"My shelves are bare right now and I just can't get enough food in to feed the families that show up here," says Elizabeth Farrel, director of the Co-operative Urban Ministry's inner-city social service center. "When I get low like this I go to individual churches and start screaming."
The center, which operates out of a small storefront on 7th Street NW, is supported by a group of downtown and outlying churches in the area. Food, cash and clothing are distributed daily to an average of ten families and 50 individuals, Farrell estimates.
"And although individual churches do what they can, it just isn't enough," says Farrell. Most of her clients are there, she says, because of foul-ups in the local administration of the food stamp program, and until that changes "there is a continual flow of hungry people and the churches are all we have."
Farrell says the churches' generally lackluster response is due, in her view, to a variety of factors including lack of commitment, lack of awareness of the problem, and competition for church resources. She also feels that people have become immune to the call to help "the poor and the hungry."
"I just think it is hard for people to imagine the enormous number of hungry people in this city. It's American and it's just not supposed to be," she says.
According to the Hunger Task Force of the Interreligious Association of Greater Washington, a group devoted to a social action and advocacy, hunger is not only a real problem but has reached emergency proportions. The task force predicts it will get worse in early 1979 with changes in the present food stamp program.
"We estimate that around 10,000 households will need food when the working poor are dropped from the food stamp program," says Helen Brewer, Interreligious Association (IA) staff member.
The IA estimates there are 5,000 people in the city drawing from emergency food supplies and that the demand already exceeds the supply.
To prepare for changes in the food stamp program and to alleviate the present shortage of food at social service centers, soup kitchens, hospitality houses and church food pantries, the IA has embarked on a "Giving Season" campaign to increase congregation-level food collections and to obtain firm commitments from churches for a steady food flow. The campaign's objective is to have all centers well stocked with food by Dec. 30 and to have obtained commitments from area churches to maintain food supplies through 1979.
The IA's Hunger Task Force, established in 1974, represents a constituency of about 800 local congregations. Approximaely one-fourth of these congregations now contribute either food or money to area centers.
The supply problem results, according to Brewer, because the amount of food donated seems to depend more on the occasional generosity fo members than on an established commitment by the churches to the emergency centers.
"Many churches have food collections but it'll come in in dribs and drabs," says Brewer. "People are all feeling the pinch of inflation right now. We want to help people understand that they should give not out of charity but out of justice."
The IA's Hunger Task Force is now in the process of circulating throughout the religious community a packet of information listing resources and instructions for their food collection and commitment campaign. The group intends to hold open houses at various centers and will meet with local congregation members to educate them on the problem.
Brewer says the LA has no idea yet of what the response will be but she "was just down at a community center recently and a member of a Lutheran church in Reston was down dropping off some food and she was very enthusiatic about what we are trying to do."
Part of the education program involved informing church members on what it takes to feed a family.
During a recent visit to the Community Family Services Center on E St. NW., says Brewer, she found more soup cans on the shelves than anything else.
"You can't feed a family on just soup," she says, "You need a variety. We want to encourage people to donate complete boxes of goods rather than random items."
The Task Force recommends that a congregation commit itself to provide a particular center with a mininum of five food boxes a month throughout the year.
Another problem is the seasonal nature of giving. "During the summer when church members are out of town, the supplies really dwindle," says Brewer.
The end of the month, when food stamp allotments run low and families encounter budgeting problems is another lean time. The Zacchaeus Community Kitchen on L St. NW estimates that the number of persons receiving their free daily meal of soup, bread and tea increases from 200 during the early part of the month to 350 during the latter portion.
Although the Task Force hopes to relieve the immediate need for food, the basic thrust, says Brewer, is to encourage individuals to respond to the hunger problem not as a matter of charity but as a matter of justice. A paper in the IA packet states:
"Justice is based on duty; a duty to enforce a right or rights - for example the right to eat. It is a moral obligation; not an option. Even scarcity - for example of food or of financial resources - does not dissolve our moral responsibility. Rather, it intensifies the nature of the moral choice."