It was spring 2020. The coronavirus pandemic was just starting to bear down on the D.C. region. Businesses, schools, government offices, religious institutions — closed.

Members of Guru Nanak Foundation of America (GNFA), a Sikh temple in Silver Spring, wondered what they could do to help. Their answer: a food drive.

“Part of being a Sikh and one of the pillars of our belief is that no one should go hungry,” said Neeta Singh, GNFA’s food drive coordinator. “Our thinking was: What could we do with everything closed to protect our community and simultaneously help our neighbors?”

Starting in May 2020, the temple has held a food drive each Sunday. The volunteers learned as they went, eventually partnering with the Capital Area Food Bank. Demand was clearly there. The number of cars each week stretching from the temple down Old Columbia Pike offered a visual barometer of regional hunger.

“The first two weeks or so we had around 75 to 100 families come through for a box,” Singh said. “Then it started creeping up. By the summer, we were serving 600 families.”

GNFA’s experience tracks with the larger picture of food insecurity across the region heading into the holiday season, according to Radha Muthiah, president and chief executive of the Capital Area Food Bank. Although demand has dipped since 2020, it remains higher than pre-pandemic levels. And new economic pressures — such as inflation and gas costs — are again squeezing families.

“There is still an elevated level of need,” Muthiah said. “I hope it’s not a ‘new normal’ in the sense that it’s a sustained pattern. There are many parts of our economy that are thriving, but there are many industries that are slow to recover.”

For the food bank’s current fiscal year, July 2021 to June 2022, the organization is expecting to distribute 45 million meals across the region. That figure is smaller than it was the previous year, when it handed out more than 76 million meals, but higher than pre-pandemic levels.

At the same time, the philanthropic scaffolding propping up food distribution in the region, which consists of more than 400 small pantries and distribution centers delivering the food bank’s boxes, has still not quite returned to pre-pandemic strength.

“We were down to about 60 to 80 that were open during the pandemic out of 400,” Muthiah said. To help, the food bank offered financial support and grants so many could keep their doors open or add additional staff, equipment or vehicles. “From last March to now, we have had over 300 partners get back up and running.”

The pandemic’s aftermath has also shuffled the landscape in terms of where the demand is for food — and who is hungry. According to Muthiah, this shift includes the Virginia and Maryland suburbs ringing Washington.

“Hunger exists in every neighborhood, but we have seen growth in hunger in some regions where we haven’t seen it before, like Montgomery County and Fairfax County,” Muthiah said.

In response, the food bank has coordinated with “nontraditional” partners in those areas that previously have not held food distributions — community colleges, skill development centers, health clinics and faith institutions such as GNFA.

There are no plans to stop the weekly distributions in Silver Spring, Singh said. The temple has expanded its refrigerator to handle more food and built a sturdy reputation among families searching for regular food. Both will be important ahead, as numbers begin to rise.

“For the last month or so, we were between around 250 to 270 boxes,” Singh said. “Then it started to creep up to 300. This past weekend, we did 352.”

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