DISTRICT PARTNERSHIP

Healthier Food Is Key To Anti-Hunger Plan

D.C. Central Kitchen's Robert Egger, Kim Barnette and daughter Kelzi and children from Little Flower Montessori School watched from the bleachers.
D.C. Central Kitchen's Robert Egger, Kim Barnette and daughter Kelzi and children from Little Flower Montessori School watched from the bleachers. (Photos By Lucian Perkins -- The Washington Post)
By Yolanda Woodlee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Maria Gomez looked at the bright yellow cheddar cubes, plump red grapes and juicy orange slices next to the homemade oatmeal raisin cookies and said the food was far more appetizing than the cardboard box lunches she serves to children.

Gomez, who serves lunches to 125 children during the summer and light snacks to 60 children daily in her after-school program, observed how "colorful and fresh" the tray appeared.

"The summer meals don't look fresh and appealing," said Gomez, of Mary's Center for Maternal and Child Care Inc. "That's what the program lacks."

Gomez was one of about 100 child-care providers, parents and anti-hunger advocates at the Kennedy Recreation Center in Northwest Washington yesterday when the Partnership to End Childhood Hunger in the Nation's Capital released its 10-part plan.

After a year of studying how to feed an estimated 35,000 District children who live on "the edge of hunger," the partnership of city government, faith-based organizations, advocacy groups and businesses released its comprehensive report. The officials emphasized that $14 million in federal funding is available for food programs in the District but that city child-care providers have not been collecting half of it because they were unaware of how to apply for it.

As Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) and civic and business leaders talked about the plan to eradicate childhood hunger by 2016, a few dozen children from Adams Elementary and Little Flower Montessori schools sat on bleachers behind the podium. Later, as photographers snapped their pictures, they munched on fruit and cheese along with their choices of sandwiches made with organic products: peanut butter and grape jelly on white whole wheat bread, Cajun chicken or melted cheese and tomato. They drank organic chocolate milk from small cups.

The plan's key components call for expanding the summer meals programs to offer healthier foods and supplying tasty snacks and complete dinners to after-school child-care providers.

"We're going to ensure three meals a day for every child in the District of Columbia," said Kimberly Perry, director of D.C. Hunger Solutions. "We're going to surround them with food where they are -- at home, at school, in their communities. . . . We're going to make sure they're surrounded with good, healthy, affordable foods."

While the anti-hunger advocates acknowledged that there is no quick fix for ending hunger, they said the plan is a huge first step toward ensuring that the District's children get nutritious meals and offering a blueprint for other cities.

Last summer, the mayor said the District served 1.2 million lunches, an increase of 7 percent over the previous summer. In the fall, the city began providing free breakfasts for all 60,000 schoolchildren, regardless of family income.

More than 20,000 children participate in after-school programs, and the city's Department of Parks and Recreation provides full meals subsidized by the federal government to 5,000 students. In May, the city plans to feed an additional 3,000 to 5,000 children in the supper program.

"Nutrition is so important," Williams said, adding that children need food that helps their physical development so that "they can emerge, inspire and have ambition."

Reuben Gist of the Capital Area Food Bank said that when most people think of hunger, they envision pictures of starving Third World children, but that's not the picture of hunger in the District.

"It's not about the lack of food," Gist said. "It's what's eaten. You can feed a family on the Dollar Menu at McDonald's. People short of money buy the cheapest foods. Most of them don't shop at the major supermarkets, where you can access fresh fruits and vegetables."

Gomez, the child-care provider, said that 20 percent of the 8,000 children who pass through her two social service and medical centers each year are obese. She said their diet has a high concentration of sugar and flour, such as potatoes, rice and macaroni and cheese. She said she wants to serve dinner at her after-school programs because too many children are not getting the proper foods.

"There's hunger that means no food on the table, and there's hunger that means not having the right kind of food," she said.


© 2006 The Washington Post Company