The faces look familiar, but the circumstances aren't. Across Maryland, volunteers helping feed the poor report a curious phenomenon: families who once visited as donors of food and money showing up, often sheepishly, as customers.
"Many don't know what benefits might be available because they've never had to use them before," says Paula Minsk, chief development officer for the Maryland Food Bank.
Throughout Maryland, the economic recession and accompanying unemployment have continued to have a devastating impact on the health and well-being of families. And as an unfortunate result, charitable food pantries and soup kitchens are doing a record business.
Food insecurity in Maryland, the polite term for hunger and the risk of it coined by the federal government, is up sharply in the most recent three-year period ending in 2009, following a national trend. And despite Maryland's relative prosperity, there are still at least a half-million households that fall at or below the federal poverty rate.
In a season of Thanksgiving, the shortage of food seems all the more outrageous. Churches and nonprofits will no doubt get the job done for many who can't afford a holiday meal on Thursday, but there are 364 other days in the year.
The Maryland Food Bank, by far the state's largest provider of food to the needy, anticipates a record year in 2010-11. The organization is on pace to distribute 20 million pounds of food, up from 18.6 million in the fiscal year that ended June 30.
Donations to the food bank are running on par with last year, though many donors can't give as much as they have in years past. Meeting demand has been made possible only with government help — stimulus money passed along by local governments and a $1 million grant Gov. Martin O'Malley and the General Assembly approved earlier this year.
But whether such funding will be available in the future isn't clear. And that has organizers worried — not so much about feeding people this week, when awareness of the disadvantaged is high, but by late spring and summer when pantry supplies traditionally start to run low and school and federally subsidized nutrition programs for youngsters are not in session.
The task is daunting. The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that more than 11 percent of Maryland households are food insecure, meaning they lacked consistent access to enough to eat. That adds up to 242,202 households, up from last year's estimate of about 182,000 households.
The fastest-growing group are people who work full-time but don't have enough to pay for all necessities, including meals. That kind of underemployment rarely shows up in statistics but is noticeable in long soup kitchen lines.
What food banks need most right now and throughout the year is money. While donations of nonperishables are always welcome, organizations like the Maryland Food Bank have significant buying power and can purchase food below wholesale prices. But like any nonprofit, it is competing against many worthy charitable causes trying to hold together an increasingly frayed social safety net.
Even as pantries distribute turkeys and cardboard boxes filled with traditional accompaniments like potatoes, cranberry sauce and green beans, officials fret about the needs that lie ahead and whether the plight of the hungry will get overlooked.
"From those to whom much is given, much is expected," to paraphrase Luke Chapter 12. Helping meet the basic nutritional needs of Maryland's children, elderly and others deserving of our help would seem to suit that timeless directive.