- Associated Press - Saturday, February 8, 2014

KENSINGTON, Md. (AP) - There’s no electricity or heat in the house.

But when the bags of groceries are delivered to her doorstep, Tomashawn Lewis-Johnson spreads out their contents on her kitchen counter like a child with her favorite toys. She daydreams about the beans and crushed tomatoes she’ll use to make a dish for her family.

“I’m so grateful,” said Lewis-Johnson, a wife and mother of four, as she received bags of donated groceries one day last month. “You don’t know what’s going to be in your bag. But knowing that I can create something different and new and stretch a meal, it’s just exciting.”

The Kensington mother is one of dozens of families in the lower Montgomery County town who, thanks to a new effort by St. Paul’s United Methodist Church, has received emergency supplies of groceries.

Three times, Lewis-Johnson has called a hotline to request a three-day emergency supply of groceries from the church, which in October began partnering with the nonprofit group Bethesda Help to increase the number of food deliveries within the 20895 ZIP code that includes Kensington. Bethesda Help for decades has provided food delivery and financial assistance in the ZIP code and county as a whole.

“When this started - it was like, ‘(There are) hungry people here in Kensington?’ But there are hidden pockets of poverty all over the ZIP code,” said Brian Ruberry, a church volunteer. “And it really opens your eyes to the need there is within a mile of this church.”

Church volunteers said they want to create a “hunger-free zone” in their ZIP code. Residents who calls the telephone hotline - 301-365-2022 - receive a food delivery within 24 hours, no questions asked.

About 8 percent of Montgomery County’s roughly 1 million residents - or 77,970 people - are food insecure, according to the 2013 Feeding America’s Map the Meal Gap report.

The number includes people who are enrolled in the Food Supplement Program as well as those who aren’t. Fifty-one percent of county residents earn too much to qualify for federal assistance programs, according to the report, and have nowhere to turn but local charities.

An estimated 6.2 percent of residents ages 18 to 64 live below the poverty level, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2012 American Community Survey.

“The thing about hunger is it’s not visible,” said Michael J. Wilson, director of Maryland Hunger Solutions. “You can live in a nice house with a nice car in the yard, and have nothing in your refrigerator.”

Elizabeth Kneebone, a fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program, said 71 percent of those living in poverty in the Washington metro area live in the suburbs, not including Arlington, Va., and Alexandria, Va. She said suburban communities and organizations in recent years are increasing efforts to meet the growing demand.

“Getting the word out about how the need has grown, and where it is today and who it affects, that’s the first step in effectively addressing it and making sure people are connected to the support they need,” Kneebone said.

The thought that people were hungry in their own backyards left members of the church’s hunger ministry unsettled. Two years ago, they had started a monthly food collection program, where families in need shopped for fresh vegetables and canned goods. But they soon realized it wasn’t enough.

“I was surprised how many people don’t have cars,” Ruberry said. “Just the fact that they can’t come to our church shouldn’t preclude them from having groceries.”

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