With all the new restaurants and grocery stores opening in the District, you might not think that hunger is a problem in the city. But Beverley Wheeler, director of D.C. Hunger Solutions, wants you to see the situation from her perspective.
When the Census Bureau reported last week that poverty in the District had increased from 18 percent in 2015 to 18.6 percent in 2016, Wheeler saw consequences beyond what might appear to be a small uptick.
“It’s a fact that hunger and poverty go hand in hand,” she said. “With any increase in poverty, we can expect more hunger, higher rates of diabetes, obesity and behavior problems.”
The census findings, part of the bureau’s annual American Community Survey, also noted that the poverty rate for African Americans in the District was 27.9 percent, nearly four times higher than the 7.9 percent for whites.
The median income in the District was $75,506. That’s one of the highest in the nation and a driving force behind a wide range of new food choices being offered in a rapidly gentrifying city.
But the median income for white households in the District was $125,747, compared with $37,891 for African American households. Wheeler called that disparity “shocking” — and the likely results disheartening.
“We know that when there is not enough food, parents will not eat so they can feed their children,” Wheeler said. “That affects the parents’ job performance and makes the children anxious knowing that Mom and Dad are not eating. Teenagers will not eat so that their younger siblings can. That affects the way teens perform at school. Senior citizens will go hungry and suffer in silence.”
According to a report updated this year by D.C. Hunger Solutions, 1 in 7 D.C. households experiences some form of “food insecurity.” The term, coined by the U.S. Agriculture Department, means having difficulty getting the necessary food to lead a healthy life.
“Poverty and economic inequity have resulted in many District residents not having access to grocery stores and the resources to purchase enough food,” she said.
The report also showed that of the 49 full-service grocery stores in the District, only three are located in Wards 7 and 8, both predominantly black neighborhoods east of the Anacostia River.
By comparison, in more affluent Ward 6 just west of the river, an estimated 80,000 residents were served by at least 10 full-service grocery stores.
Some would say that’s how capitalism works: The haves have, the have-nots don’t. Besides, there are federal food subsidies and charitable organizations to help the poor.
In response to such arguments, Wheeler cites a study by D.C. Hunger Solutions that found nearly 27 percent of families with children in the District had experienced periods between 2014 and 2015 when they were unable to afford food.
“My question is how can there be any hunger in the capital of the wealthiest, most powerful country in the world?” Wheeler said.
Wheeler, a native of the District, grew up in Ward 7. Her mother was director of nursing education at Howard University, and her father was a U.S. Capitol Police officer.
Earlier in her career, before taking over the reins at D.C. Hunger Solutions two years ago, she was CEO of the Center City Public Charter Schools system.
“I would see kids headed to school with orange fingers and orange tongues,” she recalled. “Those were indicators of Cheetos and Fanta soda for breakfast.”
She recalled that some federal food-subsidy programs lasted only two weeks and that teachers could often tell when it ended. “Around the third and fourth week of the month, you’d have students starting to act up in class. In some schools, those students might be referred to a special-education program. But the problem was that they were hungry.”
Wheeler says her goal is to find ways to make healthy food accessible to everyone.
She wants schools and day-care centers to serve breakfast, lunch and after-school meals. She wants senior citizens to take advantage of federal food programs and not “go hungry because they think they are taking food from someone who needs it more.”
She wants to find transportation services that will take people to quality grocery stores or deliver the food to them.
It should go without saying that eating nutritious food is fundamental to a healthy life — to life itself. Many take that for granted. Not everybody can afford to.
As Wheeler sees it, something must be done about economic disparity. But in the meantime, the disparity should not be a reason that so many go hungry. As more people come to realize the magnitude of the problem, she believes they will agree.
“We are a compassionate people,” Wheeler said. “We just need to wake up.”
Correction: A previous version of this story misspelled Wheeler’s first name in the photo caption. This version has been updated.
To read previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/milloy.