Since the novel coronavirus struck the region, shutting down schools, stores and businesses and leaving hundreds of thousands jobless, the phones have been ringing off the hook.
The calls are coming in day and night, three times more than before the virus, said the food bank’s CEO, Radha Muthiah. “Many often start with an apology: ‘I’m really sorry that I have to do this,’ ” Muthiah said. “They’ve never had to go through this process before.”
Muthiah says that before the coronavirus crisis, about 400,000 residents of Washington, Northern Virginia, and Montgomery and Prince George’s counties in Maryland were unable to afford enough food to feed their families all month. Now, she predicts that number will be 20 percent higher. Another 70,000 to 80,000 people will rely on the food bank — not just now, but perhaps for a year or longer.
And those who already used the food bank need more food. Previously, most clients needed help for about three to five days a month, Muthiah said. Now, as those families have lost all or part of their meager paychecks, they might need one or two weeks’ worth of groceries monthly.
It’s a challenge that Daniel Warshawsky, a Wright State University professor whose research focuses on food systems, fears U.S. food banks cannot handle. “We see food banks stretched over their limit right now in every single city across the United States,” he said, noting that food banks have carried a growing share of the burden of hunger in America as federal food stamp assistance became more difficult for some people to access. “They’re running out of resources very quickly. … We’re seeing here the limits of the nonprofit sector dealing with a crisis of this magnitude."
In Washington, supplying more food to a region that is suddenly hungrier is a tremendous operational and logistical challenge.
Almost all of the food that goes to hungry people in the area comes from the Capital Area Food Bank, a nonprofit group funded in part by the federal and local governments but mostly by private donations. The food bank provides the groceries for more than 400 distribution sites — think food pantries at churches and nonprofit organizations — throughout the region. (With many sites closed due to the coronavirus pandemic, some that remain open are giving out food on more days of the week and for longer hours.)
Where does the food bank get its food? About 20 percent comes from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and goes to specific populations, like children. The remaining 80 percent goes to anyone who comes to a food pantry hungry — no documentation of income is needed.
In ordinary times, about $2 million worth of food per month comes from corporate contributions — generally, items donated by grocery stores once the stores think they can’t sell them. But now, those grocery store shelves are being picked bare. Stores are donating only one-fourth as much as they used to give.
To replace the missing donations, and fill the needs of far more consumers on top of that, the food bank has to buy food. At first, Muthiah said, she ordered an extra 34,000 pounds. When she saw how fast the distribution sites ran through that, she ordered more than 3 million pounds.
But the same supply-chain snags that have kept grocery stores from stocking items like eggs and toilet paper during the crisis are hitting the food bank, too. Muthiah said that orders that used to arrive in two weeks are now taking eight weeks to be delivered.
The food bank’s data analytics team is constantly crunching the numbers — when what foods will arrive; how many people will be unemployed by then; how many people will have gotten their stimulus checks, and how many will have used them up.
At the moment, all of the region’s food pantries that are still operating are seeing tremendous need.
Monsignor John J. Enzler, chief executive of Catholic Charities D.C., said his organization’s food pantry in the Mount Pleasant neighborhood usually sees 100 people at its weekly distribution. Two weeks ago, 600 people showed up, forming a line far down the street. For the first time Enzler had seen, they ran out of food and had to turn people away empty-handed.
Prince George’s County Executive Angela Alsobrooks (D), who recently helped hand out 65 boxes of food in 35 minutes at Ebenezer AME Church in Oxon Hill, described the number of people seeking food assistance as “stunning.”
She said that Bank of America, the Washington Redskins and the Links, a women’s volunteer group, have donated to the food bank.
Maryland’s Department of Human Services announced Thursday that it would provide an additional 1 million pounds of food from the USDA to the Capital Area Food Bank and the Maryland Food Bank, which serves the rest of the state outside the D.C. suburbs.
Martha’s Table, a D.C. nonprofit group, normally serves 1,000 people per month at its food pantries, which look like small grocery stores. Patrons usually help themselves to the items they want. Now, with social distancing rules in place, browsing the shelves is impossible — too many people touching things, in too small a space.
Instead, volunteers wearing cloth masks work from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., filling plastic bags with produce and canned goods in a rapid-fire assembly line. Many say they started volunteering because they had extra time on their hands, with work canceled due to the virus outbreak. Some are recipients of food as well as helpers.
Each day, they fill hundreds of food bags and pile them outside. Patrons park their cars in the driveway or walk up. The demand is enormous: Instead of 1,000 bags of food a month, Martha’s Table is handing out more than 800 bags at two locations per day.
Some tell Tiffany Williams, the chief program officer, “I never thought I would have to come to a food bank.” They express surprise that their bags are full of fresh produce, not just cans.
Ramona Johns, who works at Martha’s Table five days a week and then comes in as a volunteer on Saturdays, greets every client at the Southeast Washington location, warmly encouraging them when they ask if they can take another bag for a daughter or a neighbor. The once-a-month rule is suspended, she tells them: Come back as often as they need. “Sometimes, they just want somebody to talk to.”
Michael Jones, 30, has been coming three or four times a week. Just before the virus hit, he moved from Seattle, where he used to sell insurance, to be with his family in Washington. He had found work for a moving company. But right now, not many people need movers.
Jones is caring for his grandfather and relies on the fresh fruit he gets from Martha’s Table. “I tell you what, I’m eating more healthy now,” he said on Thursday. “It’s another blessing from God.”
As Jones walked away, Lorenzo Shorts, 72, parked his car and slowly shuffled toward the table laden with bags. Johns gently chastised him for leaving his mask in the car. He’s trying to keep his huge family afloat during the crisis, he explained — he has 23 grandchildren. Today, Shorts will take the bag of food he receives to one granddaughter and her three children.
“I’m from the old school,” Shorts said. He’s accustomed to the way big families take care of each other — his mother raised 12 kids. “Our parents told us to help out people in any way.” In this pile of sweet potatoes, kidney beans and bananas, he sees what he has always known: Communities take care of each other, too.
Are you in need of food? Here is where you can get help in the D.C. region.
Check this Capital Area Food Bank website, which is updated daily, for a list of sites where any resident of the region can pick up free food. Most of the sites listed under “Community Hub Partners” at the bottom of the website are open weekly or more often, and require no documentation to get help. Just take home a bag of food. These hubs include sites across the District, Montgomery and Prince George’s counties, Alexandria and Fairfax County.
Do you want to help? Here is how you can contribute.
The Capital Area Food Bank’s need for volunteers is limited right now, because only a small number of volunteers can work in their warehouse while maintaining social distancing. But many local distribution sites need volunteers to package and hand out food. You can sign up online for a volunteer shift at Martha’s Table, or call any of the churches or nonprofit groups listed under “Community Hub Partners” here to inquire about volunteer needs in your neighborhood.
If you’re thinking about dropping off some canned goods or macaroni, you might want to hold off. Capital Area Food Bank does not have the staff capacity to sort food donations at this time, and it can much more efficiently order food in bulk. Your local food distribution site might be accepting donations; you can call to check.
Rachel Chason, Michelle Boorstein and Terence McArdle contributed to this report.