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Washington-area hunger seen as worsening

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As she prepares to retire, Lynn Brantley, 70, ought to be satisfied with her standout career as a Washington area do-gooder.

Driven by the religious teachings of her Pennsylvania Dutch upbringing, Brantley has worked for 32 years as a key leader feeding the hungry in our region. A co-founder and longtime chief executive of the Capital Area Food Bank, she helped transform a small operation that served a few thousand people into a giant clearinghouse that collects and helps distribute groceries to nearly half a million needy.

Despite that success, Brantley remains unsatisfied. She’s distressed that after so many years, the extent of hunger in our region is much more widespread than when she began.

It used to be that families who relied on charity for food were concentrated in inner-city neighborhoods with entrenched poverty. Now the dependence has spread to numerous lower middle-class neighborhoods in the suburbs.

It’s a sobering thought for those of us fortunate enough to worry mainly about what the scale will say after we pack away too many mashed potatoes at the Thanksgiving feast.

“I can say now that the problem seems 10 times worse than it did when I started out. It’s a terrible way to be leaving, to be thinking that people are worse off than when we began,” Brantley said in an interview Thursday.

“It’s the economy; it’s what’s happening with the middle class. That’s who’s coming to our agencies now,” she said. “These are people who are maybe working two and three jobs, and can’t make ends meet. These are people who’ve been laid off.”

Brantley was mostly earnest and matter-of-fact as she reflected on her career in an interview in her office at the food bank’s brand-new, sprawling warehouse near Catholic University in Northeast. She is stepping down at the end of the year, to be succeeded by Nancy E. Roman, an executive at the UN World Food Programme.

Brantley rattled off statistics about hunger and offered sociological analysis of why the problem continues to exist. But her voice cracked and she turned visibly emotional at several points when she recalled the need that she’s witnessed.

It happened when she described seeing children at an after-school meals program at a low-income housing community in Northeast.

“They sit down and they just use their hands to stuff their mouths, because they don’t get an evening meal. People don’t realize the conditions and what people are facing,” Brantley said.

As she spoke, trucks at nearby loading docks were delivering fresh produce, canned and dry goods and other food and household items that the food bank buys or receives as donations. Some is “salvage” food, in slightly dented containers or with nearing use-by dates.

At other docks, trucks carried away the food to 700 nonprofit organizations including food pantries, faith-based groups, churches and community centers. They give away bags or boxes of groceries to the needy in the District, Northern Virginia and suburban Maryland.

The modern, 123,000-square-foot facility is quite a contrast with the cramped, leaky warehouse where Brantley and others launched the food bank in 1980 in response to cuts in federal food stamp programs. The operation had two volunteers and used shovels to unload trucks.

Brantley became chief executive in 1988. Today the food bank has a staff of 133 and uses forklifts.

Brantley was active in the civil rights movement in the 1960s before she got involved in hunger issues as a food stamp outreach coordinator in Prince George’s County. Her motivation to help the underprivileged sprang from her roots in York County, Penn.

“I went to a Lutheran parochial school and my grandparents were Quakers, so I was ingrained with a sense of the gospel in terms of where I came from and what I did,” Brantley said. She said food is “just a profound, moral right that people should have.”

Although she tried to avoid saying anything overtly political, it was clear she wished the government would take a bigger role in helping the needy.

“This is an important point, and something for people to really remember. Back in the ’70s, before the [food stamp] cuts came, hunger had nearly been obliterated in this country,” Brantley said. “When the cuts came, we as a country have never rebounded from that.”

Now Brantley is looking forward to moving to a Quaker retirement community in Lewes, Del. She hopes to spend more time with her five grandchildren, and to enjoy her hobbies of bicycling and bird watching.

She says she worries about the focus in Washington on cutting spending for domestic programs. “We’re looking at cuts coming down the road. It’s going to be hurting the most vulnerable people,” she said.

At least she can comfort herself that she devoted her life’s work to softening the blow.

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