The Washington Post

Even in well-off Fairfax, more people need charity to feed their families

Shirley Kearney, 61, looks over items at Lorton Community Action Center’s food pantry on Thursday. She said she went grocery shopping at the charity in southern Fairfax County because her Social Security disability check doesn’t stretch far enough to feed the grandson she is raising. Even in Fairfax, which is America’s fifth richest county, many of the unemployed, elderly and working poor depend on philanthropy to eat. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)

Emiliana Segura, 57, came for free groceries after her work caring for the elderly dried up four months ago.

Shirley Kearney, 61, who also tapped the charity food pantry in southern Fairfax County, said her Social Security disability check didn’t stretch far enough to feed the grandson she’s raising.

Robert McCartney is The Post’s senior regional correspondent, covering politics and policy in the greater Washington, D.C area. View Archive

Ervin Asaka, 43, was there because his job as an Army medical records technician at nearby Fort Belvoir doesn’t fully cover the cost of supporting five kids at home.

At the daily grocery distribution Thursday morning in a cramped trailer behind the Lorton public library on Route 1, people’s stories illustrated the hardships of an uneven economic recovery.

Even in America’s fifth richest county, many of the unemployed, elderly and working poor depend on philanthropy to eat.

Ervin Asaka, 43, picks up food for his family and others at the Lorton Community Action Center on Thursday. Asaka said his job as an Army medical records technician at nearby Fort Belvoir doesn’t fully cover the cost of supporting five kids at home. “Trying to make everything last is hard,” he said. “Without this, we wouldn’t be able to do it.” (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)

“We get help so we don’t have to go broke with our grocery bills,” Asaka said.

Obtaining meat was most important, he said. Asaka went home Thursday with three pounds of ground beef, along with bread, crackers and a big can of mixed greens.

“Trying to make everything last is hard,” he said. “Without this, we wouldn’t be able to do it.”

The need continues to grow. The Fairfax pantry, operated by the Lorton Community Action Center, has seen a jump in visitors, from about 190 families a week in September to between 220 and 225 today.

“We have to focus a lot of energy to make sure we have enough food for people when they show up,” Executive Director Linda Patterson said.

Federal lawmakers added to the burden last year when they cut food stamps and chose not to extend long-term unemployment benefits. Our area’s high cost of living is also partly to blame.

But another big reason is simply that many low-wage jobs don’t pay enough for families to be self-supporting.

“There’s this erroneous notion that these people are slackers,” Patterson said. “These are the folks who are serving you at McDonald’s or Target, who are driving your kids’ school buses. They desperately want it to be different, but they’re trapped by this economy.”

The rising demand and threat of more food stamp cuts provided a worrisome backdrop for Friday’s “Hunger Summit” of the Capital Area Food Bank.

More than 300 local food providers attended the event at the food bank’s giant warehouse in Northeast Washington. It’s our region’s central source of food for the poor, and it distributed 45 million pounds of groceries last year to local food banks and food pantries.

When the food bank surveyed 120 of its partner agencies in January and February, many reported increases in demand of 25 percent or more.

“It’s very frustrating, because the numbers keep rising and rising and rising,” said Marian Barton Peele, senior director of partners and programs. “At some point, you think the system’s got to change. . . . You’ve got to create a system that allows people to work and make a living wage so they can put a roof over their heads and feed themselves.”

At a food pantry in Suitland in Prince George’s County, demand during its twice-monthly distributions has more than doubled since December.

“A majority of it is due to termination of unemployment benefits, lack of jobs and people still being laid off jobs,” said Wessita McKinley, founder of Sistas United, the community group that operates the pantry.

The strains on society aren’t only financial. The one-day summit looked mainly at how undernourishment and unsound eating habits harm poor people’s health.

It included seminars on how the wrong diet contributes to diabetes, heart disease, depression and slow mental development in children.

“Bad nutrition leads to chronic illness like hypertension or diabetes,” Peele said. “That’s a whole additional world of cost.”

A bright spot in this generally dismal picture is the attitude of the food bank clients themselves. For the most part, they are deeply grateful for the assistance.

Kearney, the grandmother who is dependent on her Social Security check, expressed appreciation for the Lorton pantry and said she was just happy to have a roof.

“Coming to the pantry, it helps me a great deal,” Kearney said. “I’m able to do the necessities — food, shelter.”

Shopping for new clothes “is not one of my privileges,” she said. “I don’t have any luxuries.”

But, she stressed, “I’m not complaining. It’s still a blessing. I’m not outside.”

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