Women deliver lunches to hungry children in Maryland


Volunteers at the Capital Area Food Bank pack lunches and food for kids who don't get lunch during the summer when school is out. (Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)
Petula Dvorak
Columnist July 18, 2013

New restaurants opening every week, farmers markets overflowing with lush produce, trash bins bursting with unwanted food. Amid all this abundance, about 200,000 kids in our region are hungry.

They’re even hungrier in the summer, when school lunch programs go dark and little stomachs growl.

Petula is a columnist for The Washington Post's local team who writes about homeless shelters, gun control, high heels, high school choirs, the politics of parenting, jails, abortion clinics, mayors, modern families, strip clubs and gas prices, among other things. View Archive

Carol Whitney wanted to do something about it.

She saw the children running around her Wheaton neighborhood and wondered how to get lunches from Hughes United Methodist Church into their mouths.

It wasn’t easy. It’s one of the big challenges at the Capital Area Food Bank, the giant organization that collects and distributes about 33 million pounds of food every year.


Volunteers at the Capital Area Food Bank pack lunches and food for kids who don't get lunch during the summer when school is out. Mary DiValerio, 17, hands boxes of macaroni and cheese to her peer. (Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)

In some cases, the food bank can make connections with families to deliver lunch bags or have them picked up in the Northeast Washington location.

One day last week, the food bank had help packing those bags from a few dozen kids from a Bank of America Student Leader program.

It was an eye-opening experience for some of the student council presidents and AP calculus types touring Washington, where this month the House passed farm legislation without $743 billion for food stamps that had been in previous bills.

The outrage about the effort to stiff the 47 million Americans who depend on food stamps, half of them children, was still pouring forth when the student leaders arrived to tour the White House, Senate offices — and a food bank.

Most of the kids had no idea that calls for help to this food bank went up 22 percent last year. That came as no surprise to Denise Nguyenphu, however.

“See, I was one of these kids,” the 18-year-old from Orlando told me. “I was getting government lunch when my dad lost his job.” And she remembered that summers were especially hungry, when that school lunch wasn’t around.

The food bank sets up kid cafes at community recreation centers where kids lucky enough to get into local programs are hanging out.

In Wheaton, the ladies of Hughes Methodist volunteered to go to a similar, government-subsidized lunch center. There they sat with bags and bags of government bologna sandwiches in sealed pouches. And they sat. And they sat.

“No one came. How were any kids going to get there?” said Whitney, the church’s parish nurse.

“We can do better than this,” they thought.

So two years ago, they began their own little summer lunch service. They found needy families through the Montgomery County Linkages to Learning program.

Two days a week, two of the moms meet in the basement kitchen of the Georgia Avenue church.

Gail Broadhurst does all the shopping. And she does it like a mom, not a government bean counter. Good, wholesome food, reasonable prices.

For about $1.50 a lunch — all funded by church donations — the women make lunches with sandwiches, two kinds of fresh fruit or vegetables, fruit juice, crackers, homemade brownies and milk.

Every Monday and Thursday morning, they put on plastic gloves and make the sandwiches, to the sounds of the Irish dance class next door and updates on each other’s lives.

“Do you like the girlfriend?”one of the moms asks, slapping bread together.

“I’ve only met her once, but yeah. I like her. She puts up with him.”

They bag the lunches in sacks labeled with each family’s name and address and the names and ages of the children, divide them up and say goodbye.

By noon, Whitney pulls up to a tiny house in Wheaton. I head to the front door. She stops me.

“No, they live in the basement,” she said.

For six years, this family of two adults and four children has rented the basement room of this home.

The children run to the door, hug Whitney’s legs. Almost all of the 30 kids the women feed come from Spanish-speaking households.

Whitney nods and smiles and hugs. So does the mom. They have few words but many gestures between one another.

The mother told me in Spanish that her school-age children — 4, 6 and 10 — eat twice a day in school and that it’s difficult for them to buy that much extra food in the summer.

“Hambre,” she says, holding her stomach.

The next stop is another small house filled with two families.

There are five children total. The mother cleans houses when the kids are in school. Their father is a supervisor with a cleaning service.

Still, they have a difficult time feeding their growing boys — 12, 10 and 7-year-old twins. “They want to eat all the time now,” said the mother, who thanked Whitney for the food with her eyes and her hugs.

“It's just 30 kids,” Whitney says. But she learned the power of that small contribution at a recent seminar on charity work.

“If you have 500 hungry people, and you give everyone just a scrap, you’ve done no good. “So we do what we can, and we know that we’ve fed about 30 kids today,” she said.

And that’s a start.

For previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/dvorak.

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