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Poverty in Montgomery County: Out from the Shadows
Comments () | Published May 16, 2011
Hundreds line up everyday for help from the Manna Food Center.

Warner learned growing up that poor people find a way to survive. He lived in a suburban ghetto outside Philadelphia in a house next to the projects. His mother was an alcoholic who had given birth to him when she was 16; his father wasn’t around. It didn’t surprise him to find out, when he moved here, that there were newborns coming home from Holy Cross Hospital in Silver Spring who slept in a laundry basket. His own bassinet had been a dresser drawer.

By the time he was 12, he’d seen race riots, drug addiction, and domestic abuse. He’d also seen the drunks on the corner raise bus fare for his uncle to get to college every day because they were glad to see someone making it. Tim had carried get-well cards from his great-grandmother Mozelle to neighbors who’d just come back from the hospital. He didn’t understand it then, but the $3 in a sealed envelope was her way of telling them they weren’t alone.

It was his first lesson in community. “Cast your bread on the water,” his great-grandmother would say. She’d raised eight children during the Depression and scrubbed floors her entire life. Give away all that you have.

Warner’s own mother had always worked two or three jobs to make sure he and his brother had plenty to eat and nice clothes to wear. For a long time, she cleaned houses. “I know when to put my purse on my shoulder and leave,” she’d say if an employer spoke down to her. When Warner met Laura and Pedro’s family, he thought about her.

Pedro’s job at the deli paid $9 an hour, so the couple’s teenage son, Willian, waited tables to help with rent. Laura took three buses to get to a temporary job at a daycare center. Hard work was all they knew.


Many of the people waiting at Manna Food Center in Gaithersburg haven’t always been poor. Executive director Kim Damion hears this line all the time: “A couple years ago, I was a donor—I cannot believe I’m in line.”

She’s had clients with master’s degrees who lost six-figure incomes and had to settle for a $45,000 salary, including some who drove there in luxury cars. A laid-off college professor came to pick up food.

People start lining up at Manna’s warehouse at noon on weekdays. Some residents catch a Metrobus that stops a few blocks away on Shady Grove Road; others pile into a minivan and share the cost of gas. Nobody asks for documentation: If you live in Montgomery County, show an ID, and have a referral from a government or social-service agency, you can come in every 30 days.

"A couple of years ago I was a donor—I cannot believe I am in line."    

Manna has seven other pickup locations that are open once a week. A white box truck loaded with food sits outside St. Camillus Church in Silver Spring on Monday; on Thursday, it’s in the parking lot of the Family Services Center in Gaithersburg.

Manna feeds 3,300 families a month—its numbers nearly doubled between 2007 and 2009. These days, Damion can’t keep enough baby food and diapers on the shelves.

Families receive two boxes of food: One contains 21 nonperishables such as pasta, rice, soup, peanut butter, and canned tuna. The second is filled with produce, meat, milk, cheese, and dessert. Manna partners with local farmers markets and orchards to collect fresh fruits and vegetables. Damion’s clients would rather have an apple with bruises, she says, than no apple at all. The organization hosts food drives at schools and office buildings. People pull up to the warehouse to donate car trunkfuls of food.

Manna drivers stop by 40 supermarkets every morning—including several Giant, Safeway, and Whole Foods stores—and fill the trucks with donations: loaves of bread, rotisserie chickens that didn’t sell the night before, yogurt nearing its sell-by date.


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  • Lydia D. York

    Or, better yet - why don't you interview some of us residents about the negative health effects of living next to an industrial park ??!! Is there anyone with a REAL journalism degree there at Washingtonian Magazine? Or do you all just like making insulting, blanket statements about people you know NOTHING about ??!!

  • Lydia D. York

    I live in David Skull, and take offense at the stereotyping of the residents here. Most of us are hard-working and law-abiding. Maybe you should do a follow-up story about how Rockville Housing Enterprises routinely threatens and harasses us tenants to the point of submission; Taking money which is not legally owed them and retaliating against anyone who speaks out about their abuse of landlord/tenant law.

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Posted at 01:05 PM/ET, 05/16/2011 RSS | Print | Permalink | Comments () | Articles