Pilot Program: Pathways to Economic Security
As part of our revitalized strategic plan, MFB 3.0, the Maryland Food Bank has launched several innovative pilot programs to help us better identify and serve Marylanders in need. These programs address both the root causes of hunger and allow us to identify and expand food access to more of our food-insecure neighbors.
One of the key drivers of food insecurity and economic hardship is un-/underemployment, and, in Maryland, the highest rate of unemployment is found in Baltimore City — 6.8% in total (compared to 5% statewide), but jumping to 9.6% among Black residents. Even more distressing, our research shows that 17% of City youth ages 16–24 are neither in school nor working. The result of this inequality is stark: people without jobs cannot afford adequate food.
A grant from Feeding America — the national network of food banks of which the Maryland Food Bank is a member — allowed us to address this disparity with our Workforce Development (WFD) pilot program. This Baltimore-centric initiative works to connect City residents with training programs and social services to help them find meaningful employment in growth industries we have identified (IT, healthcare, and green jobs) that provide family-sustaining wages and are not at risk of automation. And unlike many similar job training programs, this initiative provides a financial stipend, Supplemental Food Assistance Program (SNAP) enrollment assistance, and weekly food delivery in the form of a Back Up Box (BUB) (via our OrderAhead app — see below).
Our first cohort for the program will include opportunity youth (teenagers and young adults aged 18-25 who are not in school or working) and other residents from the Baltimore metro region. Ultimately, we hope to take the lessons from this pilot to build a permanent program that helps individuals throughout Maryland find pathways out of hunger via meaningful jobs in sustainable, growing industries.
Eliza Weeks, MFB’s senior manager, pilots and strategic initiatives, is currently recruiting for the first workforce development cohort.
“This is such innovative and exciting work,” she said. “There are lots of great programs aimed at helping young people, but few offer all the tools to prepare them for jobs in the high-growth, good-paying industries we’ve identified. We’re also going the extra mile to help them overcome barriers by providing weekly, home-delivered food boxes and a stipend — giving those youth one less thing to worry about.”
OrderAhead and Home Delivery
An influx of applications for SNAP assistance during the pandemic increased wait times for approval, with the average approval process taking 30 days from receipt of application. The extended waiting period results in acute need for food among our neighbors during that critical gap.
In response, MFB’s Community Impact team launched a pilot program that offered SNAP applicants access to Back Up Boxes of shelf-stable food, ordered through the OrderAhead online grocery ordering system. The online app, developed by Feeding America, allows SNAP applicants to order food for home delivery in a fast, private, and convenient way. “This was tremendously helpful for our neighbors stuck in the limbo between applying for SNAP and receiving their benefits,” said Chris Speedie, manager of client service programs.
“We soon realized that OrderAhead would also make sense for people who call MFB seeking food but who for one reason or another cannot get to a food pantry,” Weeks added. “We wondered if the app could help us serve people in need that we were otherwise unable to reach.” The elderly, people with illnesses or disabilities, college students, and home-bound populations, for example, may not be able to visit their local food pantry in person. Non-English-speaking populations, immigrants worried about citizenship issues, and those who feel stigma around food assistance are also ideal candidates for home-delivered food.
In the exploratory phase of the rollout, home delivery is being tested for a limited number of recipients. After ordering from a selection of four pre-packaged food boxes through OrderAhead, the food is delivered to homes statewide (except for Alleghany and Garrett counties) via FedEx. Similar delivery partnerships, including with Amazon, are under discussion.
There are still some hurdles to the pilot’s expansion — basic computer literacy and internet access, for example, are necessary to place an order. And only shelf-stable, non-perishable food can be currently offered, although we’re researching the possibility of adding fresh produce and proteins. “More choice and variety is always our goal,” Weeks explained.
Innovation and Evolution
Executive Vice President and Chief Strategy Officer Meg Kimmel has been leading the development of the new programs.
“We’re looking at transforming our work for the modern economy,” she said. “Everyone is used to on-demand consumer service today. We believe that providing our neighbors with the ability to order home delivery — including choices about what they order and how they receive food — promotes dignity and autonomy.”
“These pilot programs are central to our goal of expanding food access and creating pathways out of hunger,” Kimmel added. “It’s part of the food bank’s DNA to innovate. We see the need, so we start a new program to meet that need. We’re proud of the fact that we can start something, hit the ground running, and then learn and evolve as we grow.”
Contact the Workforce Development Program
Our Workforce Development Program is a Baltimore-centric initiative that connects residents with training programs and social services to help them find meaningful employment in growth industries that provide family-sustaining wages. Get in touch with us or apply to learn more.