News & Politics

Helping the Hungry

Hunger Can be Hard to See, But the Need for Help Lasts All Year Long

It's naptime at Addison Road Day Care Center. The small desks have been pushed to the back of the classroom; toys are on the shelves. Cots are lined up, each holding a small child.

One toddler sleeps cuddled with a Barney fleece blanket. On the next cot, another child moves her finger along the outline of the flowers on her comforter.

"They just ate lunch," whispers Bettye Magee, director of the nursery a few blocks from the Addison Road Metro station. She's walking between the two rows of cots, waving to a few of the three-year-olds not yet asleep.

It's easy to drift off on a full stomach. The tuna casserole and buttered peas they finished were their second meal of the day. At 8:30 AM, the children ate cheese toast and smoked sausage for breakfast.

If they didn't get two good meals a day at daycare, they might go without. Many of these children need the center's meals to help their bodies play catch-up from what they didn't get the night before.

"When you see children eating like that–two- or three-year-olds who can't eat fast enough–it's an indication that they probably didn't get enough food the night before," says Magee. "We've had more than one child come in on a Monday morning crying and crying. We don't know what's wrong. Once we give them some food, they stop crying. Then we know."

You can't always see hunger. It's a problem that goes beyond the people who panhandle on the streets.

There's the elderly woman whose hypertension keeps her from leaving her Alexandria home to shop for groceries. Or the Latino family in Columbia Heights whose income gives them enough money to pay the rent and utility bills but leaves little for food.

The hungry live all over the Washington region. In Northern Virginia, almost 10 percent of the population is poor, including 16 percent of children under 18. There are 50,000 Montgomery County residents living in poverty, or 5.7 percent. In the District, one of every three children comes from an impoverished family. For a family of four, the poverty line is an income of under $17,650 a year.

The children at Addison Road Day Care Center live in Prince George's County, where one in four children is living in poverty. Nationally, the statistic is one in five. And of families who are receiving emergency food services nationally, almost half include someone who is working.

The children at Addison Road Day Care Center fall along these lines. Many of their parents have been through welfare-to-work job-training initiatives, which entitles them to childcare subsidies–but only if the parents' combined earnings are less than $23,000 a year.

Magee fears her families live on much less. "We have a number of parents who have real difficulty making ends meet," she says. "When I go to the grocery store, some of the prices floor me. A box of cereal costs five dollars. Two kids go through a box of cereal in a few days. I say to myself, how do they do it?"

That's why Magee fights hunger–on a small scale–every day at her center. If the children there weren't being fed, they wouldn't be able to concentrate. When Magee suspects a family is struggling, she'll go to the Capital Area Food Bank–where nonprofits and foster families can buy anything for 14 cents a pound–and put together a bag of groceries for them.

Poor families often rely on bagged food from local churches or social-service organizations to supplement their grocery purchases. At Bread for the City, an agency on Seventh Street, Northwest, in DC, pantry volunteers and staff give bags to 3,500 families a month.

"The average income of our families is $6,000 a year," says George Jones, the executive director. "They're not living well. Providing food can save them cash. Then they can use it for another daily need like medication or transportation."

On the second Wednesday in October, a line has formed outside the Bread for the City pantry. A dozen people wait for groceries. Packed in the brown bags today: a box of raisins, cornflakes, a bag of rice, a bag of beans, two cans each of corn and peas, hot dogs, black beans, vegetable oil, milk. It's enough for nine meals, although Jones suspects many will stretch it further. People arrive in droves at the end of the month once food stamps have been spent.

"Food stamps provide about three weeks of food per month," says Jones. "They have to find a way to make up that gap."

Miles away, Thomas Carrol standing in front of shelves nearly 20 feet high. On one, 680 pounds of saltine crackers are stacked. Next to the saltines sit 340 pounds of Wheat Thins and 839 pounds of Teddy Grahams. Nearby are rows of canned vegetables.

Carroll works at the Northern Virginia Food Bank, an arm of the larger Capital Area Food Bank. It's a 12,000-square-foot warehouse in an industrial area in Lorton. People from 185 agencies drive there to pick up orders of meats, breads, frozen pizzas, and canned vegetables. The Capital Area Food Bank, on Taylor Street, Northeast, in the District, serves another 500 groups. This past year, the two warehouses shipped out 20 million pounds of food.

Most of the food on the shelves is considered "salvage"–grocery items that can't be sold because of a past expiration date but can still be eaten. Nabisco donates leftovers from its Fairfax warehouse. Fresh produce comes from the Washington Area Gleaning Network, which directs volunteers to farms to pick vegetables left behind after a harvest. And the US Department of Agriculture's commodity-foods program ships items to the food bank for distribution to eligible nonprofits–those that feed individuals making less than $11,167 a year.

Organizations like Bread for the City are able to buy large quantities from the food bank because everything sells for 14 cents a pound–a minimal cost that helps the food bank to defray operating costs.

Looking at the walls of the food bank– lined with salad dressings, tomato sauce, and bags of rice–it's not easy to tell that food donations are down. But they are, 20 percent since summer. And since September 11's terrorist attacks, financial contributions have slowed as well, down 50 percent from the same time last year.

Organizations don't want to discourage people from giving to the victims of terrorism, but they worry that the nonprofits will be forgotten as holiday giving begins. Staffers at the food bank say because of the terrorist attacks, the need for emergency food supplies is greater than ever.

"There is a lot of wealth in Northern Virginia," says its development director, Christel Hair, "but there are pockets where people are in need. Some are losing their jobs. As they're laid off, they're going to come here."

Carrol's warehouse assistant Brenton Bartley is packing the last of 336 cans of applesauce into a delivery truck. He holds an order from United Community Ministries, a social-services organization in Alexandria: 336 cans of beef stew, 336 cans of corn and pears, 336 boxes of macaroni. Other items on the list: raisins, tomato sauce, rice.

"We're really pressed for food," says UCM director Jan Davenport. "These past two weeks, we had 63 percent more people lining up for grocery bags. They're coming in faster than we can handle them."

Typically families are needier in the summer, when children aren't getting two free meals each day through the federal school feeding program. The numbers usually drop once children are sent back to school. This year, says Davenport, the numbers never fell.

"Many are marginally making it now," she says. "If they are janitors or hotel staffers around National Airport and they missed a paycheck or two, it's hard for them."

It's another reason charities say they are in need of food and financial donations year-round, not just around the holidays. No one can predict when–and how low–the economy will dip, Davenport says. But when it does, she knows those affected will arrive hungry at UCM's doorstep.

Having acces to food isn't always about being able to afford it. Sometimes it's about being mobile enough to obtain it.

Maria Velez-Posada is an elderly woman who lives alone in a tiny apartment on 12th Street in DC's Logan Circle. She lives on a monthly Social Security check, with a federal subsidy helping with her rent.

Velez-Posada has diabetes and a problem in her adrenal glands that causes her to develop tumors in her legs. The condition keeps her from walking to the store even if she did have enough money to buy groceries.

For the past few months, Velez-Posada hasn't eaten very often. Some days she would eat a bowl of green beans brought over by her neighbor. Because she wasn't eating, she wasn't taking her diabetes medication, which she takes with food.

"Living on a fixed income is tough. Many have to choose between medication and food," says Charlie Parker, director of Emmaus Services for the Aging. "Seniors have a number of medical conditions that are exacerbated by poor nutrition. In children, hunger causes developmental problems. For the elderly, it's more about disease control."

Emmaus's work focuses on senior citizens in need. Those like Maria Velez-Posada wait for groceries that volunteers deliver to her door. Emmaus also checks up on the seniors the group feeds–helping if they're struggling to pay a bill, phoning to remind them to take medication.

Food is often a way to get through the door. Once inside, social workers hope to learn more about an individual's or family's needs. "Perhaps they're talking about being hungry but we find out that they owe back rent and are about to become homeless. We can help with that too," says Parker.

Robert Egger, director of DC Central Kitchen, has taken helping the hungry one step further. His program trains formerly homeless people to work as food preparers. They learn by creating meals to serve to the hungry. When they complete the 12-week training course, DC Central Kitchen helps them get jobs.

"If we just gave people free food, we'd make them dependent on us. I wanted something with a longer impact," says Egger. "Hunger isn't about free food. Hunger is a discussion about affordable housing, childcare, health care, and job training."

Lunch is just wrapping up at so others Might Eat, a soup kitchen off North Capitol Street. Father John Adams, who has run the organization for the past 23 years, greets volunteers serving "beef-a-roni," rice, and hot dogs.

Some serves between 800 and 900 meals a day. Most clients are homeless, and many are mentally ill. The group relies on volunteers to staff the kitchen–and provide the food.

"If we didn't have these volunteers," says Adams, "we'd be spending about a million dollars on food each year."

Organizations like Bread for the City, Capital Area Food Bank, and Emmaus Services for the Aging wouldn't be able to feed the hungry without the help of volunteers. It's not just donations that make a difference, says Christel Hair–it's people. The food bank puts to work the hands of 12,000 volunteers each year. They bag and deliver groceries, prepare and serve food.

Ingrid Calarco, the mother of two toddlers, drove to the Northern Virginia Food Bank in mid-October, dropping off several bags of groceries. She had spent $75 on juices, pasta, and canned vegetables. Calarco did it, she says, because it was an easy way to help.

The food bank and other charities that feed the hungry emphasize how much donations like Calarco's can have an impact.

"Every person's action has the potential to change someone's life," says Charlie Parker. "You never know when you're going to be the tipping point. You never know when you'll make a tremendous difference." *


How to Help the Hungry Around Washington

What can you do? Here are some ideas:

Organize a canned-food drive. Christel Hair at the Capital Area Food Bank can't stress enough how much community drives help. "It's some of our best food," she says.

Donate food. Once a month (or even once a year) buy groceries–peanut butter, pasta, tuna, meats–and drop them off at a hunger organization or at one of the area's food banks. The donation will be on the table of a needy family within days.

Volunteer your time. A few hours could help an organization sort food into individual grocery bags. Or you could make a weekly commitment to deliver meals to an elderly neighbor.

Go gleaning. Volunteers, often families, go to area farms to collect produce left behind after the harvest. Hunger organizations rely on gleaning to provide fresh vegetables and fruits to needy families.

Give money. Make a donation or give the proceeds of a group activity, such as a car wash, to a hunger organization. George Jones of Bread for the City says, "The group gets the synergy of volunteering together, and we benefit from the donation."

Giving an organization money to buy food is particularly useful. A donation can go much further if spent at a food bank than at a grocery store, with its retail markup. Cash also gives organizations the flexibility to purchase nutritional items their donations may be missing.

A monetary gift can go far. At the local food banks, a $250 donation pays for the makings of 1,500 meals. At So Others Might Eat, $500 funds a hot breakfast for 350 children and adults.

Where can you make a donation or lend a hand?

Many religious congregations have feeding programs that rely on volunteers. Call your local church, synagogue, or mosque to find out what you can do.

Some national organizations fight hunger on the local level. Meals on Wheels delivers hundreds of hot meals to the doors of senior citizens each week. For a list of area providers, check local phone directories or

Share Our Strength (733 15th St., NW 20005; 202-393-2925) provides grants to hunger organizations for necessities like delivery trucks, refrigerators, forklifts, and warehouse space.

At the local Catholic Charities (5170 Lawrence Pl., Hyattsville, Md. 20781; 301-864-3115), Self-Help and Resource Exchange Food Network allows needy individuals to pay $15 and volunteer for two hours a month in exchange for food.

Other good area organizations fighting hunger:

Bread for the City, 1525 Seventh St., NW 20001; 202-265-2400; Contact: George Jones. Provides food, medical, and legal support.

Capital Area Food Bank, 645 Taylor St., NE 20017, 202-526-5344, and 6833 Hill Park Dr., Lorton, Va. 22079; 703-541-3063; Contacts: Phil Borden (DC), Carmen Cruz (Va.). Two warehouses provide for almost 2 million meals a month.

Casa de Maryland, 310 Tulip Ave., Takoma Park, Md. 20912; 301-270-0442; Contact: Violeta Ruiz. Immigrant families get groceries and emergency food.

Community Ministry of Prince George's County, 311 68th Pl., Seat Pleasant, Md. 20743; 301-499-2319; Contact: Yvette Rawley. Provides meals to homeless individuals and families.

Emmaus Services for the Aging, 5 Thomas Cir., NW 20005; 202-745-1200; Contact: Peggy Parker. Delivers groceries to District seniors and guides them towardfinancial assistance.

Food & Friends, 58 L St., SE 20003; 202-488-8278; Contact: Jean Badalamenti. Delivers food across the area to people with AIDS and other serious illnesses.

Food for Others, 2938 Prosperity Ave., Fairfax, Va. 22031; 703-207-9173; Contact: Indalecio Robles. Volunteers distribute food to 16 sites across Northern Virginia.

Manna Food Center, 614Lofstrand La., Rockville, Md. 20850; 301-424-1130; Contact: Thomas Lawrey. Manna provides emergency food to families, delivers meals to community-assistance programs, and ships food to low-income neighborhoods.

Martha's Table, 2114 14th St., NW 20009; 202-328-6608; Contact: Juliet Orzal. A soup kitchen that also sponsors McKenna's Wagons, two mobile kitchens that feed 1,200 hungry every day.

Shepherd's Table, 8210-A Colonial La., Silver Spring, Md. 20910; 301-585-6463; Contact: Gretta Jones. Volunteers serve meals and give clothing to people who are homeless and unemployed.

So Others Might Eat, 71 O St., NW 20001; 202-797-8806; Contact: John Adams. Operates men's and women's dining rooms and provides medical, counseling, and drug-treatment services as well as transitional living programs.

United Community Ministries, 7511 Fordson Rd., Alexandria, Va. 22306; 703-768-7106; Contact: Deborah Halla. Food pantry gives bags of groceries to 50 to 70 needy families each day.

Washington Area Gleaning Network, PO Box 9871, Alexandria; 703-370-0155. Contact: Tom Chandler. July through November, volunteers gather produce left behind after farmers' harvests.

Calendar of Giving

Many hunger organizations see the most food donations around the holidays. But food can be in short supply the rest of the year. Here is what groups could use and when to give it.

Fall and winter: canned soups, beans, meat for stews, coffee, juices, hot cereal, turkeys, sweet potatoes, stuffing.

Spring and summer: pasta, fresh produce, packages of meat, cold cuts, breakfast meats, cold cereal, juices, bottled water, snacks for kids, hot dogs.

Year-round needs: canned tuna, salmon, and chicken; canned vegetables and fruits; jars of peanut butter and jelly; vegetable oil; tomato products; rice. Items are more useful when donated in family portions rather than in bulk.