The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The pandemic intensified hunger in the D.C. region. Now, there’s a push to end it for good.

Upcounty Consolidation Hub staff members get bags together for clients in Gaithersburg, Md. (Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)
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One Friday last year, as the Washington region experienced its first wave of the coronavirus, the local grocery chain Megamart announced that it would be offering free food for two hours. Thousands of people showed up, waiting in lines that snaked through parking lots and onto roads. Helicopters from TV stations hovered above, trying to capture this surge in need, which, a month into the pandemic, was only just beginning.

In the D.C. region, one of the most affluent — and unequal — areas in the country, as many as 250,000 residents were thrown into food insecurity last year, a local food bank estimated, joining some 400,000 who had been struggling to get meals even before the pandemic. Buoyed by several rounds of federal funding, local governments and civic organizations spent millions of dollars to ameliorate this spike in hunger, drawing in droves of new volunteers and forming new partnerships with local farms and businesses.

Their efforts helped soften what would have otherwise been a full-out crisis, advocates say. And now, as the pandemic abates, it’s giving way to a new resolve to beat back food insecurity — permanently.

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“We’ve made all this progress. We can’t go back,” said Montgomery County Council member Will Jawando (D-At Large), who has worked with businesses and philanthropies to double the number of food distribution sites in the county. The pandemic, which dovetailed with racial justice protests last year, exposed stark disparities in the liberal Maryland suburb that were virtually impossible to ignore, Jawando said.

“You couldn’t turn away. You couldn’t look at those food lines and not ask yourself, what’s going on?” he added. “The past year changed us. … There’s a collective will now, I think, to make sure people have basic human needs.”

Ona Balkus, D.C.'s food policy director, agreed. “I don’t think things will go back to normal,” she said. “This is all out of the box now.”

America’s economic recovery from the pandemic has been deeply uneven, allowing the rich to recoup losses through stock market gains, while leaving behind Black Americans and workers without college degrees. Hunger advocates in the D.C. region say the need for food is still acute and are pleading with local officials to keep up their levels of food distribution and expand long-term food access, even as the federal government winds down emergency aid programs.

In Montgomery, lawmakers are weighing a new Office of Food Resilience dedicated to eliminating hunger. Neighboring Prince George’s County has set up a Food Security Task Force, and D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) recently allocated $58 million to build more grocery stores and restaurants in low-income neighborhoods east of the Anacostia River. Last week, the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments voted to make its ad hoc committee on food security permanent.

Much of the new support system will have to be financed by the government, said Montgomery County Council member Gabe Albornoz (D-At Large). But what’s also promising is the cohort of churches, neighborhood groups and other volunteer organizations that started responding to food insecurity during the pandemic — and intend to continue.

In Silver Spring, a Black megachurch that used to run food drives only on the holidays is now giving out meals three times a week at six locations. In Gaithersburg, a pastor who coordinated “grab-and-go” meals at a parking lot has set up a new resource center and hired members of the surrounding community to help run it. And in Germantown, a ragtag team of volunteers who started off distributing meals to a handful of families at a trailer park recently held a ribbon-cutting ceremony for their permanent base in a county recreation center.

“To me, it’s not an option that this ends,” said Grace Rivera-Oven, co-founder of the Upcounty Consolidation Hub. A Germantown resident, she stopped most of her consulting work when the pandemic hit to help distribute food at the emptied galleries of the BlackRock Center for the Arts. Her group went from providing meals for 23 households to 1,200, the vast majority of which have young children. Last November, the county asked if she could help replicate what she had done in Germantown at seven other locations across the county. She agreed.

“I’m in this for good — and them, too,” Rivera-Oven said one recent Wednesday, gesturing at her staff hauling bags of produce into cars lined up outside South Lake Elementary School in Gaithersburg.

There was Kristina Smith, 33, a former bartender; Justin Garcia, 22, whose last job had been at a fitness gym; Jonathan Marcus, 25, an aspiring medical student; and Marko Oven-Rivera, Rivera-Oven’s 24-year-old son, who had been laid off from his job at an optometrist’s office when the pandemic hit. The paper bags they were handing over to people had been packed by another staff member, Nikki Haddad, 58, who, pre-pandemic, worked as a personal chef.

Like Rivera-Oven, 51, they all started as volunteers when lockdown measures left them idle at home, without jobs. Now, they worked at the Hub full-time.

“Vente, vente,” Rivera-Oven said in Spanish, urging her crew to move faster as the line of cars spilled over into the next block. The group moved with the learned efficiency of an assembly line, giving out 400 bags in less than an hour.

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Many residents in this primarily immigrant and Latino neighborhood had been struggling before the pandemic, and others were tipped over into hunger when the virus made a landfall. They’ve had difficulty returning to full-time work as access to child care remains patchy, advocates say, and those who’ve found jobs are channeling entire paychecks toward overdue rent. One recent Friday, Rivera-Oven recounted, a mother who missed a distribution called the Hub in tears, saying she relied on the food to feed her nieces and nephews who had been orphaned when their parents died of covid-19.

Keri Amaya, 25, understood that desperation. Originally from El Salvador, she lost her restaurant job when the pandemic started and was among the thousands who turned up at Megamart in April 2020 hoping for a bag of free food. She had been feeding her 6-year-old son popcorn for three nights straight — saving almost nothing for herself — before she came across one of the Hub’s distribution sites.

“It would be really hard, really, really hard to survive if this stops,” Amaya said after a recent pick-up. Her husband has gotten some construction jobs recently, but they’ve been using nearly all of that money to avoid getting evicted.

The Upcounty Hub has no immediate plans to slow down food distribution, Rivera-Oven said. But employees are also starting to learn how to help people apply for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, which got a record boost from the Biden administration this summer.

“In an emergency, putting food in trunks was critical. But ultimately, the more efficient way to address needs is a full-service case management model," said Heather Bruskin, executive director of the Montgomery County Food Council.

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The nonprofit, which has coordinated food security efforts for a decade, is helping dozens of providers transition away from focusing on distribution and toward goals such as “food sovereignty” and “food resilience,” Bruskin said. In the short term, this includes training pandemic-era volunteers so that they become adept at helping residents fill out applications for food, as well as for rent relief, tax credits and health benefits. In the long term, Bruskin said, advocates want to make the region’s food system less vulnerable to supply chain issues by forming permanent partnerships with local farms and lobbying officials to invest in infrastructure such as food storage facilities.

“We don’t want to return to 2019 and the fragile state that our food system was in,” Bruskin said.

Some of these shifts are already underway.

The Manna Food Center, a Montgomery food bank, has gone from working with four local farmers to 30, and is expanding a successful pilot program that gave residents vouchers to buy food from local Ethiopian markets. The Rev. Ben Wikner of Cross Community Church said he is close to opening an “equity coffee shop” in the Lakeforest Mall, where he and a team of volunteers have been distributing food. The business will employ neighborhood residents, he said, and could serve as a site to promote government programs or as a platform for local entrepreneurs.

Since its first food distribution at a Prince George’s public school in March last year, the Kingdom Fellowship AME Church in Silver Spring has expanded to six locations, set up a fund that has raised more than $300,000 for supplies, and gotten grants and contracts to continue growing.

“I wish I could have said we had a grand plan," said the Rev. Kendra Smith, a leader in the 5,000-member community. "But we really just responded to the need.”

The church has gotten increasingly — and unexpectedly — invested in food resilience, Smith said. Concepts such as “food sovereignty” and “land sovereignty” are now part of everyday conversations in the sanctuary. The organization joined the Black Church Food Security Network based out of Baltimore and aspires to collaborate long-term with Black farmers, build a community garden and open a resource center that includes, among other things, a free grocery store with no cash registers.

“We’ve seen the injustice that exists,” Smith said one recent afternoon, referencing the hunger rate among Black Americans, which rose to nearly twice that of their White counterparts during the pandemic.

“So we may have started with food distributions, but this obviously is not where we’re going to stop," she continued. “The vision has expanded.”