The holiday season is officially here, and so are all of the expenses that come with it: food for holiday dinners, gifts for family, and traveling expenses.

But, this year especially, those costs are hitting families harder than before — and it’s not just because of the holidays.

The annual food index has risen 12.9% — the largest spike since 1999, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. In Maryland, U.S. Census data shows that the percentage of citizens struggling to pay for basic household expenses has risen from 24% in Dec. 2021 to 40% in Sept. 2022.

“There’s so many families out there who are having trouble making ends meet, despite the fact that they’re working one, two, three jobs at times,” said Maryland Food Bank spokesperson Joanna Warner.

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Want to help? Several financial and food insecurity experts share their tips below.

Donate or volunteer

Though the holidays put food front of mind, this past year the cost of groceries has risen sharply nationwide. The average U.S. household is spending $445 more a month than a year ago for the same products, according to an analysis by financial intelligence firm Moody’s Analytics.

These rising costs are also affecting the middle class, who are increasingly seeking out support from the Maryland Food Bank, Warner said. Even pre-pandemic, she added, food insecurity was high in Maryland because it is one of the most expensive states to live in.

“Quite frankly, hunger is an issue year round,” Warner said.

Donating to your local food bank and volunteering go a long way, she said. For Maryland Food Bank specifically, Warner said, donating to their virtual food drive can help maximize the amount of food purchased.

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“The fact is we can stretch $1 much further than anyone could at the grocery store just because of a wholesale purchasing power,” Warner said. She added that volunteering is even more impactful in January and February when most food banks have fewer volunteers on hand.

Support financial education efforts

Many nonprofits focusing on low-income families are trying to not only address food insecurity, but the root causes of poverty.

By addressing financial instability, families could be better able to buy food and other basic necessities, according to Sue Rogan, the director of strategic partnerships for CASH Campaign of Maryland, a nonprofit that promotes economic advancement and financial education for Maryland families.

At CASH Campaign, Rogan and her colleagues help set up families with public benefits, financial education classes, counseling and tax preparation services.

“We really recognize that people who are struggling financially are in the mindset of scarcity,” Rogan said. “And therefore it’s hard sometimes to think about a month from now, six months from now.”

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To address these concerns, CASH Campaign focuses on promoting financial literacy and educating people about their options for help, whether it’s through public benefits or charity. Similarly, they work to help families gain access to the traditional banking system by working with them to open bank accounts and improve credit scores. Other local nonprofits, like the Maryland Food Bank, also work to address financial instability through workforce development classes and training.

Educate and advocate

Experts also stressed that breaking down and unlearning biases around poverty and public assistance is critical to helping families in need.

“There’s so much shame and stigma that society places around anything that’s free,” said Michelle Salomon Madaio, an attorney with Homeless Persons Representation Project.

Madaio said the holidays can exacerbate the human tendency to classify some as “deserving” and others as “undeserving.” For example, the holidays are heavily focused on big family meals, she said. There is sometimes the idea that you should be able to provide food for Thanksgiving or Christmas dinners — and if you don’t, it’s a personal failing. When in reality, Madaio said, access to food is a human right and should not be restricted to who society deems deserving.

Maryland Hunger Solutions Director Michael J. Wilson echoed Madaio’s concerns and encouraged people to reframe their thinking around charity and public assistance.

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“There’s no such thing as the ‘deserving’ poor,” Wilson said. “That’s not good for them. That’s not good for our community. It’s not good for anybody.”

Feeding those in need also helps the overall economy. The state receives more than a billion dollars in federal funding for the SNAP program, which is then injected into the Maryland economy to grocery stores, farmers, and other food suppliers and distributors, Wilson said. Similarly, charities and food banks are adding significant amounts of money into the local economy by purchasing bulk food items.

“You will never see a billionaire return their tax benefits because they think other people need it,” Wilson said. “It’s the same pot of money that the federal government has, whether they’re giving tax benefits to wealthy people or they’re giving SNAP benefits to people who are food insecure.”

Ultimately, all of the experts The Banner spoke with said that the key to improving the lives of food-insecure families is to address the issue at the policy level. With the state legislative session starting in January 2023, according to Madaio, now is an opportune time for constituents to call their representatives and advocate for issues of poverty and food insecurity.

“I think a lot of times people think it’s the role of advocates or lobbyists, but really, anyone can contact their elected officials and they love hearing from their constituents,” Madaio said. “It lets folks know how important this is.”

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Here is a short list of nonprofits and charities where you can donate: