The Capital Area Food Bank’s new distribution center opens on Tuesday. It cost $37 million to build and is the size of two football fields, with a teaching kitchen, warehouse space and 13 loading docks for grocery trucks.
The center is immense, but local relief officials say it is needed to combat a “growing hunger crisis” in the Washington region, one of the most affluent areas in the United States.
The food bank, the central supplier for more than 700 food pantries and nonprofit organizations that help the needy, is set to give out a record 33 million pounds of food this year, up from 23 million at the beginning of the recession. Calls to its emergency hunger hotline are up 22 percent this year over last, officials said.
And it is not enough. Area residents continue to struggle, with some neighborhoods in the District facing double-digit unemployment, poverty on the rise and the cost of living high.
“We are still not able to meet the growing demand,” said Lynn Brantley, the food bank’s president and chief executive. “The middle class is under stress, and many people who have never needed emergency food services find themselves at food pantries” seeking help.
More than 680,000 residents in the area are at risk or experiencing hunger, including 200,000 children, according to census data. The food bank can only help three-quarters of the people who need assistance, Brantley said.
The 123,000-square-foot facility at 4900 Puerto Rico Ave. NE is designed to help bridge that gap. The facility over time will double the current food bank’s capacity, with more refrigerated and freezer space for meat, produce and dairy products; a roomy teaching kitchen for nutrition classes; and space for volunteers to pack more “weekend bags” of food for children to take home from school.
It will also provide office space for the 100 employees squeezed into its current space on Taylor Street NE. Space has grown so tight there that employees are used to having four meetings at once in the conference room, employees said.
The Rev. Eugene Brake, a Catholic priest who was one of the food bank’s founders, said the new center is a far cry from the leaky warehouse off Bladensburg Road where the original food bank was founded in 1980 in response to federal cuts in food-stamp programs.
“We had dented cans salvaged from food stores, whatever we could get,” Brake said. “It’s been an evolution.”
The operation has grown from a small outfit helping a few people a year to serving more than 480,000 through partner agencies in the District, Northern Virginia and Montgomery and Prince George’s counties.
Much of the funding for the building — more than $15 million — came from the District’s Office of Housing and Community Development. Donald E. Graham, chairman of the board and chief executive of The Washington Post Co., co-chaired the capital campaign with hotel executive J.W. Marriott Jr. and the late sports team owner Abe Pollin.
In 2010, billionaire philanthropist William E. Conway Jr., the founder and managing director of the private equity firm Carlyle Group, donated $5 million through his family foundation that paved the way for construction to begin last year.
“I think it’s great,” Conway said. “It’s too bad this huge need exists. . . . We’ve got a long way to go, but we’re making progress.”
Washington is one of several metropolitan areas that have built large food distribution facilities in recent years, according to Ross Fraser, a spokesman for Feeding America, the nationwide consortium of food banks. New food banks have opened in Dallas, Las Vegas, Orange County, Calif., and the Chicago suburbs as charities try to meet increasing needs and expand refrigerated space.
Although the local food bank will give away more than 15 million pounds of produce this year, it has had to use rented space to store the produce and other perishables.
“When our truck picks up food, there is rarely enough fresh produce or meat for our needs,” said Richard Gerlach, the executive director of SOME (So Others Might Eat), which serves about 800 daily in its District meal program. “It is often slim pickings when searching for a variety of canned and dried food at the food bank.”
Locally, efforts to expand the food bank have been met mostly with praise, although neighbors near the facility have worried about traffic, noise and rodents.
They say the food bank did not do a good job updating them on the construction project; food bank officials say they largely worked through representatives of the Advisory Neighborhood Commission to keep residents informed.
“We feel like we’ve been disenfranchised from this whole process,” said Denise Keels, 46, an unemployed government contractor who lives nearby. “From day one we knew it was going to have a negative impact on us, with increased traffic and rodents.”
Agencies around the Beltway that help the hungry say they expect the need to continue to grow. Robin Reeves, the program director for There’s Hope Christian Church in Gaithersburg, said the church served 300 Montgomery County families in 2009 — and 3,000 this year.
“People are facing an uncertain future, so it’s important the food bank is here,” Brantley said.