Along the 14th Street corridor, children filter down the sidewalk through the men and women clutching beer cans and huddled around radios. A tall man with slicked-back hair and a Bible in his hand barks into a microphone, "Ma friend J-e-e-e-sus can save you"; two teen-agers share a joint under the marquee of the Flamingo Playmates Club; a derelict snores, his face against the curb.
The children slip off the street unnoticed, into a gray stucco building at 2120 14th St. near the corner of 14th and W streets NW. Once inside, they enter a room with three rows of knee-high tables, a shelf stacked with Dr. Seuss books, a box of toys. On the largest table there is an electric frying pan surrounded by cheese, bread, peanut butter and milk. A brightly crayoned sign hangs over the food: "Are You Hungry? We are a Soup Kitchen."
It is not an ordinary soup kitchen. This one, which has no name, is, as the signs explain, "For All God's Children," 12 years old and younger, and is the first of its kind in Washington. The kitchen is run by Martha's Table, a nonprofit organization founded several months ago by Veronica Maz, a former president and founder of SOME ("So Others Might Eat"), a feeding and counseling house primarily for men, and the House of Ruth, a network of shelters for homeless and battered women.
"Through my work with women in the House of Ruth, I became aware of the great number of homeless and hungry children in the city--children that had been abandoned or passed from family to family," Maz said. "The focus of this project will be on poor and destitute children."
As the economy worsens and parents struggle to make ends meet, there are growing indications that adults are not the only victims of hard times.
According to Nancy Amidei, director of the Food Research and Action Center, a Washington-based public interest law firm, the combination of an economic recession and federal budget cuts has created a malnutrition problem for some children.
"Across the country, emergency food suppliers are receiving dramatically more requests for food; the District is no exception," Amidei said. "Pediatricians I have talked to say they are seeing more cases of malnutrition, children that aren't growing properly. Soup kitchens, places like the Salvation Army, serve entire families now--parents and babies--not just winos. The new poor includes kids."
Spokesmen for the District's three largest soup kitchens--SOME, Zaccheus Kitchen and the Drop-In Center (each serves more than 400 meals a day)--report a dramatic increase in the number of children joining the food lines in the last year.
"We're seeing more and more young people coming through our line," said Sister JoAnne, an administrator at SOME. "In the past one or two years the number of children and family types at SOME has definitely increased.
"I'm glad to hear of something specifically for children," she added, "because we have people with various problems in our line--it's a rough setting. It is not an environment in which you want to see kids."
The children's soup kitchen, which opened two months ago to serve children along the 14th Street corridor, comes at a time when federal budget cuts have sharply reduced child nutrition programs city-wide. The Special Milk and the Summer Food programs (each served about 10,000 youngsters) have been eliminated this year. The Nutrition Education and Training Program (NET) budget has been cut by nearly one-third. This program provides grants to teachers, students and food service employes who conduct nutrition workshops in District schools. NET specialist Cynthia Petty estimated the number of NET grants issued this year will be reduced by 50 percent.
Subsidies for the pupils who receive free lunches in the School Lunch Program were not directly affected by federal cuts, but the income scale used to determine eligibility was reduced, and thus, fewer children qualified for free and reduced-price lunches. The average number of lunches served daily dropped 5,000, or nearly 10 percent, as a result, officials said.
Lilia Parekh, chief nutritionist in the Comprehensive Health Care Program of Children's Hospital, treats about 25 kids a day for nutrition problems in the public clinic on 2200 Champlain St. NW.
"We see a significant number of cases of iron deficiency anemia--a result of poor iron and protein intake," Parekh said. "The hunger we see is periodic hunger: for instance, when a child's parents are unemployed for several weeks and can't afford to buy enough food during that time. We do not see outright starvation like in some places of the South."
Parekh added that there has been an increase in the number of unemployed parents who come to the clinic to be placed in one of two federally subsidized supplemental food programs: WIC, for Women, infants and children determined by a medical professional to be at nutritional risk, and the Commodity Supplemental Food Program, for low-income mothers and children.
When the children's soup kitchen first opened on Feb. 6, only four children appeared. According to Maz, attendance has grown steadily since then, and 30 to 40 meals are now served daily between 2 and 5 p.m., mostly to children from the 14th Street neighborhood. Maz is confident that "word on the grapevine," newsletters and volunteers leafletting communities will eventually boost daily attendance to about 400.
At the soup kitchen recently, Trina Faison, 9, burst through the door and dropped her coat on a table full of toy horses and cars. She paid two cents (an optional meal ticket fee) and a smile to Barbara Monahan, 27, the soup kitchen's director, and headed directly to the table stocked with food. Trina was cook-for-the-day. She plugged in the electric frying pan and prepared the grilled cheese sandwiches.
Her brother, Hezekiah Faison, 7, and cousin, Keon Sutton, 5, stuck wads of bubble gum on the corner of the table and plunged into the coffeecakes with gaping bites. Keon stuffed two of the tiny cakes into his jacket pocket: "One for Mom, one for Sister, one for me," he said. Hezekiah held a grilled cheese sandwich in one hand and drew "the Incredible Hulk" in green crayon with the other.
"The food is good when I'm hungry," says Hezekiah, "but (not) when Trina burns the grilled cheese."
Trina, Hezekiah and Keon live on the third floor of a red brick apartment building on W Street NW, one block from the soup kitchen, with Bessie Sutton, 41, and her brother, Hezekiah Faison Sr., 33. Sutton has been unemployed for four years and said she receives a monthly public assistance check of $489.
Sitting at her kitchen table, Sutton points to her locked door when she talks about her neighborhood. Behind the door two men are passed out against stairwell balustrades. Outside, small groups of men and women mill about on the building steps, passing money and turning away from patrol cars that cruise the drug-ridden area. Shrill laughter drifts through the kitchen window as three girls skip rope between rusty car shells in a littered alley across W Street.
"There's so much mess out there," says Sutton. "This place keeps them away from the street. And I'm so glad they get a good meal. There's times when I don't have something to fix. Sometimes there's just nothing for my kids to eat."
At the soup kitchen, Stanley Williams, 10, danced "the Rock" to music from a transistor radio, his mouth bulging with his second grilled cheese sandwich. His brother Anthony, 8, tapped out the beat with his foot as he arranged his vanilla cookies into a neat pile. They live around the corner on W Street NW in a one-bedroom apartment with their mother Edna Smith, 33.
Smith stood in her doorway watching her daughter Rosetta, 8, leave to meet her brothers at the kitchen. "I don't have a job, so things are hard," Smith said.
"I'm trying to find something at a nursing home, maybe--cleaning. Me and my three little ones live here and lots of times I run out of food because by the time I pay the rent and the food stamps run out, . . . there's just nothing left. You know, nothing at all by that time," she said. "I'm just glad when they can get a meal. She Monahan is doing a great job down there. She sent little Stanley home with some cheese and that's a big help."
Three floors above, Deborah Thomas, 27, lives with her mother, two children, Duan, 8, and one-year-old Terrence, and four children she is taking care of: Anne, Tina, Ty and Tiffany Smith (ages 4 to 8). Thomas took the Smiths (no relation to Edna) in after they were evicted from their apartment when their mother died three months ago. All of the children except Terrence attend the soup kitchen regularly.
She divides her monthly $299 public assistance check six ways and "that doesn't go too far. And I only get food stamps $140 for two kids," Thomas said. "Their father is elderly and he's trying to work but he knows nothing about combing a little boy's hair or cooking, so we just have to do the best we can. But sometimes I just don't have food for them, and what kid don't want something to eat?"
Maz and her volunteer staff have submitted several proposals for government funding, but none has been accepted yet. She estimates that $30,000 would be needed to renovate and operate the soup kitchen for a year. During the first month of operation the food was obtained at low cost from the Capital Area Community Food Bank Inc. on 2266 25th Pl. NE, and from donations by individuals, churches and schools.
Maz plans to develop reading, writing and life-skills programs for the children as soon as there are enough volunteers and funds. Ultimately, she hopes to make the building into an overnight shelter for homeless children.
"The soup kitchen is a 'carrot' for the kids," Maz said. "The food is only the beginning."