The trash cans have become a lifeline for families and seniors in Takoma Park and nearby communities – many of whom have lost their jobs during the pandemic and are struggling to pay their bills and feed their families. The city and county of Montgomery, where it is located, are relatively affluent areas but with deep disparities.
This month, however, that lifeline came under threat.
On February 9, a Montgomery County official conducting a routine inspection of the building found the purple trash cans to be a violation. Watson, alarmed that the volunteer-run food pantry would be swept away, raised a red flag at a place where townspeople ring bells and hold raucous debates: the Takoma Park Facebook group.
“Help save purple community trash cans!” she posted on the 3,200 member page on the eve of Valentine’s Day. The inspector, she writes, “quoted my landlord for the purple community bins, saying they are considered ‘solid waste’ and must be removed! My landlord told him what they were and how much they help the community (he’s very trash-friendly) but the inspector said he had to quote him.
She then asked “everyone” to write to Montgomery County Councilman Tom Hucker (D-District 5), who represents Takoma Park, and “ask for his help in making sure the trash cans can stay and continue to help the community”. She urged members of the Facebook group to reach out to other elected officials as well.
And the wheels of activism – well-oiled in a liberal enclave like Takoma Park – clicked into place. A woman shared in the comments to Watson’s post the letter she wrote to Hucker. Watson shared a online petition which she launched. More than 200 people have signed.
Later that night, Hucker joined the comment thread, saying he would contact county officials. Another woman active in the Facebook group told Watson that she had contacted her father, who she said would “IMMEDIATELY contact the inspector and tell him to back off and leave you alone.”
A confused Watson replied, “Wait, who’s your dad?” The answer: Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich (D).
The next day, Watson posted again to the Takoma Park Facebook group, this time thanking Hucker and Elrich for contacting the housing department. The community trash cans remained.
“This is a community-based nonprofit in support of our less fortunate neighbors, and we should have a lot of tolerance for it and support it,” Hucker told the Post. “The last thing the government should be doing is ticketing them.”
Every week, The little things matter deposits $7,500 of saved food donated by Trader Joe’s, Wegmans and Imperfect Foods to three community food pantries in Takoma Park, including Watson’s, which receives 80% of the food, said the nonprofit group’s executive director Roxanne Yamashita.
Those most in need arrive on Thursday and Saturday delivery days, Watson said. Other community members drop by at other times because “they also want to help stop food waste,” she said.
On a recent Thursday, elderly women and young mothers with children lined up before the midday delivery: nearly 30 boxes filled with fresh produce, such as blueberries, sugar snap peas and avocados, as well as cheese, salmon and eggs.
“It’s super awesome. Lara makes sure the food is shared equally among everyone in the community,” said Francisca Guerrero, 67, who was a housekeeper at a hotel in DC but didn’t work since March 2020.
Vilma Guerrero, 30, who says she works in a laundromat, came with her 3-year-old son to get food for her family of five. “The pandemic has really reduced my work. It impacted my rent, my bills,” she said. “It saved us money.”
Lyn Fraser, 67, who regularly fetches food for herself and four other elderly people, said she was getting calls from people asking for help. “There are a lot of hungry people out there,” Fraser said. “It saves me a lot — I don’t have any money. It is a great help for all of them.
Elrich, who came to observe the delivery, said he understood the inspector’s initial instinct, but added that more understanding was needed after Watson told him about the community initiative.
“He didn’t do anything wrong…but when she explained, that should have been enough.” He may have felt he didn’t have the flexibility,” Elrich said. “I called them and said it wasn’t trash, it was part of a useful thing. It is not a commercial operation. These are the kinds of things we should be encouraging.
For Watson, a recovering alcoholic who has been sober since July 16, 2007, the trash cans have also become a personal lifeline because so much else has come crashing down.
She used to dive into trash cans between her job shopping and delivering for Shipt’s customers. But last summer, her long-standing back pain became so bad that she stopped working in July, and dumpster diving became impossible. An MRI in August showed two herniated discs.
After mentioning his struggles on Facebook, “people rallied,” Watson said. “They brought me food. A neighbor paid my electricity bills, people sent me money and I use that money to pay my bills, my rent, my phone bill.
She now needs a walker to get around and has recruited other volunteers to help with deliveries and garbage.
“When there was the threat of them being taken away, I knew it would be bad for my mental health,” Watson said. She thought of the women she met who say trash cans are the only way for them and their families to eat.
“I would be so upset if I couldn’t feed them,” she says. “Trash cans are the only thing that keeps me from feeling completely useless.”