3/2/2013 7:00 AM
By Laurie Savage Maryland Correspondent
More than 257,000 residents of Montgomery and Prince George’s counties in Maryland, or 15 percent of the population, are at risk of or are experiencing hunger, according to the U.S. Census American Community Survey.
Of those residents, 46 percent live in Montgomery County, ranked 10th nationally for highest median household income.
In Montgomery County, 1 in 6 children under the age of 18 is at risk of hunger.
Those statistics show tremendous opportunities for the county’s farmers to increase direct sales to the county’s consumers, say members of the Montgomery County Food Council, which was formed a year ago to combat hunger and indentify new opportunities for agriculture.
Montgomery County has more farmers markets than any other county in Maryland; however, very few participating farmers come from within the county.
Of the 561 county farmers involved in the three major agricultural production areas — commodity/livestock, horticulture/table food and equestrian — in 2008 the county farm directory listed just 94 providing a range of agricultural products for sale. Of those 94, there are 36 farms listed that provide table food products.
While the directory does not list every farm involved in direct food sales to the public, there remains plenty of room for growth, the council says.
But the fledgling organization has accomplished much since its inception.
“It’s a dynamic and exciting time in food and agriculture,” said Lindsay Smith, Montgomery County Food Council coordinator. “We want to be a go-to resource.”
According to the council’s website, the organization’s mission is to bring together a diverse representation of stakeholders in a public and private partnership to improve the environmental, economic, social and nutritional health of Montgomery County through the creation of a robust, local, sustainable food system.
Smith said similar councils exist around the country, including Portland, Ore., and Detroit.
Locally, she said, “there are a couple of food councils that are forming,” including in southern Maryland.
Baltimore City has a food policy planner, meaning some councils and positions are housed within the government, she said. The Montgomery County council is independent from the government but includes government representatives.
The idea for the council formed two years ago, when 80 farmers, county government officials, business leaders and community activists gathered to discuss the county’s food system, Smith said. A coordinator was hired in 2011, and the council was launched in February 2012.
No hard and fast rules were put in place to allow the council to be fluid during the development phase. An interim advisory board was formed to design and appoint directors to the first council.
Council members were selected through a comprehensive application process, Smith said. New members will be added to the council to strengthen numbers.
The council has focused over the past year on information gathering and will continue to look at current programs, she said, to look for gaps and understand where progress is needed.
“Many people on the council have a knowledge of current conditions,” she said.
Connections and synergies are being formed. The council is identifying projects already under way. Several current projects in which the council is tapping into are the Johns Hopkins University’s Center for a Livable Future mapping projects and a food recovery group at the University of Maryland that delivers excess food from the dining halls to needy organizations.
“We rely on a lot of volunteer support from outside the council,” she said. “We do most of our work through working groups.”
In addition to council members, the working groups include 30 community members. The groups have many ideas upon which to build from the original conference.
The working groups establish projects, policies and partnerships; conduct research, inform and recommend policy change; and develop initiatives, the website said. The public is invited to take part in the groups, which meet more frequently than does the council.
The working groups’ focus areas are healthy eating, school and youth gardens, food access, growing farmers, value chain analysis, buy local and land use, zoning and planning.
Over the past year, the council has worked on several initiatives. The council participated in the rewrite of the county’s zoning laws by improving the definition of agriculture processing, allowing for more food preparation activities within the county’s agricultural reserve.
The council also defended one of the county’s oldest organic farms, operated by the Maravell family, whose future has been in question since the Montgomery County Board of Education turned the lease of the land over to the county in 2011 for the development of soccer fields. The county dropped its plans and surrendered the lease last week.
A comprehensive mapping project was launched using GIS technology to identify food producers, number and location of food outlets selling healthy food, and current and future school gardens. The project includes identifying farmers markets that accept food assistance programs and locations of emergency food assistance, Smith said.
In the future, the council will continue to work on the zoning ordinance, explore launching a school garden site coordinator training program and write a three-year business plan.
“We are thinking of job creation,” Smith said, as part of their efforts into the future.
The council meets about six times per year. Meetings are open to the public, and community participation is encouraged. For more information on the council, e-mail info<\@>mocofoodcouncil.org or visit www.mocofoodcouncil.org.