A Fresh Look At How Best To Get Food To 35 Million

William Kittrell, 62, receives a meal from Chris DeSouza, 17, through the Campus Kitchen program at the District's Gonzaga College High School.
William Kittrell, 62, receives a meal from Chris DeSouza, 17, through the Campus Kitchen program at the District's Gonzaga College High School. (By Bill O'leary -- The Washington Post)
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Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, January 24, 2009; Page A01

In soup kitchens, food pantries and universities across the country, activists are planting the seeds for an overhaul of the way America feeds its more than 35 million hungry people, the first major challenge to a system largely developed in the 1960s.

They have begun providing food where people live and work, reconsidering the need for big, urban facilities and pushing for larger government food subsidies.

The goal is to make food more easily available to working poor women, children and others who, research shows, are a larger portion of the hungry than the urban homeless. They also hope to lessen the stigma associated with standing in line for a hot meal or groceries.

"The first generation of soup kitchens are getting to the point of outgrowing their kitchens and thinking they have to build new multimillion-dollar facilities," said Robert Egger, president of D.C. Central Kitchen and a nationally recognized anti-hunger activist. "And we're saying, 'We need to be adapting to future needs, not building the same things but bigger.' "

Soup kitchens, which provide hot meals, and food pantries, which offer groceries mostly to families, are the backbone of the current nonprofit food system. Most are in the hearts of cities and rely primarily on individual donations of food or bulk supplies from large food banks. They also need money for overhead, all of which leaves them vulnerable during economic downturns such as the current one, nonprofit leaders say.

Operating soup kitchens during traditional business hours shuts out a large group of hungry people. About 30 percent of households headed by single mothers reported going without food at least occasionally in 2007, almost four times the rate for single people, according to Feeding America, an umbrella group for 200 food banks nationwide.

Concerns about the nutritional value of food provided to the hungry have also plagued food banks. And several studies have indicated that many people avoid food pantries or soup kitchens out of embarrassment, leading activists to explore new ways of distributing food.

In response, Washington high school students are taking leftovers from corporate cafeterias to homebound seniors. In Austin, a local food pantry has gone mobile, traveling to rural parts of the region where people have no source of emergency food. A Harvard University professor suggests the money currently spent on food pantries would make more of a difference if it were put toward expanding food stamp programs.

"One weakness in the food pantry system is that it works through physical partner agencies, and so many of those agencies just open their doors and wait for people to walk through them," said David Davenport, a Baltimore native who took the helm of the Austin food bank in March. "That's not sufficient. We need to go to where the people are."

To be sure, the traditional system still reigns. Washington's Capital Area Food Bank broke ground last year on a $36 million warehouse that will double its capacity. The food bank serves about 700 food pantries and soup kitchens across the region, which helped feed about 383,000 people in 2006.

Leaders of the current system say that they value experimentation but that none of the newer projects could currently provide food to the millions who need it.

"There's certainly a place for new ideas and innovation, but when resources are limited, we need to focus on feeding people right now, and that's where food banks come in," said Kasandra Gunter Robinson, spokeswoman for the Capital Area Food Bank.

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