A volunteer at St. Stephen’s Baptist Church in Prince George’s County hands out food to a family in need.

A volunteer at St. Stephen’s Baptist Church in Prince George’s County hands out food to a family in need.

As COVID-19 infections grew earlier this year, so did unemployment numbers as businesses began to shut down. At times, the unemployment rate in the D.C. region was higher than the national average. This has led to food insecurity for thousands of area residents, many of whom are experiencing it for the first time.

In July, we checked in with some of “the helpers” to see how our area food banks were holding up with so much demand. We’ll check in with them again to see how they’re faring nearly eight months into the pandemic. And we’ll see if they’re prepared for a likely increase in demand for meals throughout the holidays.

Produced by Kurt Gardinier



  • 12:20:02

    KOJO NNAMDIWelcome back. These are anxious and difficult times. For many, helping those in need has been a way to both cope and make a difference. As COVID-19 infections grew earlier in the year, so did unemployment numbers. In fact, at times, the unemployment rate in the D.C. region was higher than the national average. Area food banks stepped up and were a lifeline to thousands. So, eight months into the pandemic, how are food banks faring, and are they prepared for an increase in demand for meals throughout the holidays?

  • 12:20:34

    KOJO NNAMDIJoining us now to discuss this is Radha Muthiah, president and CEO at the Capital Area Food Bank. Radha, thank you for joining us.

  • 12:20:42

    RADHA MUTHIAHThank you, Kojo.

  • 12:20:44

    NNAMDIRadha, for those who don't know, what is the Capital Area Food Bank's mission, and how has the pandemic affected your work?

  • 12:20:51

    MUTHIAHThe Capital Area Food Bank has been here for the last 40 years in the greater Washington region to provide food to those who are uncertain where their next meal is going to come from. And we do that through a network of about 450 community partners throughout the greater Washington area to be able to provide food to those most in need.

  • 12:21:14

    MUTHIAHYou asked about the pandemic. Yes, it's been about eight months now that we've been responding to the pandemic. And it's been unlike anything that we've experienced before. You know, a few steps for your listening audience, you know, in the region, we used to have about 400,000 food insecure individuals prior to the pandemic.

  • 12:21:35

    MUTHIAHWithin the first few months of the pandemic, with the unemployment that you referred to earlier, we now are providing food to 600,000-plus food insecure individuals in our region. So, the demand and the need has gone up considerably. And just in that eight-month timeframe, we've provided just over 34 million meals worth of food to these individuals who are in need.

  • 12:22:02

    NNAMDIAnd, indeed, in that eight-month timeframe, 34 million meals, because your website says you provide typically 30 million meals in a year. And so, this year, you're scheduled to go maybe twice as much?

  • 12:22:18

    MUTHIAH(laugh) Yes. We've planned for about -- providing meals, you know, to the equivalent of about 50 million meals over this 12-month period. We have seen, month to month, just significant increases in demand. Some partners tell us, you know, they're seeing 50 percent more individuals lining up for food, and others tell us they've seen, you know, up to 800 percent increase, year on year. So, we look at that across the region. We're also projecting looking at the unemployment numbers, you know, the number of individuals who will be in need, and therefore projecting to provide about 50 million meals.

  • 12:22:58

    NNAMDIJoining us now is Alicia Horton, the executive director at Thrive D.C. Alicia Horton, thank you for joining us.

  • 12:23:06

    ALICIA HORTONThank you for having me, Kojo.

  • 12:23:08

    NNAMDITell us exactly what Thrive D.C. does, and how it's fared throughout the pandemic. Are you also seeing a large increase in need from D.C. residents?

  • 12:23:16

    HORTONAbsolutely, Kojo. I think we depend quite a bit on the work of the Capital Area Food Bank to supply needed proteins and produce and dry goods. We have seen almost a quadrupling of our regular pantry usage in the last eight months. And it started very early on, in April.

  • 12:23:45

    HORTONWe're seeing probably 65 to 70 percent new clients, folks that we've never seen before, using our services. We used to give about 90 bags away a week, and now we're giving 350 to 400 bags a week, in addition to supplying about ten other smaller pantries with food so we can broaden our reach in terms of who is getting the support that we are able to provide.

  • 12:24:14

    HORTONWe have tripled our food budget, because, unfortunately, even the food bank has to charge, you know, nominal prices. But when you have a small budget, anyway, those nominal prices can add up. So, we are struggling to keep up with the pace, and, unfortunately, Kojo, I don't see it getting any better anytime soon.

  • 12:24:37

    NNAMDIWell, that's funny, because D.C. officials have said demand for food has not increased of late, but, in fact, has decreased, and have closed five of the 10 food distribution sites, and plan to close the remaining sites by the end of the month. Do you know why that might be, Alicia?

  • 12:24:56

    HORTONI don't, Kojo. (laugh) I was surprised to learn about that, as well. And it may actually be that so many of the smaller food banks and smaller efforts are trying to step into the gap and trying to take up the slack in that respect. So, it may be that people are finding other sources, you know, to help make ends meet. But, again, we have an appointment structure, so people call in to get an appointment to come and get a bag. And we are scheduling people three weeks out, because we can only do so much in a day. So, we have not seen that the numbers are decreasing at all.

  • 12:25:42

    NNAMDIRadha Muthiah, D.C. officials say that the food they have been distributing will now be given to the Capital Area Food Bank for your organization to distribute. Is that correct, and are you seeing some kind of decrease in demand?

  • 12:25:58

    MUTHIAHWell, we're certainly not seeing a decrease in demand, and I can pick up on the question that you had asked earlier about some of the sites in D.C. closing. They were temporary sites that were stood up early on in the pandemic to be able to meet the need in different communities. And as we have managed now to have a consistent distribution across many parts of the District, as well as our region, some of those temporary sites are no longer required. But that doesn't mean the demand for food has gone down.

  • 12:26:27

    MUTHIAHIn fact, we are seeing consistently high demand. And, in fact, last month, the month of October, had the food bank distributing over seven million pounds of food in one month. And so that's a record in our 40-year history and the highest amount that we've distributed during the pandemic so far. So, the demand is certainly there. It's more that certain sites that were stood up temporarily are no longer required, because we're able to provide more food into communities that need it through other -- more sites that are going to be consistently open.

  • 12:27:01

    NNAMDIJoining us now is Gwendolyn Gantt, community outreach and special events director at St. Stephen's Baptist Church in Prince George's County. Gwendolyn Gantt, thank you for joining us.

  • 12:27:13

    GWENDOLYN GANTTThank you. Glad to be here.

  • 12:27:15

    NNAMDIHow many people were you providing food for at St. Stephen's before the pandemic, and how many people are you serving now?

  • 12:27:24

    GANTTOh, my goodness. Before the pandemic we were serving about 200 families. We were serving inside of our church, St. Stephen's Baptist Church. And after the pandemic started, we moved outside and that has increased. Now we're serving over 1,200 cars, drive-through, and over 6,000 families. It has tremendously increased and steadily increasing.

  • 12:27:53

    NNAMDIHave you been in situations where you actually ran out of food and had to turn people away?

  • 12:28:00

    GANTTWell, actually, we've not ran out of food. We do try to manage our food and manage those who are coming through the line. We do try to look at the amount of people we have coming through our line and manage the food to make sure that everyone gets something. So, we do make sure that everyone coming through the line gets something, if we have to cut back because we're running out. But we've never ran out because we try to manage the people and make sure that everybody gets something.

  • 12:28:34

    NNAMDIBut if demand increases, are you concerned that the St. Stephen's Baptist Church may have to turn people away?

  • 12:28:44

    GANTTWell, it's funny that you say that, because it's steadily increasing. And, yes, of course, it does bring about a concern that that could happen. But we're just praying and trusting God that that doesn't happen, but that is a concern, that food could run out. And we're just praying that doesn't happen.

  • 12:29:06

    NNAMDIAlicia Horton, are you concerned about Thrive D.C. running out of food to help those in need who need your assistance?

  • 12:29:13

    HORTONWell, yes, actually. You know, we are depending, again, heavily on the donations from the food bank for produce and proteins. But if we weren't able to receive that, we could not afford to maintain giving food at the level that we're giving it now. So, I do constantly worry (laugh) that we won't have enough to share. And I think, you know, to date, I agree, mange is key. You know, we keep extra bags, just in case. But, yeah, I worry every day that one day we won't have enough, and our community will be hungry.

  • 12:30:01

    NNAMDIHere is Kathy in Annapolis, Maryland. Kathy, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:30:08

    KATHYYes, hello. I have been serving for the last eight months in a local popup pantry that a group of churches have worked together. We started four popups in Anne Arundel County. And the one particular one that I work with at Tyler Heights predominantly serves our Hispanic community, which those are the people that have lost so many of their service industry jobs. And so, 95 percent of the people that work in one particular area that's supported by a school, many of them have lost their work.

  • 12:30:47

    KATHYSo, we have reached over 3,500 people in the last eight months, just at the one particular popup. And three others have started, as well. And we are just -- I just wanted to say thank you to those that are serving in the food banks, because we absolutely could not have lasted this long if it hadn't been for our food banks.

  • 12:31:09

    NNAMDIAmen to that. Thank you very much for your call, Kathy. Here now is Pete, who is all the way in South Florida. Pete, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:31:19

    PETEHi, hi, everyone. So, I was involved in agriculture in Maryland and moved to South Florida recently. And, around March, the USDA approved $3 billion for the purchase of fresh produce, dairy and meat. And every month, for each of those categories, they're spending $100 million, you know, on meat, one dairy and produce each. Also, there's an additional $873 million of section 32 funding, it's called, available to purchase these packages -- these prepacked packages for distribution to food banks.

  • 12:32:01

    PETEAnd, in around May, the USDA had webinars and they engaged places like hotels and other distribution mechanisms to go purchase local produce and distribute regionally. So, I think that though D.C. has seen a decreased demand, as they said, and the people who you're speaking to right now is seeing increased demand, I think demand is even higher, because there have been a lot of new entrants in the grant applicants. So, a lot of churches and mosques and community organizations have also been supplementing in this time of acute demand.

  • 12:32:41

    NNAMDIYeah, that seems to be the consensus among our guests, also. Pete, thank you very much for your call. Radha Muthiah, what groups are being hit the hardest in this pandemic, in terms of needing food assistance?

  • 12:32:54

    MUTHIAHWell, you know, of the 600,000 food insecure individuals, we break them up into a couple different categories. There are individuals who were food insecure even prior to the pandemic and are struggling to make ends meet, and they continue to be hard hit during the pandemic and the resulting economic downturn.

  • 12:33:12

    MUTHIAHThe newer segments, though, are individuals who were living paycheck to paycheck before, who were employed in hospitality, in tourism, in retail and in restaurants. And so many of them have lost their jobs or have fewer hours at those jobs. And so, those are the industries for which individuals have been harder hit.

  • 12:33:33

    MUTHIAHWe've also seen a real, you know, disproportionate impact on people of color, on women-led households and youth. We are seeing an incredible increase in the number of youth who are food insecure. So, we understand this information and target appropriately for the right distribution channels to be able to reach these individuals in the areas of the community that they're in.

  • 12:34:00

    MUTHIAHAnd that's why our partners, like Alive and St. Stephens, are so important. We've provided, you know, 800 percent more food to St. Stephens in the last eight months, and over 100 percent more food to Thrive, just so they don't run out of food. And we've looked forward to be able to plan for the next year and purchase frontloaded purchasing of over 750 truckloads of food so that we aren't caught in a situation where we don't have enough food to be able to provide to our community.

  • 12:34:33

    MUTHIAHWe know this recovery is going to take some time, especially for those who are vulnerable, who have been consistently marginalized. And so, we are preparing to be able to meet this growing and consistent need for at least another year, if not more.

  • 12:34:49

    NNAMDILet's hear what's going on in Montgomery County. Here's at Ana Hargrove, who is the executive director of the Community Foundation Montgomery County. Ana, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:35:02

    ANA HARGROVEHi, Kojo. So, despite millions in federal, state and local dollars going to this issue, the crisis is outlasting money. That's why the Montgomery County government, our local food council and the Community Foundation have teamed up around Food for Montgomery. This is a coordinated, public-private response to the alarming spike in food insecurity across the county.

  • 12:35:26

    ANA HARGROVEAnd it's working on three goals. Meeting the need for food, doing it in ways that also support our small businesses and farmers, and also strengthening the system so that we can be more efficient, safer and stretch our dollars farther. I want to commend Capital Area Food Bank, Manna and all our other incredible partners for stepping up. And I call on the community to say, this really has to be an all-hands-on-deck effort. We can't have our neighbors going hungry in the middle of this crisis.

  • 12:35:57

    NNAMDIAna, thank you very much for sharing that information with us. I'd like to ask all of you -- starting with you, Alicia Horton -- what are your organization's plans for Thanksgiving, which is just a few weeks away, and the rest of the holiday season? Are you expecting a higher demand than you typically see? And, if so, are you prepared for it?

  • 12:36:18

    HORTONWe are getting prepared, Kojo. We are going to have, on the 19th, the Thursday before Thanksgiving, our holiday pantry. So, we'll be stuffing our bags full of holiday fixings. And, hopefully, we'll be able to give away turkeys, so folks can have that for their holiday meals. And the Tuesday before Thanksgiving, we will also do hot meals to go. We also do hot meals through the week for folks who may not have kitchens and access to cooking. So, we'll be making that available on the 24th. And then on the 26th, on Thanksgiving Day, St. Stephens and the Incarnation in D.C. where we are located will have a holiday meal to go at 12:00.

  • 12:37:12

    NNAMDISame question to you, Radha Muthiah.

  • 12:37:18

    MUTHIAHIt's wonderful to hear our partners and all the plans that they are making. We certainly do purchase more holiday type foods, if you will, during this season. And, you know, you heard Alicia reference turkey, so we have several thousand turkeys that have been purchased, and that we are receiving, that will be provided to partners. And there's a community market on L Street in D.C. this Saturday, and we'll be distributing there, as well. So, certainly, lots of holiday foods for people to try and have family around the table and try and, you know, have a good meal at this particular time.

  • 12:37:57

    MUTHIAHAnd at the food bank, I'll say, Thanksgiving we are going to be, you know, incredibly thankful for our generous community that has been so supportive of our neighbors in need, you know, from the beginning of the pandemic. And I think so many know that this is not going to come to an abrupt end, so we're thankful for their consistent support in the months and years to come.

  • 12:38:17

    NNAMDIGwendolyn Gantt.

  • 12:38:20

    GANTTYes. To support our community residents who have impacted financially by COVID-19 pandemic, the south county faith-based and community-based organizations came together and are planning to provide 2,500 families with Thanksgiving holiday baskets. So, we're certainly gearing up. We'll probably be adding to that order with additional food from the food bank. And we're certainly going to be a light to help provide encouragement and hope. And just to give another plug, we are looking for freezers and freezer storage trucks to help us store all of the food.

  • 12:39:06

    NNAMDIOkay. Here now is Patricia in Rockville, Maryland. Patricia, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:39:12

    PATRICIAHi. It helps, contributing money to the Capital Area Food Bank and Manna and those, I'm trying to figure out another safe way to help out. And I came across the Meal Pack Challenge that was sponsored to the AARP, in which they would send you one or more postage-paid boxes to fill with certain groceries that were requested. And you just drop the boxes off at UPS. And I realize that this program ended on October 31st. I'm wondering how successful it was, and if there is anything that is taking its place for, you know, other safe ways that people can help out, besides just donating money.

  • 12:40:04

    NNAMDIIndeed, I was going to ask you, starting with you, Radha Muthiah, how can people help?

  • 12:40:10

    MUTHIAHWell, thank you for that question, and the AARP boxes have been very helpful. We have thousands of them coming in weekly, and they go right back out again to those who are in need. There are many ways to help. I think the most important, actually, is a financial contribution, at this time, because we are able to use those dollars and to cost-effectively purchase, you know, truckloads of food. So, that will go a long way.

  • 12:40:35

    MUTHIAHBut we are now a seven-day a week, at least two-shifts-a-day, sometimes three-shifts-a-day volunteer operation. We are having to pack and put many of the shelf-stable items, the dry goods, as well as produce into boxes so that we can safely provide them to those in need, given the COVID environment. So, if you can't support us through financial means, but would like to do so by volunteering your time, you can go to our website, capitalareafoodbank.org, and register for a three-hour shift. And we thank all of you who have already.

  • 12:41:10

    NNAMDISarah Daniels-Larson tweets: Resource Fair and Popup Pantry has provided 40,000 individuals with fresh vegetables, fruits, protein and dairy since April 18th. This bi-weekly event is made possible through community school partnerships with local agencies and the support of AA County Food Bank. But today is Election Day. Without getting into who you hope wins the presidential election or what party you support, what are things our government, from local to state to federal, can do right now to help the most vulnerable in our communities, the people you serve and care about, starting with you, Alicia Horton?

  • 12:41:53

    HORTONWell, you know, Kojo, we are bracing ourselves right now for what will be -- what we anticipate is going to be a wave of evictions in the new year. So, we are just trying to make sure that we are prepared and positioned to assist the community. And not only their food insecurity needs, but we also assist in many other ways through social service programs. So, we're just getting ready, and we hope that whatever administration steps into place will be an ally with us, as we help people get back on their feet.

  • 12:42:35

    NNAMDIAlmost out of time. You get the last word, Radha Muthiah.

  • 12:42:39

    MUTHIAHThank you, Kojo. I think, you know, what's important at the federal level is to have continued stimulus support. There are families that are very much in need, and likely to be in need for some time to come. So, the stimulus support is important. Expanding eligibility for programs like SNAP and WIC are very, very important, as well. And, at the local level, many counties, as was referenced earlier, have food security plans, but many still don't. And so, having a local government-wide food security plan is essential to ensure that we adequately take care of our citizens.

  • 12:43:14

    NNAMDIRadha Muthiah, Alicia Horton and Gwendolyn Gantt, thank you all for joining us. Join us for our election night special. NPR and WAMU will be bringing you the latest news and results starting at 7:00 p.m. tonight. And a reminder, polls close today at 7:00 p.m. in Virginia and at 8:00 p.m. in D.C. and Maryland.

  • 12:43:34

    NNAMDIOur Election Day update was produced by Ines Renique, and our conversation about helping out others as the pandemic continues was produced by Kurt Gardinier. Coming up tomorrow, Election Day is here, and what an unusual and long election season it's been. We'll assess where we are as a nation and a community and explore how we might move forward. We'll be joined by WAMU reporter Martin Austermuhle and political analyst Quentin Kidd from Christopher Newport University and Jamil Scott from Georgetown University. That all starts tomorrow, at noon. Until then, thank you for listening and stay safe. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

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