About half of the food bank’s 450 partner groups and food pantries are closed because of the pandemic — mostly because of building closures, a loss of elderly volunteers or a lack of funding. With hundreds of thousands newly out of work, the distribution sites that remain are reporting dramatic increases in demand, ranging from 30 percent to 400 percent.
Approximately 415,000 individuals are food insecure in the region, meaning they consistently lack access to meals. The food bank’s Hunger Report 2020 predicts a 48 to 60 percent jump in those struggling to eat in the coming year, after five straight years of decreases.
“The findings of this report are really quite staggering, and it was important for us to sound the alarm,” said Radha Muthiah, the food bank’s CEO. “After years of declining food insecurity rates in our region, we are suddenly seeing this incredible increase.”
The pandemic has killed more than 6,000 in the District, Maryland and Virginia, and infected more than 170,000. Since its arrival, the food bank has seen a 70 to 75 percent reduction in donated food. At the same time, communities that have traditionally not battled with hunger have shown an increased need.
“In the past, while there’s definitely been food insecurity in Fairfax or Montgomery counties, they haven’t had the highest rates,” Muthiah said. “But now in growth rates, the highest is in Fairfax. The second highest is in Montgomery.”
The distress was evident Tuesday morning at St. Mark the Evangelist Catholic Church in Hyattsville, where cars began lining up at 7:30 for the 9 a.m. food distribution.
By 8:45, 80 vehicles stretched down parallel lines in the parking lot. An additional 50 people stood on the sidewalk.
Mercedes Zelaya, 59, swatted the heat with a fan as she sat behind the wheel of the third car in line. A nursing assistant who has not worked in two years after an injury, she lives with her husband, mother, grown son and 6-year-old grandson. The pandemic’s economic crunch has affected the family’s work opportunities, forcing her to seek food wherever it was available.
“We have never been in a situation like this before, and it’s scary,” Zelaya said. “This helps,” she continued, pointing at the brown paper bags lined up on tables under the entrance canopy. Some pantries don’t regularly have vegetables, she explained. Others have vegetables but no meat. Others meat only. “You have to know which ones to go to.”
Two cars down the line, Jamie Perla, 41, and a friend waited. Both had been laid off because of the virus — Perla from a hotel and his friend from a restaurant.
“We’ve been coming here for the last month,” Perla explained. “It’s been difficult.”
The Capital Area Food Bank covers the District, Prince George’s and Montgomery counties in Maryland, and Arlington, Fairfax and Prince William counties and the city of Alexandria in Virginia — a total population of 6.1 million. It had already planned a comprehensive report this year that would rip back the curtain of the region’s economic prosperity to show inequality beneath.
Despite an average household income of $128,000 in the region, there are vast disparities in factors that play into food access, including household income, education levels, unemployment rates and life expectancy.
“If you are in Anacostia, life expectancy is in the 60s,” Muthiah said. “Whereas in Ward 3, it’s in the 90s. That’s only a 10-mile distance.”
Then came the pandemic. The virus triggered a steady stream of bad economic news — from layoffs and furloughs to the bouncing stock market — that “further exacerbated what we knew existed,” Muthiah said.
Feeding America, a national network of food banks, crunched the numbers on how the pandemic would change food insecurity on a county-by-county level. The predictions were anchored in a 1.5 to 4.8 percentage-point increase in poverty and a 7.6 percentage-point rise in unemployment nationally.
The food bank laid those predictions down on the region’s census tracts, showing a deepening abyss of hunger in historically poor areas and a wave of need sweeping into neighborhoods that are traditionally more affluent.
According to the report, census tract 13.02, in the District’s affluent Cleveland Park and Van Ness neighborhoods, may see a jump from 460 to 870 people in food insecurity in the coming year. Falls Church’s census tract, 5002, could double its hungry population to 630, from 310.
Doug Jones, a retiree who once worked in logistics management and now runs the weekly pantry, watched as drivers gave their names and popped their trunks. Volunteers placed a bag inside, containing rice, beans, spaghetti, a V8 juice, a bottle of vegetable oil, two toilet paper rolls and other items.
“This week’s the lowest amount we’ve given out,” Jones explained. “Most of the people we see coming in are Hispanic. And most of them don’t want anyone knowing they are coming. They’re embarrassed.”
Before March, the pantry fed 80 families a week. Since reopening amid the pandemic in mid-April, St. Mark’s has been providing up to 350 bags of groceries on Tuesdays — usually snatched up within two hours. The church has purchased $250,000 in food over the past three months, Jones said.
The accelerated spending and distribution brought St. Mark’s to the brink; in July the food pantry started a GoFundMe page for donations to stay operational, which has brought in nearly $5,400 so far.
“The demand has gone up substantially, and people have donated a lot more,” Jones said. “But it’s still just not enough.”
The food bank says any successful effort to feed the region’s growing population of hungry will mean retooling the current network and creating new options for getting food to people, including creating hubs with significant distribution capacities and sending out “emergency boxes” with 20 to 25 pounds of nonperishables for families in areas with limited food access.
It also means helping closed pantries reopen and keeping struggling pantries going.
“We are engaging with them now to determine why they are closed,” Muthiah said. “Is it because they don’t have volunteers? Is it because they don’t have funding? Is it [because] they don’t have sufficient storage space or refrigeration?”
The food bank also will be on the hook for providing more food out of its own funding. Traditionally the bulk of the food the organization distributed — about 63 percent — came from donations. The U.S. Agriculture Department provided 21 percent of the food, and the food bank purchased 16 percent.
Since April, the food bank has been purchasing more of the food — 28 percent — and relying on USDA programs put in place to offset the pandemic for 46 percent of its distributions. That federal program, however, is set to run out in December. Next year, the organization is planning to purchase 37 percent of its meals.
“Pre-covid we might spend $3.5 million or so on food,” Muthiah said. “Next year we plan for $16 million in food purchases.”