D.C. City Council member Marion Barry called a news conference in a Northeast Washington food warehouse yesterday and denounced conditions there, saying they are a hazard to the city's needy who are supplied from the facility.
Barry, an announced candidate for mayor, handed reporters a letter he had written to D.C. Auditor Matthew S. Watson seeking an investigation of the warehouse and the food distribution program, both operated by the city's Department of Human Resources.
"This warehouse is in such poor, rat-infested condition that it has often been necessary to destroy food before it can be distributed to those in need of nutrition," Barry's letter asserted.
Barry also distributed a news release describing himself as "outraged by the gross mismanagement, sloth and criminal waste" involved in the program.
The warehouse at 1126 First St. NE is used for storing foodstuffs distributed under the U.S. government's commodity supplemental food program, authorized in 1968 to aid pregnant women and young children. The city has 23,000 qualified recipients.
While Barry was leading one group of reporters through the warehouse, the city's human resources director, Albert Russo, was in his city hall office answering other reporters questions about the facility.
"I don't know what Mr. Barry has indicated in his news conference, obviously. I'm going to take the high road on any issue of this kind," Russo said. "It would be totally inappropriate for me to attempt to politicize (this) issue . . ."
Russo suggested that Barry's charges were overstated, and said the city is near agreement to vacate the old facility and move to a former Hechinger Co. warehouse at 3155 V St. NE.
A career civil servant, Russo is an appointee of Mayor Walter E. Washington, who is expected to run for reelection. Barry is one of several announced candidates for mayor.
Barry, accompanied by three of Russo's workers, led reporters into the shabby warehouse near the Union Station tracks and pointed to cases of canned food marked with red warning labels.
The labels said the food - canned corn and apple juice - could not be moved or used until it had been tested for safety by the D.C. Department of Environmental Services.
Previously, Barry said, the city had to condemn 5,500 cases of green beans and 998 cases of potato granules. Many of the green beans cases still were stacked in the warehouse yesterday.
Barry said it seemed that much of the food became spoiled because the Department of Human Resources mismanaged the program and was slow to get the food to the qualified recipients.
Russo said that, despite publicity, many potential recipients have not taken advantage of the free food. He said nobody has gotten sick from eating food from the warehouse. He said some of the red-labeled food has now been found to be pure. And he said the city could not destroy the spoiled green beans until it got permission recently from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.