This year, Maryland Hunger Solutions joined other Maryland organizations, such as the Job Opportunities Task Force and Out for Justice, to advocate for the passage of the Maryland Equal Access to Food Act of 2017. The bill, which became law on October 1, 2017, gives individuals convicted of low-level, nonviolent drug felonies restored access to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly known as food stamps) and Temporary Cash Assistance (TCA), assuming they meet all the other eligibility rules.

Rewind to 1996 for a quick history lesson when the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act (better known as “welfare reform”) became law. Among its many provisions, this law barred people who were convicted of felony drug offenses, and were back in the community after serving their sentence, from ever receiving public benefits from SNAP and TCA, no matter how desperate their financial need.

In 2005, Maryland opted out of the full ban and adopted a partial ban that allowed individuals convicted of nonviolent felony drug offenses to access SNAP and TCA as long as they submitted to drug testing and treatment for two years after applying for benefits.

The Maryland Equal Access to Food Act of 2017 eliminates most of the remaining partial ban; the remaining limit in the law is for those defined as “volume dealers” or “drug kingpins,” who must still undergo drug testing and treatment to receive benefits, again assuming they are otherwise eligible. The law provides formerly incarcerated men and women with much-needed assistance in putting food on the table and providing for themselves and their families.

Returning from incarceration remains a challenge for many who face limited employment opportunities and barriers to accessing resources that many of us take for granted. Ensuring these Marylanders have access to adequate food and nutrition goes a long way toward addressing these challenges.

In our current era, in which the shadow of the War on Drugs looms large, the state of Maryland — through the Maryland Equal Access to Food Act — has taken a step forward. Combined with other decisions by the state to restore voting rights and promote employment, we are helping to break the vicious cycle of “arrest, jail, release, and repeat” by fostering community engagement and making efforts to ensure all people have access to the resources they need to improve their lives.