In the parking lot of St. Matthew's United Methodist Church in Annandale on Saturday morning, the Rev. Ken Jackson led 50 parishioners in a short prayer as a tractor-trailer rumbled nearby.
"Lord, help us bag these potatoes," he said, "so we can feed many of your children."
With that, the tractor-trailer tipped its load and a thick river of golden-brown sweet potatoes tumbled onto the asphalt.
The cheering crowd swarmed over the 40,000-pound pile, shoving sweet potatoes into red mesh bags that would then be trucked to area hunger-relief organizations.
The "potato drop" was one of more than a dozen activities in the Washington area -- and hundreds nationwide -- held in recent days in connection with today's National Hunger Awareness Day. Hunger-relief groups nationwide are converging on the Washington area to push for increased funding for hunger organizations.
In its fourth year, the event is sponsored by a dozen groups of various types, including America's Second Harvest and other anti-hunger organizations. The National Association of Letter Carriers, the U.S. Conference of Mayors and the National Restaurant Association also are among the sponsors.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, 11.2 percent of U.S. households report at least occasional hunger or concern that they will run out of food. Among households in the District, the figure was 9 percent; in Virginia, 8.4 percent; and in Maryland, 7.7 percent.
An interfaith service at Washington National Cathedral was held last night, and a "rally against hunger" was expected to draw 1,500 supporters to MCI Center today. Lobbying on Capitol Hill was planned for today as well.
Also on the Hill today, volunteers will gather at Upper Senate Park to bag 45,000 pounds of potatoes in 10-pound sacks for the Capital Area Food Bank and other local food organizations.
Skeptics have questioned the usefulness of such anti-hunger efforts, arguing that the problem is more often one of quality than quantity.
"Poor people suffer from the same nutrition problems that non-poor people do . . . over-consumption of food," said Robert Rector, who studies domestic policy issues for the Heritage Foundation.
But anti-hunger groups say that use of food pantries and other programs has soared in recent years.
More than $2 billion in privately collected food and cash goes to anti-hunger groups each year -- most of it donations of surpluses from large food companies and some of it from local food drives. Potato drops are one way to publicize the cause, according to the Society of St. Andrew, a Christian group in Big Island, Va., that salvages fresh produce.
Each year, its Potato Project ships 15 million to 25 million pounds of potatoes -- rejected by commercial food companies because of imperfections -- to local groups, which bag and distribute them to hunger-relief groups.
Food banks say they're happy to get potatoes, although they could use more fresh produce and foods that are high in protein, such as canned chicken and tuna.
Lynn Brantley, chief executive of the Capital Area Food Bank, which distributes 20 million pounds of food annually to 700 food programs, estimates that the 2,000 bags of potatoes her group will get from the Capitol Hill drop will be distributed to community groups in about a week.
Jessey Heigh, 9, carries sweet potatoes that she bagged to a pile for loading.