We can live off the land — until we can't. Climate change is fundamentally changing the way farmers produce food, right down to the soil itself.
For someone who’s never experienced it, “going hungry” might conjure up Depression-era imagery; emaciated scavengers roaming the street in rags, for example. But 21st Century hunger in the U.S. looks very different, and you might not even know it if you saw it.
Local governments and advocates now calls hunger “food insecurity,” which is defined as inconsistent access to adequate food for a household. It’s hard to know exactly how many people experience food insecurity; in the District of Columbia, estimates suggest roughly 1 in 9 people or 1 in 7 families.
Food insecurity is present in suburbs, too. Here are estimates for local counties, courtesy of Feeding America’s annual analysis of indicators like poverty and unemployment:
- Montgomery County: ~63,380 people, or 6.1% of the population
- Prince George’s County: ~120,230 people, or 13.3% of the population
- Alexandria City County: ~15,520 people, or 10% of the population
- Arlington County: ~16,710 people, or 7.3% of the population
- Fairfax County: ~16,350 people, or 4.9% of the population
- Loudoun County: ~12,570 people, or 3.4% of the population
The good news is that there are organizations throughout the DMV working to bridge the hunger gap.
As part of metro D.C.’s annual “homelessness media blitz” we’ll introduce you to some of those organizations and tell you how they’re doing — and how you might be able to help.
Produced by Maura Currie
Special Coverage Note
This segment is part of our 2019 contribution to the DC Homeless Crisis Reporting Project, in collaboration with other local newsrooms. You can see all of the collective work published throughout the day at DCHomelessCrisis.press and join the public Facebook group to discuss how to act on this information – and add context to areas that may have been overlooked.
KOJO NNAMDIIf I ask you to picture hungry or food insecure people, you likely have a particular image in mind, children in far-off places covered in grime, or people from a long-gone era in American history waiting in long lines at soup kitchens, or something along those lines. The reality is that food insecurity is present much closer to home, in cities, in the suburbs and even in some of the wealthiest communities in our region. Hunger can look quite different from person to person, and, of course, that means that people's needs vary wildly.
KOJO NNAMDIBut there are nonprofits in DMV that are working to meet those diverse needs with creative solutions, and in new ways that break the traditional food mold. Joining me in studio to discuss this is Kate Urbank. Kate Urbank is the site director for Food Rescue D.C. Thank you very much for joining us.
KATE URBANKNice to be here.
NNAMDIJackie DeCarlo is the chief executive officer of Manna Food Center in Montgomery County. Jackie, thank you for joining us.
JACKIE DECARLOGlad to be back. Thanks.
NNAMDIAnd Sasha-Ann Simons is the race and identity reporter here at WAMU 88.5. Sasha-Ann, always a pleasure.
SASHA-ANN SIMONSHi, Kojo.
NNAMDIYou've done some reporting on hunger for WAMU this week, and we'll get into that in a moment. But first, lay some groundwork for us. How big an issue does hunger seem to be in this region?
SIMONSIt's a big one. And so hunger -- I just want to make sure we define it properly. I know we're focused today, especially listening to the last segment, on the D.C. homeless crisis. But hunger is simply, you know, as the U.S. Department of Agriculture defines it: a limited or uncertain ability to acquire nutritionally adequate food for a household. So, not being able to afford enough food.
SIMONSAnd so, that's not necessarily a person who is homeless. There are plenty of people who have housing, who simply cannot make ends meet and cannot afford to put food on the table. One in seven D.C. households, so that's about 15 percent of folks, are food insecure. In Montgomery County, that's about 8 percent of folks there who are considered food insecure. Prince Georges County, 15 percent, as well, food insecure. And in northern Virginia, it ranges from 7 to 12 percent. What that amounts to in the D.C. area, so D.C. and its six surrounding counties, is about 540,000 people who are struggling to put food on the table. So, it's a huge problem in an area of plenty.
NNAMDIJackie DeCarlo, your organization, Manna Foods, operates in Montgomery County. What's your sense of how many people are food insecure there?
DECARLOWe have been part of a data analysis that suggests that there's about 60,000 folks that are, as was explained, not always sure where their next meal is coming from. And to the point that it may not be who you expect, about 40 percent of the people we serve, we reach a little more than half of those who need us, and 40 percent of those are working poor. So, there are folks who are thanking us for having evening hours, because they need to come to receive our food after they get off their shifts. Of course, there's also seniors and children. We heard a little bit about homelessness, but even kids who have a home to go to, they open the fridge, and it's empty.
NNAMDISo, this is very clearly not just an urban issue. How do suburbs change someone's options for getting food?
DECARLOWell, in a sense, being in the suburbs can be a bit of a disadvantage, because we have a lot of great organizations that are working, but Montgomery County is a large county. And so transportation is an issue, how to get to one of those sources of food. We just are about to open a center in Silver Spring. And one of the reasons we're locating there, not only because of the high concentration of poverty, but also because there are four bus stops, and it's about to be -- well, about -- when it happens, it'll be the stop of a BRT. So, we're trying to address transportation concerns.
NNAMDIKate Urbank, for your organization, geography really does matter. Tell us about how Food Rescue D.C. works.
URBANKWell, our organization operates around an app that engages volunteers, we call them our food rescuers, who use the app to choose food runs between donors and agencies that need the food. So, we are that last mile transportation piece which enables us to get food to various parts of the DMV that are really in need, serving the agencies that help the homeless.
NNAMDIIs need spread out pretty evenly across the District of Columbia?
URBANKYes, it is. I will say that there is a greater congregation of agencies that need food down in the 7th and 8th Ward. And I strive to make sure that we get the food. The donors are largely more central in the District, so it's always a challenge to make sure that we're going further in to be able to serve those populations. But every agency we work with across the District is in need. And so wherever we can get the food, it's keeping it out of landfill and getting it to people. That's the most important thing.
NNAMDIJackie, what about your volunteer base? Are they spread out evenly across the District?
DECARLOWell, at Manna Food Center, our community food rescue program is very similar to what Kate is doing, where we have volunteers all over the county. We use an app where they're notified and they can tell us what their preferences are. So, if they're up county and they want rescue food in Germantown and get it to Montgomery Village, then the can be hyper-local. Or if they want to use the ICC and go across the county, they can do that, too. So, it's a matter of when they set up a volunteer profile -- we call them food runners -- then they just let us know what areas they want to help pick up and transport food.
NNAMDIJackie DeCarlo, the chief executive officer of Manna Food Center in Montgomery County. Kate Urbank is the site director for Food Rescue D.C. Sasha-Ann Simons is the race and identity reporter here at WAMU. Kate, how does an organization receiving food know that it's safe to consume and hasn't, say, been sitting out for several hours?
URBANKWell, we have the guarantee from our food donors who take the special care to make sure that they properly refrigerate, box up and care for the food until it gets passed to our very diligent food rescuers who give up their time and their cars to take the time to transport the food with care, and then, at the receiving agency end, the many, many very talented chefs who are able to take prepared foods, donated foods and turn them into something even more enhanced with their skills in the kitchen to make sure that the food is kept safe all along the way.
URBANKAnd there is the protection of the Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Food Donation Act, which is a federal law that, as long as food is being donated in good faith, with special care, there is no issue related to liability. So, we all work together. In D.C., we have the Save Good Food Act which enhances those protections and we work with donors and agencies to make sure that food safety is always in the forefront.
NNAMDIJackie DeCarlo, it's my understanding that Manna Foods does a little bit of everything. Tell us what models you use to get food to people who need it.
DECARLOWell, you know, it takes a lot of different strategies and tactics to end hunger, and we want food for all. So, we are about to open a Manna Market, as I mentioned, in Silver Spring. And we're taking the best practices from Martha's Table and Capillary Food Bank. They have something called a Joyful Market. We went to visit that, and we decided to replicate it. Found out that Howard County Food Bank had this similar, and it's basically where folks can shop for their food. It's free, but they get to choose what they want. It reduces food waste, because we don't give people things they don't want. They can also pick what's best for their health and their culture and their preferences.
DECARLOWe also have Manny, which is a renovated school bus. Manny goes out into the community as a pop-up pantry. It goes to areas of difficult access and shares food. It might be in a church parking lot. It might be at a health fair. And it also is a licensed commercial kitchen, so we're able to use that bus to do cooking lessons to help kids get excited about eating healthy, teach adults how to shop and cook on a budget. And those are two of the ways that -- the latest innovations, as well as community food rescue, which about five years ago, started to use technology to match the volunteer food runners with the donors.
NNAMDIKate, if you're primarily rescuing prepared foods like pizza and baked goods, the organizations and people who receive your food must be in slightly different situations. Is that a fair assessment?
URBANKWell, we deliver the food to agencies. We don't work directly with individuals. So, I work with each agency that receives food to make sure that the food I have in mind, that it's in close enough proximity that it makes sense that this donor would be matched to this agency, and the timing is appropriate, the amount of food. So, whatever they need is what I try to find for them out in the community.
NNAMDISasha-Ann, clearly, there are a lot of different approaches to this. What have you learned about how well these organizations are getting food to people who need it?
SIMONSWell, we just heard some great examples from these two ladies, but, you know, a lot of it seems to piggyback off of what they mentioned, which is collaboration, trying to work together. The agencies that I spoke to for my feature are doing their very best to work together. I spoke to the Arlington Food Assistance Center. I went out to the Southern Maryland Food Bank. Tried to really (laugh) reach the range here of the issue. And also, the Capitol Area food bank, because you can't quite do a story on food banks without talking to the Capitol Area food bank. They feed so many of the hungry in this population.
SIMONSBut the challenges that they're facing is limited pools of funding. And so, sometimes, it's not always so easy to coordinate. D.C. Central Kitchen, which is another place I spent time in, you know, they've had issues with their government contracts.
SIMONSHalf of their $60 million budget is just government contracts, their biggest client being D.C. Public Schools, because they're feeding kids breakfast, lunch and dinner every single day, kids that are living in poverty. And so, they lost a major contract earlier this year, and that was sort of a huge deal. And so they've had to find other creative ways to sort of get that money back and be able to still do their jobs. They're also struggling for space. They're cramped. We were sitting in the basement of a homeless shelter, which is their headquarters, to do our interview. And so that was quite interesting to me.
SIMONSAnd, in Arlington, they're not getting any state or federal funding. It's simply donations and a team of four fundraisers sitting around every day and just trying to bring that money in, and just...
NNAMDI(overlapping) It sounds a lot like public radio to me. (laugh)
SIMONSYes. (laugh) And just generous supermarkets around town, you know, around Arlington that are just letting them pick up food. You know, they were saying Trader Joes has them pick up at 11:00 at night. So, they have a team of insomniacs that are driving (laugh) and picking up food for needy folks there. And so it's just trying to find other ways to get the means to do this work.
SIMONSSouthern Maryland Food Bank, they've actually given up on applying for certain grants, because it's so competitive. They're finding that it's just -- the rules keep changing. And, you know, some organizations are getting a little, some are getting a lot, some are just getting none. And so there's one that they get that's a thousand dollars, and they're not even guaranteed to get it every single year. So, everyone's just using their volunteerism, the donations and fundraising to do the best work that they can.
NNAMDIThese are all nonprofits. What role do local governments play in addressing hunger?
SIMONSSo, as I was mentioning, you know, they're providing -- you know, Capitol Area Food Bank, for example, they have government contracts where they can go ahead and provide those 450 agencies that they work with, with food and with resources. But, you know, the pool is limited. And then also folks were also concerned with the Trump Administration and some changes that they're making, especially to benefits like SNAP. And we're going to end up seeing much more people food insecure, and then that's going to make these food banks and food pantries, you know, have tighter resources to work with, in turn. (sounds like)
NNAMDIBefore I go to the phones -- and we don't have a great deal of time left. Sasha, one of the other pieces of your reporting was this idea that food pantries and rescues throughout the region can work together. So, Kate and Jackie, care to respond to that? How does that work, in practice?
URBANKWe work very nicely together, because Montgomery County is very well served by Manna and Community Food Rescue. And so when Food Recue U.S. came into the District, I assessed the scene, realized that the work that we needed to do was in Northern Virginia, where we're very active, and also in the District. And we collaborate -- if I get a tip about a food donor who's in Montgomery County, I'll let her team know, and they pick it up from there, and vice versa.
DECARLOYeah, and so much so that, last year, we decided to co-sponsor a Community Food Rescue Week. And we'll be doing it again this year. It's the last full week of October. I think it's, like, October 21st through the 25th. And we just celebrate the power of food rescue. We let people know how they can become food runners or food donors. And we learn from each other's good events. And it's a great collaboration.
NNAMDIHere's Claudia in Croom, Maryland. Claudia, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
CLAUDIAHi, Kojo. I'm Claudia Rafkin. I was the director for 21 years at Community Support Systems in Southern Prince Georges County, an area that's really a food desert, and also a rural area that's forgotten. So -- or maybe it's remembered because they're developing, but that's another story for another Kojo Show. (laugh)
CLAUDIABut the point I'd like to make is that we operate two food pantries. And food pantries are a community site for people. So, if people are coming to a pantry, they've obviously got other problems, and need additional help. And food pantries should be a place where you can access other resources. So, one of the resources that Community Support Systems has offered -- and I don't believe any other agency in Metro D.C. area does -- is blood pressure, blood sugar screening. A very simple thing to offer that saves lives, because so many people who are food insecure have illnesses, you know, that are diet-related.
NNAMDIYep, yep. Thank you very much for your call. Indeed, food pantries are places of community gathering.
SIMONSAnd they're also trying to do a lot of other things, too. I should've mentioned D.C. Central Kitchen. The biggest thing, perhaps, that they're known for is their workforce development training program. So, they're also providing these jobs because, you know, poverty, hunger, it all works hand-in-hand. And there's always another issue. Food, as they say, is the hook to sort of bring us in, and then they sort of work on the other issues to help that family.
NNAMDI(overlapping) Here's Ernest in Alexandria, Virginia. Ernest, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
ERNESTKojo, hey, thanks so much for taking this, and thanks for doing this program. I'm in awe of the work that your guests are doing. Those are terrific programs. I also wanted to say there's smaller programs that you can go and volunteer at. I volunteer at Open Table, which is the old Presbyterian Meeting House's Thursday morning breakfast from 6:00 to 8:00 a.m., where we serve a wonderful breakfast. I make the scrambled eggs. (laugh)
ERNESTAnd we also connect with the people. We sit there, we talk to them, we find out where they are in their journeys. And I'll tell you, this is as rewarding for us as it is for them, I'm sure. So, Susan Grandy has been running the program for six years, and today happens to be the anniversary. So, we did it this morning, and I think that it's just great timing.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call, Ernest, and for sharing that information with us. On to Barbara in Rockville, because this not only happens through organizations, it also happens with individuals. Right, Barbara?
BARBARAYes. Thank you for taking my call, Kojo. So, when our son was in high school, I discovered that a number of the kids that he went to school with really didn't have the funds to buy lunches, and they had brothers and sisters that couldn't really bring lunches. So, we had an open door policy at our home. I would always fill the refrigerator with a variety of foods. And the kids knew that they would come in, they would introduce themselves to me, and then they were allows to take whatever they wanted out of the refrigerator to eat then and there, or take it home to the family.
BARBARANow, as a past social worker, I would also provide some assistance. You know, I'd ask the kids, get to know them, how the family situation was. And if there was anything that I could do to assist the family with something, a service or so forth, I would do that. I just found that to be a good way, for me, at least, to help in the area, because...
NNAMDI(overlapping) Barbara, you tell a story that I'm sure there are quite a few families in the Washington region can also share with us, because a lot of people want to be able to help people who are experiencing food insecurity. So, thank you for sharing that story with us. We heard from Lourds (sounds like) on Twitter, who said: I've never used food banks in D.C., but I did in Michigan. And while during graduate school, I received food and other things, such as winter clothes and toiletries. It truly saved my life at the time, and I know it saved the lives of other international students like me who came from poor countries and families. Food banks are amazing help. Jackie, what are the biggest challenges you've run into as an organization, trying to help the most people you can?
DECARLOWell, I think just to touch on what Sasha-Ann was saying, we're really concerned about the changing political environment. Hostility to new Americans and regulations that may keep them off of programs, restrictions that are going to create red tape for the state to do SNAP and other programs that are helping folks. So, we're trying to keep up with the need and do it in a holistic way, do it in a way of hospitality, like Barbara was just describing. But we've always got to keep our eyes on what are the policies that are attacking meals in the classroom?
DECARLOYou know, these kids turn to Barbara, but they also can have meals in the classroom if the child nutrition authorization goes through in a way that is humane and supportive of future generations. So, those are some of the things that we're worried about.
NNAMDIKate, same question to you: what's your biggest challenge in running this food rescue operation?
URBANKMy biggest challenge is engaging more volunteers to become food rescuers, because there is so much food out there, I always have to balance between how much new food is coming onboard in the app and how many new food rescuers come in. And the same thing goes for needing to find places that receive the food. So, it's a three-pillar program, and I need help on all three pillars. And our app is at FoodRescue.US, or it can be downloaded on any mobile device. And I would welcome new signups.
NNAMDIThe Capitol Market tweeted us: we're finding that the demand is great and the resources limited. The hashtag #MarylandMarketMoney, which doubles federal nutrition benefits, has helped. Before we go, Kate and Jackie, what can people do if they want to help?
URBANKSign up. (laugh)
DECARLOYeah, so if you visit MannaFood.org, you'll see that we need food, we need food donations. We need friends, volunteers and we need funds to make sure that our staff can make living wages and not have to turn to us for services. So, all those ways would help us.
NNAMDIJackie DeCarlo is the chief executive officer of Manna Food Center in Montgomery County. Thank you so much for joining us.
NNAMDIKate Urbank is the site director for Food Rescue D.C. Kate Urbank, thank you for joining us.
URBANKHappy to be here.
NNAMDISasha-Ann Simons is the race and identity reporter here at WAMU 88.5. What's up next, Sasha?
SIMONSKojo, everything. (laugh) D.C. is a great wild place, so much to talk about.
NNAMDIIn other words, she's not going to tell us what specific stories she's working on...
NNAMDI... (laugh) right now. Always a pleasure to see you, Sasha-Ann.
NNAMDIToday's show was produced by Maura Currie. Coming up tomorrow on the Politics Hour, Alexandria, along with Arlington, now have the most competitive housing market in the country. City council member Canek Aguirre will join us to talk about affordability and transportation challenges and solutions in Northern Virginia. Plus, Howard County Executive Calvin Ball will be here to tell us how the county is dealing with the opioid crisis. And we'll dig into the county's relationship with ICE. That all starts tomorrow at noon, on the Politics Hour. Until then, thank you for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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