Between the Pepco and Sierra Club lobbyists and a Chamber of Commerce reception, a slightly awed group of Montgomery County citizens ventured into the office of state Sen. Stewart Bainum today with a mission.
A growing number of people, even in affluent Montgomery County, don't have enough to eat, said the group, which included a senior citizen activist, a nutritionist, church volunteers and a woman who described herself as "a person who has got a whole lot of problems." What could Bainum do to help?
In a daylong Annapolis version of "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington," dozens of ordinary citizens such as these -- many of whom had never stepped into the halls of government -- ventured here today from all over the state to lobby their delegates and senators on behalf of the hungry. Organized by the Maryland Food Committee, a 15-year-old advocacy group, the activists carried individual tales of need to dozens of lawmakers in an effort to persuade them to support increased spending for nutrition programs and welfare.
"There are a lot of people who can't get food stamps. If you work and make X numbers of dollars, you cannot get the food stamps. Half of the people who apply in Montgomery are not accepted," Mary Goodwin, a Montgomery County Health Department nutritionist told Del. Nancy Kopp (D-Montgomery).
Goodwin looked at the woman next to her. "The people here from Damascus HELP can tell you."
Hilda Diggs, a Damascus homemaker, cleared her throat and began hesitantly. Between Jan. 1 and Feb. 9 this year, she said, her group received 100 calls for emergency food help. During the same period last year, the number was 62.
"A lot of them are mothers who have no husband in the house," she said. "A lot of them are people who have lived well but then someone became disabled . . . . We had 10 food calls last week."
Diggs' group also included Irving Riskin, a leader of the Gray Panthers and Amit Baruah, a former social work professor turned community organizer. Evelyn Nolan, a nurse who retired on Social Security after a disabling accident, was also there, walking with difficulty but smiling as her group meandered the halls and repeatedly got lost; so was Geraline Fairfax, one of a handful of residents from Emory Grove, a predominantly black community near Gaithersburg.
Fairfax wanted to tell about the food program at Gaithersburg's Upper County Community Center. "Fifteen people used to come in, now it's 100 or better" each Tuesday, she said. "We're getting more and more from outside the area. And believe it or not, they bring trash bags and fill it up with whatever we have here; sometimes it's just bread, but bread is better than nothing."
The lobbying day "works both ways," said Riskin, an old hand at organizing who strolled through the halls discussing political theory with Baruah. "From the delegates' point of view they hear what the situation is with the people; [for the citizens] I think it develops a sense of power that they can affect the system."
That sense infected the old hands as well as the novices. As Baruah, the former professor, took a break, he spied a former student, now a public interest lobbyist. They hugged and Baruah said laughingly, "I'm in the real world now. No more ivory tower. It's wonderful!"