"Food-wise, it's been tough," Evans said. "My sister has been a big help, but after a while, you can only go so far with that."
Evans, 52, was eating lunch at Bel Air United Methodist Church courtesy of Manna House, which has provided a free meal and a bag of groceries to patrons each Wednesday for the past 20 years. He has come to depend on the food to help get him through the weeks, which can, on occasion, include a missed dinner.
A forklift driver who applied for a job at McDonald's this year just to start drawing a paycheck again, Evans is like thousands in the state who are fighting to eat. Data recently released by the Food Research and Action Center shows more than 15 percent of households in the state reported not having enough money to buy food at some point in the past two years. The numbers are based on a national Gallup Poll survey of more than 570,000 individuals from January 2008 to December 2009.
The food research center works with hundreds of national, state and local agencies to formulate polices addressing hunger and poverty.
Advocates called the numbers troubling and were especially taken aback by the higher average for households with children, with 20 percent reporting food hardships in Maryland.
In the Baltimore area, about 19 percent of households with children reported that they had difficulty purchasing food.
In the survey, Gallup pollsters asked individuals a series of questions on a range of topics, including emotional health, physical health, healthful behavior, work environment and access to basic services. One of the final questions asks respondents if there have been times in the past 12 months when they did not have enough money to buy food.
"The numbers can't help but startle you somewhat," said Julie Walsh, chairwoman of Maryland Alliance for the Poor. Walsh said the most recent data she had seen placed the rate closer to 10 percent. "It's striking to think one in five families struggle with hunger. We've seen people dramatically impacted by the economy."
Jim Weill, president of the food research center, said the question on the survey is similar to ones used by the Census Bureau to determine federal poverty and hunger rates.
"It's a very accurate representation," he said. "In a perfect universe, there would be follow-up questions. But it's a great question, and it cuts through the heart of the matter."
Maryland's food hardship rate, according to the food center report, placed the state 44th nationally in 2009. Mississippi led the country, with 26 percent of its residents struggling to eat.
Census Bureau and federal government officials rely on a detailed series of questions to provide a wider view of hunger as it relates to unemployment and homelessness.
But Mark Nord, a sociologist in the Food Assistance Branch at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, said the food center data has merit. The numbers for the state and nation are about 5 percent higher on average than those most recently released by the Census Bureau, for 2008.
"We knew it would be a bigger number than ours because [the question measures] a less severe condition. But given that, it's in the range you would expect," Nord said. "They're probably not ironclad numbers. But there is reason to believe that there is a reasonable level of reliability."
Local service providers such as the Maryland Food Bank say they see the effects daily. About 32 percent of clients served by the food bank reported having to choose between buying food or paying for utilities at some point last year, according to a study released earlier this week.
The food bank serves 261,000 people a year, an 11 percent increase since 2006, and handed out an estimated 18 million pounds worth of food last year.
An estimated 135,000 Marylanders lost their jobs last year, and the state's unemployment rate is about 7.5 percent.
Deborah Flateman, the food bank's CEO, said a substantial number of people now using its services are people who were "gainfully employed. They're going to get food [at soup kitchens] for the first time in their lives."
Such is the case for William Tscheschlog. The 50-year-old man and his 17-year-old son have becomeregulars at the Wednesday lunches at Bel Air United Methodist after being self-employed installing floors in Harford County for years.
Tscheschlog said the bottom fell out of his business at the same time the housing market collapsed.
He depends on the bag of groceries, which includes a loaf of bread, a dozen cans of soups and vegetables, cookies and dried foods to help feed his son.
"If it wasn't for this, I wouldn't make it at all," Tscheschlog said. "It's nice to come for the lunch, but I need the groceries."