Aaron Arnold had just emerged from an appointment with his probation officer when he and his family came upon the bounty outside the court building: boxes of lettuce, cabbage and celery stacked high along a wall, cartons of cottage cheese piled on a table nearby and shining bars of chocolates.
Arnold and his family filled their bags with fresh food and goodies, without having to pay a dime. They were among the first to take advantage of a new mobile food pantry in Maryland designed to alleviate one of the pressures many on parole and probation face as they try to stay out of jail — feeding their families.
“It’s gonna help us out,” said Arnold, who was eyeing a bag of marshmallows. “A lot of people just don’t have the means.”
The mobile food pantry in Hyattsville on Monday was part of an effort to improve relationships between probation officers and their clients while lending a hand to those working to rebuild their lives, said Sabra Mastalski, a field supervisor for the state parole and probation office.
“We have to hold you accountable, but we’re not just here to lock you up,” Mastalski said. “We want you to be successful.”
While many people envision parole and probation officers as stern figures looking only to toss people back in jail for violations, agents also aim to help their clients stay out of the criminal justice system by helping them find jobs, overcome substance abuse or, in this case, fight hunger.
The Capital Area Food Bank brought in between 5,000 and 10,000 pounds of food for Monday’s mobile pantry outside Prince George’s County District Court in Hyattsville.
Dario Muralles, head of the nonprofit group’s Maryland-area operations, said the organization has been aiming to develop more partnerships that bring food to people who need it, rather than having them find transportation to travel to food bank sites.
“It’s a perfect connection because we’re reaching an underserved community who has obstacles to overcome,” Muralles said.
Within the first hour of the mobile pantry’s opening, nearly 100 families picked up food, said Mark Vernarelli, a spokesman for the Maryland Division of Parole and Probation. The location in Hyattsville is one of the busiest in the state, with agents handling about 2,000 active cases out of about 50,000 in Maryland.
Although it is aimed at helping people on parole and probation, the food pantry is open to the public and will return to the courthouse in Hyattsville on the fourth Monday.
Arnold said he was at the office after being arrested on theft charges for pawning jewelry that he said he did not know was stolen.
Parole and probation officers on Monday filled bags and helped people load boxes of food into their cars.
Bridgette Anderson, a parole and probation agent, said some of her clients are struggling to find jobs or are homeless, making it difficult for them to follow the terms of their probation. Some of her clients told her that they’ve stolen food from gas stations or stores because they were hungry or had to feed their families.
“It breaks your heart,” said Anderson, who helped organize the mobile food pantry. “They’re committing crimes to survive.”
Anderson said getting clients access to food also improves the relationship between officers and those on probation, which also helps deter people from doing something that would lead to a violation.
“We care about them, and we care about their well being,” Anderson said. “It’s hard to come back home.”
Melvin Henson stopped by the mobile food pantry a little before 10 a.m., his bags and boxes filled with fresh lettuce, milk, corn bread and cereal.
Henson, who is on probation after serving two years on a burglary charge, said he would mostly rely on his sister or eat at a McDonald’s restaurant were it not for the food he collected Monday.
“I can look forward to a good meal,” said Henson, who said his probation officer told him about the food pantry and encouraged him to come. “This will last awhile, and it is good food.”
Shortly after, Henson’s sister pulled up in a black SUV and he loaded in bags and boxes.
Henson hopped in the car, and as they drove off, his sister hollered to the probation officers through the window, “God bless you!”