The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

1 out of 3 people in D.C. region face food insecurity, survey finds

Senior citizens line up to sample the fare at a Feed the Fridge station as founder Mark Bucher holds a news conference to roll out the free meal program in Washington in December 2020. (Bill O’Leary/The Washington Post)
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Nearly one-third of people living in the Washington region struggled to access food last year, according to a report released last week by the Capital Area Food Bank.

The analysis, culled from a random sampling survey of nearly 4,000 residents across the region, also presents a deeper illustration of how hunger’s impact has changed since the start of the coronavirus pandemic in 2020. The report found families with children and non-White families were particularly in need of food assistance, and that even individuals who have jobs are still going without meals.

Overall, the report lays out a picture of how factors such as rising rents, uncompetitive wages and an uneven economic recovery are continuing to fuel hunger, explained Radha Muthiah, the food bank’s president and CEO.

“This highlights that as we recover from this pandemic, we have to be incredibly deliberate as a community to ensure a more equitable and inclusive recovery,” Muthiah said. “One in three residents of the greater Washington area needed support in the last year getting good food on their table. There’s no way to get around how profound and staggering that is.”

With inflation hitting a 40-year high and kicking up the costs for food, gasoline and just about everything else, a return to “normal” times remains especially out of reach for Americans living paycheck to paycheck, or on their savings, like Khiem Vo of Sterling, Va.

Vo’s unemployment benefits ran out in September, and the roughly $50 he pulls from his savings account each week for food doesn’t stretch far at the grocery store.

Six months ago, the 47-year-old accepted a bag of groceries from a Loudoun County food pantry for the first time in his life. He has counted on that donated food every week since then.

“The price of food is increasing. Everything is increasing,” said Vo, who was a driver for an auction house for 17 years until he was laid off in April 2020. Without the assistance, “I could not afford any more, so I would not be able to eat too much.”

Food pantries in Loudoun County are seeing the consequences of escalating costs and say that people are coming back again for help, following record highs during the pandemic, to keep food on the table.

“We’re seeing people who we haven’t seen since the height of covid,” said Jennifer Montgomery, president and CEO of Loudoun Hunger Relief, a food pantry that serves Loudoun County. “They’re saying $5 for a gallon of gas is really hurting our family, our budget.”

Montgomery said the number of households in need has recently ticked up at the Leesburg-based nonprofit, where families can collect up to seven days of groceries, from peanut butter to bananas, meats and eggs, and fresh produce grown at nearby farms.

Before the pandemic, the group helped about 250 families each week. That number nearly quadrupled during covid. After taking a dip in January, the number of households “bounced right back up” in February and has remained consistent since then, Montgomery said.

Now the nonprofit serves more than 600 families and is helping 15 to 25 new households each week.

The same is true for food providers across the region. The Capital Area Food Bank is distributing more meals than ever before. The organization provides food for partners at pantries and distribution sites across the District, Maryland and Virginia. Demand spiked with the pandemic, and in 2021 the food bank distributed a record 64 million meals.

According to Muthiah, the sheer size of the hunger demand in 2021 was an opportunity to do a more-in-depth analysis of the issue. The food bank partnered with NORC at the University of Chicago, an independent research institution, to do a more comprehensive survey of the region. The food bank decided not to limit the scope of the survey to food, but to include other issues and outlooks.

“For us as a food bank, it has become crystal clear that if we want to help our clients and our community, there are root causes that need to be addressed.”

The results showed an uneven and divided region. Thirty-three percent of respondents across the region said they experienced food insecurity in 2021. County by county, however, the picture was varied. In Washington, D.C., the rate was 36 percent. Virginia’s Arlington posted the lowest rate, at 21 percent. Maryland’s Prince George’s County had 48 percent — the highest in the region.

Among racial groups, 55 percent of those who identify as Hispanic reported experiencing food insecurity. Fifty percent of the Black population reported the same, compared with 13 percent among White individuals.

The report also found households with children were twice as likely to experience food insecurity, and 61 percent of non-White households with children reported hunger.

Another stark result from the report is that many in the region are experiencing hunger regardless of their employment status. The report found 77 percent of people who experienced food insecurity are employed.

“There is a misperception that people who aren’t working are overly reliant on government or network support,” Muthiah said. “The fact is that just isn’t the case.”

Rather it’s about the “quality of the jobs,” she added. “One thing we have to realize is so many of those who are food-insecure have to hold down multiple jobs to meet the cost of living in our area. Having ‘a job’ is not enough to meet those needs.”

Muthiah said the food bank will use the data collected in the report to emphasize new approaches to how the network combines food with other services and support, such as food delivery or distribution at job development sites.

The organization has also offered the survey data to other organizations and nonprofits interested in sifting the data for their own work.

George C. Davis, a professor at Virginia Tech’s Department of Agricultural and Applied Economics in Blacksburg, Va., said prices are rising faster than wages, and that people will be doing all kinds of things to cut back on costs.

With food, there’s more flexibility in a person’s budget than with paying a mortgage or buying gas to drive to work, Davis said. People will be making changes at the margins to make their money stretch.

“Anything you can think of that would reduce your food costs, it’s probably being considered,” Davis said.

The region’s rising demand for food is felt at JK Community Farm in Purcellville, Va., which produces food solely for people who don’t have enough to eat.

With a staff of two and the annual help of about 4,500 volunteers, the farm grows organic produce, such as tomatoes, watermelon and sweet potatoes, and donates everything to several area food pantries. Groups such as Food for Others in Fairfax, DC Central Kitchen, Arlington Food Assistance Center and Loudoun Hunger Relief make weekly pickups.

This year, the farm will donate 230,000 pounds of produce, along with grass-fed beef and eggs, said Samantha Kuhn, the farm’s executive director.

“We are seeing food pantries need more food from us,” she said.

For example, the 150-acre farm recently had 1,000 pounds of kale, and the pantries snapped all of it up.

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