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By ASHLEY BROTHERTON and EVELYN RABIL
BALTIMORE -- With a $50,000-a-year marketing job, a professional wardrobe and the occasional drugstore manicure, no one would guess she gets help from the Maryland Food Bank.
But as a divorced mother of three living in Charles County, she barely scrapes by.
"I'm lucky enough that I can afford to pay my bills," she said, requesting anonymity out of concern for her career after the Maryland Food Bank asked her to share her story. "The only part where I get caught is, you know, I pay my bills, but then I can't put food on the table."
Her story echoes what charities throughout Maryland report: Since the economic downturn began five years ago, more families with new cars and large houses are visiting charities for food, baby formula and help with utilities.
Sandy Washington has to coach her volunteers on not to judge when they deliver boxes of emergency canned goods to nice houses.
"These people are imprisoned in a lifestyle," said Washington, the executive director of LifeStyles of Maryland, a charity based in La Plata.
Her organization began by supplying basic necessities like food and clothing to the very poor but has since expanded its outreach to a new type of client. "Now I have people with Ph.D.s who have lost their jobs and now need help," she said.
The income bracket that used to define people who come to Food Link -- a nonprofit charity based in Anne Arundel County that distributes donated food from grocers, restaurants and individuals -- has expanded.
"Now all of those lines are totally blurred," the charity's executive director, Cathy Holstrom-Bird, said. "We have always seen the poor. Now it's the people above them economically that can't make ends meet either."
The need is growing, said Mark Bergel, executive director of A Wider Circle, a Montgomery County charity. The organization helps families meet basic needs, including furnishing homes.
"There are many folks falling into poverty who have not been in risk before," Bergel said. "There are more people in need and less ways to help."
Nearly half the Maryland residents who struggle to buy food make too much to qualify for federal assistance, according to a study by Feeding America, a nationwide charity and advocacy group. This growing gap is due to the rising costs of basic needs, the Maryland Food Bank concluded in its 2011 annual report.
The cost of basic needs for families in Maryland, including housing, health care, child care, food and transportation, rose 18 percent since 2007, when the recession began, according to the Self-Sufficiency Standard for Maryland 2012, a new study by researchers at the University of Washington.
A parent with two school-age children and a preschooler in Charles County -- like the working mother's family -- would need a monthly income of $7,272, or about $87,000 a year to get by, the study found. This does not include student loan payments, Internet or cable. That same family would need to make only about half that each month to be eligible for government food assistance, according to the Maryland Department of Human Resources.
"A lot of our agencies are telling us that people who a couple of years ago were writing checks and supported the local food pantry are now coming to get food at the local food pantry," said Deborah Flateman, CEO of the Maryland Food Bank.
"They just simply don't have enough money to maintain the lifestyle they've carved out for themselves back when they had adequate income to support it."