Neither Baltimore County nor The Hereford Zone are immune to poverty, food insecurity and homelessness, as any reader of this column has recently discovered. But government programs, non-governmental organizations, the faith-based community and even individuals — neighbors helping neighbors — are working to address the needs of many who can use a meal, a place to stay, a kind word.

Thankfully, ’tis the season that brings out the best in people who generously open their wallets, dedicate some time, even recruit others to provide a little extra during the holidays. But hunger, poverty and homelessness extend beyond the “season of giving.” Still, the connections made now can be utilized throughout the year and serve as lifelines for children, students, our neighbors. So here are some ways we can give during this season and continue to give because the need is year round.

As we’ve learned, nearly 47 percent of Baltimore County students — more than 52,000 children — lived in poverty during the 2015-2016 school year, according to information published by administrators for the Baltimore County Public Schools (BCPS). More than 32,2000 children and more than 100,000 adults living in Baltimore County struggle with food insecurity, not knowing where their next meal is coming from.

And some 2,500 students in the county school system are identified as homeless, as of May 2016 data, including 10 attending Hereford High School, five at Hereford Middle while some of the other elementary schools in the Hereford Zone have one or two homeless students each.

Social time bomb

New programs are emerging to address the growing needs of children in the Baltimore County public school system as people become increasingly alarmed about poverty in the county, particularly its effects on students’ abilities to learn. Just how great is the need?

A family of four must have an income far above the $24,500 federal poverty level just to be self-sufficient in Baltimore County (335 percent over this level, according to the United Way of Central Maryland). We now have more than 83,000 children county-wide growing up below 300 percent of the federal poverty level – about 48 percent of all children in the county.

This number is a social time bomb waiting to explode. We cannot expect to have the strong local economy and strong communities we want and need with this percentage of the population growing up and living in poverty. Most of these children will not have the resources to leave when they reach adulthood and, consequently, we will pay dearly — both financially and socially — to intervene later unless we act now.

Ranking dead last

The largest programs helping students with hunger will always be those in the public schools where children get free meals during the academic year. This year, more than 52,000 Baltimore County students qualify for breakfast and/or lunch through the federal Free and Reduced Meals (FARMS) program.

What more can be done? The Baltimore County Public Schools (BCPS) administrators should eliminate the reduced price meals category and offer free meals to all students up to 185 percent of Federal Poverty Level (for a family of three, no more than $37,296 a year). More than 7,500 children currently receiving reduced price meals would be helped because many of their families cannot afford even the reduced fee.

The approximate cost to BCPS to cover the cost of reduced price meals for one school year would be about $570,000 (calculated by a researcher at Maryland Hunger Solutions). Compare this amount to the $300 million being spent by BCPS on computers for all students over the next few years or the $1.1 million price tag on computer cases.

The second biggest player could be the local government of Baltimore County. But more financial resources are not expected to be committed county-wide, if history is any guide. In fiscal year 2013 (the most recent data available), Baltimore County reduced its spending on health and social services to just $90 per capita per year, ranking dead last in Maryland. The state-wide average was $169 per capita per year.

How to pay for any increased funding for social programs without raising property taxes: Require developers to pay development impact fees. In 2014-2015, 16 counties in Maryland collected $281 million dollars in development impact fees and excise taxes. Baltimore County collected zero.

Collect, wrap & distribute

Many Baltimore County businesses are very generous in supporting their local communities. For example, the Graul family has donated more than $2 million dollars since 1979 to the Hereford area through such programs as the Graul’s Market cash register receipts retrieval with local schools and the Community Give Back Day, which provided more than $5,000 this year to My Neighbors Foundation.

For years, Pat Meadowcroft, owner of Meadowcroft Exxon in Hereford, has donated one cent for every gallon of gasoline sold during October to My Neighbors Foundation. So what can be done with just a penny? This year, Meadowcroft handed over a $2,300 check to MNF volunteers to continue their work with Hereford Zone students and challenged other local businesses to support the community.

Even budding entrepreneurs and business leaders are lending a hand. The Future Business Leaders of America club at the Hereford High School every year helps collect, wrap and distribute toys and baskets of food to area families during the holiday season.

We could use an extremely successful business person in the private sector who has become aware of our county’s poverty and food insecurity, is appalled by it and is determined to work on the problem. Harry Keswani is a successful jeweler in Rehoboth Beach who is transforming Delaware through his work on food insecurity. Three years ago, he founded the Harry K Foundation which now funds the operations of 45 food pantries at schools and other locations in Delaware plus helps more than 300 children on weekends through a backpack feeding program.

‘Special attention’

Equally as important as the private sector — if not more so — is the faith-based community and its mission work. The Church of the Holy Comforter in Lutherville (410-252-2711) for the past two years has been responsible for supplying 10 backpacks of food over the weekend for children at Padonia Elementary School through the Food for Thought program. Ten might not sound like a lot but it’s what the little Episcopalian church can do and it makes a world of difference for those 10 students.

However, thanks to a recent grant, the small congregation is leveraging its knowledge and experience by guiding step-by-step other churches, PTSAs, scout troops and community groups to set up similar Food for Thought efforts. No point in reinventing the wheel, say Holy Comforter leaders, and once you remove the hurdle of “how do we?”, the satisfaction of helping children keeps the program humming along.

When the private sector, the school system, the faith-based community and the local government all commit to reducing poverty and hunger in Baltimore County, we can solve this problem locally. We are a long way from this merging of interests and financial commitments but the beginnings are coming into place.

Though the number of those in need seems overwhelming, I remember a comment made by St. Augustine of Hippo: “Since you cannot do good to all, you are to give special attention to those who, by accidents of time or place or circumstance, are brought into closer connection with you.”

Local Resources

Looking for somewhere to help or get help? Here are some local resources (and donations are always welcome).

• Hereford Food Bank: Hereford United Methodist Church, 16931 York Rd., Monkton 21111, 410-343-0660. Hours: Tues. – Fri. 9-3. Emergency food pantry for residents of area from Sparks north to Pennsylvania line, west to Carroll County, and east to Harford County. Open: Tues. and Thurs. 1 pm – 3 pm and Sat. 9 am – 11 am. Call for information.

• Baltimore North Cluster Food Bank: Pine Grove United Methodist Church, 19401 Middletown Rd., Parkton 21120, 443-791-6757. Hours: Mon. 10 am to noon; Wed. 5-7 pm, Sat. 10 am to noon. Food assistance to individuals and families. Call ahead for appointment if possible.

• St. John’s Lutheran Sweet Air, 3911 Sweet Air Road, Phoenix 21131, 410-592-6565. Hours: Mon.-Fri. 8 am – 4 pm. Collects non-perishable food items on the first Sunday of the month for delivery to local food banks.

• Assistance Center of Towson Churches: 410-296-4855, 120 W. Pennsylvania Ave., Towson 21204. Hours: Monday-Friday 10 am – 2:45 pm; closed Saturday and Sunday. Consortium of 50 churches provides assistance to those in 21 zip code areas bounded by zones 21210, 21212 and 21239 on the south, west to Falls Road, east including 21234 and north to the state line. Services: Food, clothing, eviction, utilities assistance, prescriptions, special needs, transportation, services of a nurse practitioner. Because need far exceeds resources, ACTC can provide a family with groceries only once every three months.

• Food for Thought of Baltimore County: Program provides backpacks of food on weekends during school year for homeless students and others in dire need. Currently feeds 113 children in 10 schools through 14 churches donating food and volunteers. Padonia International Elementary currently receives 10 backpacks but needs 30 more. For information on how your place of worship or community organization could partner with a local school and/or contribute, contact Monica Butta: monicambutta@gmail.com, or visit the Food for Thought Baltimore County Facebook page.

• Neighbor to Neighbor Family Stability Program: 2216 Pot Spring Rd., Timonium 21093. Contact Jennie Fumarola, 410-252-4465, ext. 109; e-mail n2nfspc@gmail.com. Works to prevent family homelessness through financial assistance for housing, provides food and other support for children, and case management for 6-to-9 months. Currently assists 70 families throughout Baltimore County.

• Cockeysville Food Pantry: Frames Memorial United Methodist Church, 14200 Mount Ave., Phoenix 21131, 410-472-3379. Special service: deliveries to clients needing food, usually a 3-4 day supply, based on number of adults/children in need. Also, supplies turkey dinners for clients forThanksgiving.

• United Churches Assistance Network (UCAN): 40 Church Lane, Cockeysville 21030, 410-628-2102. Clients must live in zips 21030, 21093, 21111, 21131, 21136 & 21152. Hours: Mon., Wed. & Fri. 10 am – 2 pm. Services (all by volunteers): Preventing evictions and BGE turnoffs, help with prescriptions, transportation & food, including single-serving homeless bags. • 211 Maryland: http://www.211md.org. Dial 211 or 1-800-492-0618. TTY: dial Maryland Relay 711. Helps callers explore their problems and connect with community resources. Callers may remain anonymous. Open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

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Dr. Laurie Taylor-Mitchell is a retired professor of art history at Hood College and was a 2014 Democratic candidate for County Council in the Third District. She now does research and advocacy on educational and environmental issues. Please send questions or comments to Ltmitchell4@comcast.net