As hungry move farther from city, food bank finds it harder to reach them

By Jonathan O'Connell
Monday, June 14, 2010

The Capital Area Food Bank is on pace to deliver 27 million pounds of food this year -- to nearly 400,000 area residents -- and yet it is missing some people.

An analysis of the food bank's distribution network, performed on a pro bono basis by Deloitte Consulting, shows that the migration of the region's hungry to suburban and exurban neighborhoods may require the nonprofit to alter or expand its distribution.

Linda Solomon, principal at Deloitte Consulting and a food bank board member, said that with the report, done over more than a year of reviewing census records and poverty data, "we wanted to look at new demographic patterns -- where is the highest concentration of hunger and where is the greatest concentration of families that the food bank should be serving?"

She said one of the clear findings is that some of the region's remotest neighborhoods, where there is a growing portion of working poor, are in need of more food than the organization is delivering. "There are several rural areas both in Maryland and Virginia that have communities that also are in need of the food bank services," Solomon said.

Deloitte released the report Friday as part of its annual company recognition of pro bono service, now in its 11th year. Tens of thousands of Deloitte employees volunteer at more than 800 projects nationwide, many of them providing the professional services for which the firm is known on a pro bono basis. In the past, Deloitte has helped the food bank with branding and strategic planning.

The food bank has already steadily increased the amount of food it provides during the recession. It served about 20 million pounds in fiscal 2008, 25 million last year and expects to tally about 27 million this fiscal year, which ends this month, and plans to distribute 30 million pounds next year to meet growing demand.

After outgrowing its current storage and distribution center -- forcing it to find free or rented overflow space -- it has long been at work planning a new $37 million, 42,000-square-foot center on Puerto Rico Avenue in Northeast Washington. Lynn Brantley, food bank president and chief executive, said that after a number of hurdles, the organization plans on "actually putting a shovel in the ground in July or August."

The Deloitte report presents a new challenge for Brantley. It shows that people in places such as Centreville, Dale City, Manassas and Manassas Park in Northern Virginia are likely in need of more food.

"I think a lot of the poverty of the area is moving out of the city, and we want to be sure to be following them," Brantley said.

The logistics of meeting that need are not as simple. The food bank has a secondary 12,000-square-foot distribution center in Lorton and about 700 partner agencies, many of them nonprofits and churches, to serve meals in the region. But that is fewer than in the past, thanks to the recession, Brantley said, which has some to close. She said that about 75 percent of her existing partners have annual budgets of $3,900 or less.

In some parts of the region, in places like Fort Washington, Laurel and Olney, Deloitte found an abundance of existing nonprofits that may easily be added as distributors to fill growing food needs in the suburbs. But in other areas, where poverty among the working poor is a newer concept, she will need to identify churches and other community institutions that may be interested in opening food pantries. "Not only do you need to discover where these places are," she said. "But you need food to cover that and trucks to take it there and infrastructure."

"This is a time of great need. So many people are living on the edge -- working people, living on the edge," she said.

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