Sitting in her car, Ivonne Peterson pressed her foot on the gas pedal to the sound of cheers and the sight of Jimmy Moreland, a cornerback with her beloved Washington Football Team, holding a box of fresh produce in his hands.
In better times, Peterson, 82, might have been waiting in line to watch the NFL team play, which she has done almost annually since the 1970s. But on Saturday, amid a pandemic and with two sons to help support, she instead caught glimpses of players after waiting two hours for groceries from a drive-in distribution event.
On this humid summer Saturday in Southeast Washington, Peterson was in the first of more than 1,000 cars that rolled up to the event hosted by Martha’s Table and Together Assisting People, a nonprofit that mobilizes athletes to support inner-city neighborhoods. More than 70 volunteers, alongside two players from the newly named Washington Football Team, handed out boxes of produce to a community hit hard by the coronavirus. In just three hours, they had given out more than 4,000 boxes of fresh fruit and vegetables.
“The need across the board is just breathtaking,” said Chris Rogers, executive director of TAP, who wore his national championship ring from the University of Alabama over a black latex glove. “Especially when you think about the pandemic and African Americans.”
As life during the pandemic heads into its fifth month, demand for food assistance continues to rise. In D.C., more than 8,000 people have filed for unemployment in the past three weeks, bringing the total number of unemployment claims filed since March to more than of 131,000, according to data published by the Department of Employment Services. Martha’s Table, which used to serve 500 meals each day, has ratcheted up its capacity to supply more than 2,000 meals daily, said Kim Ford, the organization’s president and chief executive. TAP, which had planned to host galas and mentorship events this summer, shifted its focus to food assistance, providing more than 600,000 pounds of fresh produce for families nationwide in the past three months.
Need is especially dire for residents east of the Anacostia, who have borne the brunt of the pandemic in D.C. Wards 7 and 8 together account for almost 30 percent of D.C.’s total coronavirus infections and 40 percent of related deaths, according to data released by the city. Even before the pandemic, the wards had the city’s highest unemployment rates.
The residents’ fight to survive the pandemic touched Moreland, a seventh-round draft pick with the Washington Football Team, who spent his Saturday lifting boxes of fresh produce into trunks of cars.
“I have family members losing jobs and asking for my help,” he said, taking momentary respite from the scorching sun. “When you see your community falling down, you want to help build it back up.”
In the three hours Moreland spent greeting residents, only a handful of people asked him about his team’s new name. “The name is just going to be the name,” he would tell them, glancing at the suddenly outdated Redskins pillows and car seat covers in many of their cars.
Tamika Kennedy, 39, brought two of her daughters to witness the explosion of positive energy in front of Martha’s Table headquarters in her neighborhood Saturday, where volunteers danced in the street to music blasted by a DJ.
“This is a great help for us right now with the pandemic,” said Kennedy, who has not worked since giving birth to her fifth daughter two months ago. Between food stamps and regular trips to Martha’s Table, the D.C. native has learned to cherish the days when she brings fresh produce home to her family.
Skyler Kennedy, 6, and Justyce Kennedy, 3, had waited for an hour in the back seat of their mom’s car to pick up food, clicking through YouTube videos in their matching blue jumpsuits and bright red masks. But the girls would know the wait was worth it, Tamika Kennedy said, when they could sink their teeth into a juicy piece of watermelon, Skyler’s favorite fruit.
Correction: An earlier version of this story said Jimmy Moreland was drafted to the Washington Football Team as a first-round pick. He was a seventh-round draft pick. This story has been updated.