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 last week. “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 D.C. metro area live in the suburbs, not including Arlington and Alexandria. 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 back yards 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.”
Ruberry and Kim Longsworth, a church volunteer who helps coordinate the effort, wanted to start a delivery service and then realized that Bethesda Help already provides one.
“We decided, why reinvent the wheel,” Longsworth said.
Bethesda Help has its own pantry, and the 45-year-old organization is funded by a grant from the county as well as by donations from local churches, synagogues and individual donors. The church has contributed $5,000 so far and continues to donate food to help defray costs.
Whenever a call comes in from the 20895 Zip code to Bethesda Help, Longsworth calls one of her seven volunteer drivers. Church members also posted lawn signs and handed out cards all over town in schools, local libraries and apartment buildings to get the word out.
“We don’t want any person to go to sleep and say, ‘I don’t know where I’m going to get my next meal,’ Longsworth said as she packed a delivery one rainy evening. “Our goal is to reach those people so that they know there’s this resource.”
Julie Black, a food pantry manager for Bethesda Help, said there’s no income requirement to get a delivery. “We just want to help people,” she said. “We don’t want any restrictions.”
The bags are filled with pasta, tomato sauce, bread, tuna, rice, beans, peanut butter and canned fruit, vegetables and soups. But for the families, there’s so much more inside.
“It means the difference between being hungry and having some food to cheer up my spirit,” said Micky, a single mother who asked to be identified by her nickname only.
Donya Paul, who is raising 10 children alone while going to school to pursue a second master’s degree and a doctorate in educational psychology, said she appreciates the six bags of food — and the gift card for more tucked inside — that she receives each month from the church program.
She said she uses the donations to teach her children a lesson.
“We do need people sometimes holding our hands and taking us along the way,” she said she told her son. “It’s not just the Zip code that you live in or the area, it’s about giving and making sure families are taken care of.”
And for Lewis-Johnson, whose home is in foreclosure, they are the extra leverage she needs to provide wholesome meals.
“It’s concealed blessings that people receive when the bags come through the door,” she said. “I believe we’re on the brink of a miracle.”