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Small Projects Spur Big Impact in Maryland

People distributing bags of food in a parking lot
Sanjay Srivastava, 57, manages traffic as volunteers hand out bags of food to families at the Miller Library in Ellicott City. Srivastava, president of the Indian Cultural Association of Howard County, has helped distribute more than 2 million pounds of food throughout the pandemic.
Photo by Rosem Morton

Sanjay Srivastava was handing out fresh produce with volunteers in an Ellicott City parking lot last year when a child cautiously approached him.

“He was watching for a bit and then just walked up to me and asked if I had something to eat,” recalls Srivastava, who, with his wife, Niti, runs the nonprofit Indian Cultural Association (ICA) of Howard County. “I had cabbage, squash, cucumbers, tomatoes. I filled up his backpack and sent it home for his family.”

Throughout the coronavirus pandemic, Srivastava and a group of ICA volunteers have doled out more than 2 million pounds of food to Howard County residents in need. 

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They set up distribution tents in parking lots and made deliveries door-to-door in places where  transportation is lacking, such as a local trailer park.

Now, thanks to a 2021 AARP Community Challenge grant, the association will build and stock five Little Free Pantry locations, to give residents in Jessup, Elkridge, Laurel, Columbia and Ellicott City a permanent, local source of free food, personal-care items and other essentials.  

The ICA says it will monitor and refill the food-sharing stations weekly and encourage neighbors to take what they want and give what they can. The Maryland Food Bank estimates that 1 in 3 Marylanders face food insecurity.

“We’ll be able to help a lot of people,” Srivastava says.

The initiative is one of three in the state this year to win AARP Community Challenge grants, which fund quick-action projects to make neighborhoods more livable for residents of all ages. Nationally, the program has given more than $9 million in grants for 804 projects since 2017.  

AARP Maryland reviewed 70 proposals—more than twice as many as in past years—says Jen Holz, its outreach director. She notes that the increase likely reflects greater need because of the COVID-19 crisis and a bigger push on social media.

In East Baltimore, the ReBUILD Johnston Square Neighborhood Organization will use its grant for an art project called Bee Safe, which will draw attention to crosswalks by painting curb extensions at three intersections, to improve pedestrian safety.

Regina Hammond, a longtime Johnston Square resident and executive director of the group, says motorists often cut through the residential area at high speeds, putting older adults and children walking to school at risk.

Hammond says she hopes the crosswalk art will signal drivers to slow down while sending a message that “this is a community that’s cared for and loved.”

The nonprofit Maryland Volunteer Lawyers Service will use its grant to build the Baltimore Older Adult Advocacy Network, which will train seniors to interact with lawmakers and to educate other older residents about important financial issues.

Many low-income families in Baltimore are at risk of losing their homes to tax foreclosures or face difficulties trying to transfer a property to the next generation, says Margaret Henn, the service’s program management director.

“It’s really their stories we’re telling when we go to Annapolis to testify,” she says. “We want to give them the tools they need to advocate for themselves and share their knowledge.”

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Natalie Missakian is a writer living in Cheshire, CT.

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