especially, you know, access to food. How has the Food Bank changed, you know, pre-pandemic, and certainly what the guys are doing now?
Meg Kimmel (9:21)
Yeah, the easy answer is, you know, almost every way, but there’s lots that hasn’t changed as well.
I mean, we had written a strategic plan before the pandemic that really did clearly articulate that we wanted to do more to provide pathways out of hunger to address the root causes of hunger. So, that pre-existed the pandemic. The pandemic pulled us completely over into the food distribution work because of the level of need and the fact that people couldn’t go out. There’s just, as everyone is well aware, all kinds of stresses on the system in terms of job loss or people just needing to stay home because it wasn’t safe to go out.
So, a lot of our programming has changed. One example of that is we developed a new product called a Backup Box. And that is a box that is, it’s an emergency food box. We have two options. One is 30 pounds, one 15 pounds. They’re designed to be a low touch, no touch distribution, way to get food out into the community in a way that’s safe.
And, so when you saw those lines of cars on the evening news, or you see, people walking up there taking boxes versus going through this choice model, where they’re able to choose their food, because that wasn’t a good idea during the pandemic. So, you know, we’ve learned to be focused on home delivery in a way that we did not before the pandemic. And. some of these things we’re hanging onto. I mean, we’re learning that we’re a lot more agile than we give ourselves credit for. And, you know, the hard part of this work is figuring out what you can do less of or let go of so that you can continue to focus on really reaching the need today, and continuing to build that out in a really effective way.
Mental wellness of the Food Bank team
With all the work that’s been going on, with the pandemic and how much stress that has put on the community, and especially the work that you all are doing, how do you all support yourselves to help ensure that your staff has what they need, in order to support those across the state?
Meg Kimmel (11:08)
There’s a story that I really like to tell which is in the early days in the pandemic, your listeners may or may not know that we have a working warehouse, we have a fleet of vehicles. So, we have drivers, we have cooks, we have warehouse workers, and they all had to come to work to do their job, just like first responders everywhere did. And, then we had other people on our staff who said, I never thought of ourselves as the Maryland Food Bank as a first responder, because we’ve never really been put in that position before. We were not an emergency room or, you know, we’re not we’re EMTs, were not clearly in that space, but during the pandemic we were. And, so that was really distressing in terms of the organization.
So, what we did, in the beginning, was whether or not we can work remotely, we all came into the office. And, that was just a, you know, some of us don’t have the option to work from home. So, we’re all coming in. And that worked for about a year.
And, then as the number of COVID cases increased, we backed off that. And, we actually asked our team who could work remotely to please work remotely to help keep those safe, who were coming in. So again, we’re learning as we go. So, there was that driver for us. We learned during the pandemic. not only that, you know that we needed to be more relational with our staff and make sure that we were taking care of each other, but also the racial reckoning that happened around the murder of George Floyd and the need for us to just carve out space internally, as people, to have conversations and to just be together and talk things out. And, we didn’t do that in any sort of organized way. We just started it.
Now we’re much more intentional about it. We’ve brought on a wonderful consulting group called SAGE wellness, who’s leading us on a DEI journey, and they’re a terrific resource to us. But, we’ve just slowed down. And, while we’ve been going really fast and faster than ever before, we’ve also slowed down. And, we’ve created space for conversation. We’ve created more space for relationships. We understand that everyone’s bringing their whole self to work. And, we’ve done some tactical things like we have a newsletter that goes out every week or two called MFB Cares, where we just, we just provide resources, in addition to our standard kind of HR, you know, employee assistance programs. We want to link out to other resources in the community, including mental health resources and utility assistance and anything that somebody may need, who works at the Food Bank, or they may have a friend or family that needs some additional resources, too. So, we’re trying to do that. And, we’re really paying attention to retention and, you know, making sure that we’re trying to stay current with the upheaval in the job market as a way to keep our strong team intact as best we can.
Food insecurity data
Quinton Askew (13:34)
Yeah, this is definitely a challenge, especially you know, you want to make sure we take care of the staff that has to take care of everyone else. But, that is great.
On your website, I saw there’s a section titled public perception matches the reality of hunger, which I thought was very interesting. Can you talk a little about that particularly?
Meg Kimmel (13:51)
We ran a public perception poll in late 2021. So, third time, we’ve done that. We did it in 2013, and again in 2017. And, initially we set out to gain an understanding of how much people knew about the Maryland Food Bank. But, also how much did they know about the issue of hunger or food insecurity? And, how important was it to Marylanders because we really didn’t have that information. And, so we ran it twice before the pandemic. And then we ran it, as I said, in late 2001, coming out of the pandemic, and it’s an amazing repository of public opinion in Maryland.
And, we’ve learned things like over 90% of Marylanders want the state government to do more to address the root causes of food insecurity, and to spend more tax dollars on solving this issue for good.
We ask questions about have you experienced food insecurity yourself? And, so this is a really important data point that matches up with some of our more rigorous research that we’ve done that tells us that one in three people in the state of Maryland have experienced food insecurity themselves. So, that’s a stunning number. And, again, really interesting that we got it through this in person, you know, individualized poll.
And, it’s the same result that we got through combining some data from the Urban Institute and the United Way’s Alice reports, and data research, and jobless claims and Census data. So, we did the analysis that showed one in three, which is very different than any other reporting that’s coming out about food insecurity right now, because we’re able to add in some real time datasets, and we’re not just looking at pre-pandemic numbers. So, that’s a pretty stunning number.
And, then to have this public perception poll, say yes, in fact, that’s true.
When we talked directly to Maryland citizens, we find that one in three people have faced food insecurity themselves. So, it’s a very important issue. Marylanders care about it, and they believe that it’s something that we can solve.
And, so for us, it’s energizing. It’s motivating. And it just fuels our messaging. And, it fills relationships with a lot of energy.
Quinton Askew (15:57)
Yeah, that’s a stunning number. Was there any anything that also stood out that surprised you about the data that you’re receiving?
Meg Kimmel (16:04)
I don’t think so. I would say no, there’s nothing that really surprised us. It’s more validating because again, the Maryland Food Bank is on so many journeys right now, but one of them is we want to be more data-informed. And, so what it does for us is it allows us to not say we think that we know that, but actually, we heard from Marylanders, and they told us that, which is really validating.
So. we have a lot of really smart, talented, experienced people who work at the Food Bank, and we know a lot of things. But to have rigorous surveying that comes back and shows us what we thought we knew, but in a way that’s reliable and evidence-based is it’s a big step forward for us.
FoodWorks Culinary Training Program
Quinton Askew (16:44)
It is. So, the Food Bank offers more than just food as you informed us. I read about a cool initiative – FoodWorks culinary training program. So how did that get started?
Meg Kimmel (16:57)
Yeah. FoodWorks is a 10-year-old program that’s housed at our health work facility in a commercial kitchen, which is actually being expanded and renovated right now. So, it’s going to be a really state-of-the-art commercial kitchen.
It’s a 12-week program, at no cost to students. It’s accredited by the Community College of Baltimore County. And, we bring four cohorts through that program a year, and it’s about 20 to 25 students per cohort. Our expansion will hopefully allow us to about double that number, which we’re really excited about.
And, the headline is its knife skills and life skills. So, lots of culinary training, how to be in the kitchen, how to cut, how to prep, how to keep everyone safe with hot foods, and flames, and then also how to be a good colleague, and how to show up on time and how to have your resume ready for an interview prep and all those things that that will be needed. And, we do a lot of support through the job placement process as well. We have an employer council that we listen to and learn from. And, we have a lot of organizations and businesses that come back to us over and over again, looking for more graduates from FoodWorks. So, it’s a really exciting program.
We’ve actually just expanded it. We have a small satellite program in Baltimore City at the UA house on Fayette Street, and that we’re just in our first cohort at Warwick Community College in Wicomico County on the Eastern Shore with students going there. And, we’ll be graduating just in time for the summer season. So, it’s a workforce development program.
We’re playing in the workforce development space even more with some other tracks into different careers. But, we really love FoodWorks. It’s the best of the best in terms of culinary training programs in our region. And, we’re excited to stand on its shoulders as we build out new ways to help people get connected into family-sustaining jobs of the future.
What to expect: Reaching out for food help for the first time
Quinton Askew (18:36)
And, it really aligns with the work that you do. So, you know, it’s also difficult for individuals accessing food, as we talked about, you know, with some of the mental health challenges and other needs. What is the experience of someone sort of reaching out for help in order to get food like What should they expect and working even with your community partners or just trying to access food for maybe the first time?
Meg Kimmel (19:00)
Well, that’s a really important question. And, one of the reasons it’s so important is that we know from research that actually the Bloomberg School of Public Health was part of a coalition of research institutes that published research that said that some…
40% of people who are food insecure for the first time won’t seek out help from a food pantry, or a food distribution organization. It’s too embarrassing. They will do a lot of things before they will go there. And, a lot of them will just lean on friends and family. That won’t actually seek out help even if it is available. And, so we know that’s a problem.
And, when we look at that, and we think about what that experience is like for people who are seeking out assistance, we know that it varies.
And, as I mentioned earlier, we believe in client choice and neighbor choice. So we believe that people should be able to choose the food that they take home, that their kids will eat, that their family likes, that is culturally familiar and that’s nutritious. And, so that includes produce and includes protein and it includes a lot of good options.
And, so having a network of, you know, 1000 plus distribution points, some of which we have more control over, for example, those mobile distribution programs I spoke of earlier, that’s food that we’re putting together and putting out there. So, we have a lot of control over what that looks like. But in a food pantry, they might be getting some of their food from the Maryland Food Bank, but some of their food may be coming from other places. They may have their own process for how that’s handed out how that’s distributed. So, we think there’s a role for us to play in, really educating around best practices, and really using and working with community leaders and neighbors to understand what their experience is, and how might it be improved.
And, then we have a pretty big megaphone that we want to use to share that information out to the rest of our network to help move them closer toward something that is a really dignified and inclusive process for people seeking out help. It’s a big job. And, it’s, as I said, we can influence but we can’t dictate at the Food Bank, so we certainly will leverage our ability to influence to the full degree that we can.
Quinton Askew (21:00)
With that knowledge and training, also comes advocacy. And, we know that running a Food Bank you are extremely active in advocating for policies to address food insecurity. You talked a little bit about some of the priorities you all are working on that were important for the organization.
Meg Kimmel (21:16)
So, we actually were able to fully engage in the General Assembly this past year, in a more intentional way than we ever have before. We hired a full time Director of Government Relations, which we haven’t had in the past. And, one of the reasons that we haven’t is because we know there’s a lot of other organizations out there who do excellent work in the advocacy space. And, we work really closely with them and support their efforts. But, we realized that if we were really going to do work to address the root causes of hunger, we have to also be at the table in terms of advocating for systems-level change.
And, so we’re excited to be able to have Anne Wallerstedt on our team who’s doing that work. And, so we were able to get behind some legislation this year, that included funding for more dollars for local fresh produce grown in Maryland for food insecure Marylanders. For Maryland Market Money, which is the kind of the Double Up Food Bucks program at Farmer’s Markets, and also for some additional funding for school meals for children. So, we’re just getting going in the advocacy space, still doing a lot of listening. Still, we do what we’ve always done really well in educating elected officials about the issue. So, we continue to do a lot of that work.
And, we have very strong relationships with the elected officials and agency leaders in our state and even up to the Governor, we’re continuing to advocate for, you know, for solutions for the future that will really do more to end hunger for good.
And, you know, meanwhile, we’re also still championing the message that we have to keep providing more food today because the levels of meat are higher than they’ve ever been before. So, we’re trying to really keep both of those topics, top of mind for decision-makers.
Connect with the food bank
Quinton Askew (22:52)
That is true. Knowing the Maryland Food Bank is a 501(c)3 organization. So, for all those interested in supporting the Food Bank, how do they learn about more opportunities?
Meg Kimmel (23:04)
I would refer your listeners to our website. It’s a good source of information both about the work that the Maryland Food Bank does, and also you can see all those local partner organizations that we work with. And, so if someone’s looking to support an organization in their community, it’s the Find Food tab on the website. You’ll be able to see what organizations are doing work in your neighborhood. So yeah, everyone that we work with is either also 501(c)3 or they’re a faith-based organization. So, all of our partners would be happy to receive support. As with the Food Bank.
Quinton Askew (23:36)
Are there any other social media handles or other ways to stay in touch that folks need to know about?
Meg Kimmel (23:41)
Quinton Askew (23:48)
In closing, is there anything else that you’d like to share with folks about the Maryland Food Bank or just school insecurity at all?
Meg Kimmel (23:54)
Yeah, I mean, I think we’ve covered the topic of food insecurity pretty well. But, I always think it’s important to just speak about and celebrate the partnerships that we have. And with organizations like I’ve mentioned – the food pantries in the shelters, and the community-based organizations, but it’s also with organizations like 211, and county governments, and, you know, local management boards and Department of Human Services, Department of Agriculture. I mean, these big sort of overarching organizations that can be a place where resources come together, and are deployed in a really, you know, strategic and effective way. Those partnerships are really important to the Maryland Food Bank as well. And we are actively engaged in many of them and in that work, and so I say that just as a way to say that while we are a really strong, independent organization, we can’t do our best work at all without partnerships. And, so that’s a big piece of how we spend our human capital at the Food Bank is trying to leverage the power of our collective impact as different organizations to really change the future for Maryland families.
Quinton Askew (24:58)
Thank you. We appreciate you joining us and help us to understand and learn more about the breadth of the work of the Maryland Food Bank. We do appreciate your partnership. So thanks again for joining us.
Meg Kimmel (25:08)
My pleasure. Thank you for having me.