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The new face of hunger: Hispanic, employed, but still struggling to feed the family

Volunteers with the Capital Area Food Bank deliver boxes of food during a vaccine drive for Ward 8 residents at the Southeast Tennis and Learning Center in D.C., on, April 3. (Amanda Andrade-Rhoades for The Washington Post)

The new face of hunger in the Washington region is a Hispanic man or woman who struggles to feed their household despite working, according to a new report from the Capital Area Food Bank.

The 2021 “Hunger Report” comes a year after the organization released a July 2020 report warning that the coronavirus pandemic could greatly grow the number of food-insecure people in the area.

According to Radha Muthiah, the food bank’s president and chief executive, the organization — which has doubled the number of meals it provided in the last year due to the pandemic to 75 million — was not planning on following up on last year’s report so quickly. “But it became clear that things were changing in the region,” Muthiah said. “We needed to understand what was changing and what was staying the same.”

The new report, based on a survey of 2,000 individuals who access food through the food bank and its partners, shows the pandemic has changed the demographics of its clientele: Two-thirds of the individuals surveyed reported visiting a food pantry for the first time in the last year. Ninety percent of the respondents said their problems with food access were directly due to the pandemic.

The report also lays out the stark racial disparities of food insecurity in the post-pandemic landscape. According to the food bank, before March 2020, 59 percent of the people accessing food identified as Black, while 16 percent were Hispanic, 9 percent were White and 5 percent were Asian.

The economic consequences of the pandemic upended those figures. According to the report, since March 2020, 51 percent of the people attending free food distributions identified as Hispanic. The share of Asian food distribution clients rose to 10 percent. For Black and White clients, the numbers dropped to 26 percent and 5 percent, respectively.

The report also sketches a picture of the household makeup of the region’s food-insecure. According to the food bank, before the pandemic, 43 percent of the food-insecure population reported having children at home. Since March 2020, that figure has risen to 69 percent. Before the pandemic, District residents overrepresented the majority of the food-insecure population. Since March 2020, Virginia and Maryland residents now make up the main share.

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But perhaps most alarming about the new face of the region’s food-insecure is that they’re working. Before the pandemic, just 39 percent of the food bank’s food-insecure population reported they were employed; since the pandemic, 66 percent of the population is employed but still not making enough to feed their households.

“People are working, it’s not that they’re not working,” Muthiah said. “It’s that they are working jobs that are intermittent or pay minimum wage or less.”

The post-pandemic food-insecure are also much less likely to be enrolled in government programs designed to help alleviate hunger. For example, before March 2020, 45 percent of the food bank’s clients were also enrolled in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP; in the post-pandemic landscape, only 16 percent of the food-insecure population is enrolled in the same program.

“The report gives us some real basis for focusing on near-term actions that can be taken to support these communities in particular, as well as medium- and longer-term actions,” Muthiah said. “Our food-sourcing needs to be much more culturally familiar and appropriate.”

Some of those serving the hungry have picked up on the need to reach people closer to home. On Thursday, a local restaurateur, Mark Bucher, and elected officials of Maryland and Prince George’s County announced new efforts to connect Hispanic communities in the county with food, building on a program Bucher started during the pandemic.

Last summer, Bucher, owner of the Medium Rare restaurants, launched Feed the Fridge, an effort to set up community refrigerators in the region’s poorest neighborhoods.

“My theory was to take this community fridge idea that has really blossomed in Los Angeles and put meals in the fridges where folks gather,” Bucher said in an interview. “You bring the food to them, so they don’t have to come to the food. And the only segments that can do this well are restaurants. Restaurants got really good during covid at getting a meal to anybody anywhere.”

Lask week, Feed the Fridge paired with the Latin American Youth Center and Prince George’s County Council to open a fridge at the center’s Riverdale location. The newest location brings the organization’s fridge location up to about 22 across Maryland and Washington. Each fridge is stocked with over 100 meals each day.

“It’s a constant flow of food,” Bucher said. “This way takes the insecurity out of it.”

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