Gwen Bing used to be a secretary for the General Services Administration. But on Wednesday, she was waiting in a line outside a Southeast D.C. church as volunteers unloaded the contents of a box truck from the Capital Area Food Bank -- otherwise known as a mobile food pantry.
Bing was laid off in 2004. Since then, she’s had to confront a new reality: Getting food on the table isn't always easy.
“D.C. is one of the most expensive cities in the nation, so it’s really difficult,” she said.
In the nation's capital, almost 15 percent of residents aren't certain they'll have enough to eat each month. And that number is growing.
The USDA says 11.9 percent of all households in the District dealt with food insecurity between 2005 and 2007. In 2011 -- the most recent year available -- the number jumped to 14.7 percent, according to Feeding America, which calculated food insecurity numbers around the nation by measuring poverty levels, median income, home ownership levels, race and ethnicity data and unemployment.
That means nearly 1 in 6 D.C. residents don’t always know where their next meal is coming from.
Among kids, that number is nearly 1 in 3.
View Food Insecurity: DC Area in a larger map
The reasons for the growth are not easy to solve. They include rising rents and other costs of living in the District, as well as the difficulty of qualifying for food aid when working at a low-wage job.
But the solutions offered at Bing's mobile food pantry, and at the network of food-aid programs that supplement District dinner tables, are as creative as the problems are stubborn. One food-aid program pairs math tutoring with food help. Another is getting fresh fruits and vegetables into corner stores.
Allen Chapel AME Church leads off with a song.
No proof of need or residency is required to pick up food at Allen, located at 2498 Alabama Ave. SE. People just sign in, get a number in line, and begin with a prayer and a few hymns.
They pick from fresh produce, breads and other food set up on folding tables in the parking lot of the church where the Obama family attended Easter services in 2010.
The food makes a big difference in Bing's monthly budget. She pays $675 for a rent-controlled apartment in Southeast, where she’s lived since gentrification forced her out of Adams Morgan in 1991. And she doesn’t qualify for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, the program that replaced food stamps.
“I’m $3 over their limit, or something,” she said.
She was far from alone on Wednesday, when a line of people with bags, grocery carts and strollers curled along a row of parked cars. By mid-morning, 107 had collected food.
That number is lower than it has been recently, possibly because it was still early in the month, when SNAP benefits replenish. But it's still much higher than the crowds the church saw when it began hosting the food pantry five years ago, and they’d serve just 50 to 75 people a week.
"D.C. Is a Hard Place for People Who Are Poor"
The capital region has long been considered recession-proof due to the abundance of government jobs. But steady income levels hide another problem. The cost of living here has jumped, which hurts people who are dependent on low wages or benefits payments.
The average cost of a meal made at home by a food-secure person -- someone who doesn’t have to sacrifice in order to have enough to eat -- is $3.73 in the District, according to Feeding America. That's more than a dollar above the national average.
Gale is 62. Six years ago, she fell in her bathroom and broke her C3 vertebrae. She’s mostly recovered -- “I’m a walking miracle,” she said -- but the injury forced her into an early retirement from her job as a human resources specialist.
“I have enough to pay my rent and utilities, and after that it’s kind of iffy,” said Gale, who, like many people interviewed for this story, did not want to give her last name.
As she collected groceries at Allen Chapel AME, she said, “I don’t think I would make it without this. It’s no way possible.”
D.C.'s median household income was $61,835 between 2007 and 2011, about $9,000 above the national average, according to Census data. But even in D.C.’s toniest wards, the number of those receiving SNAP benefits has been increasing.
In 2012, in Ward 3, which has the highest average household income in the city, only 582 residents received benefits from SNAP, the program that replaced food stamps. But that's more than twice what it was in 2008.
In Ward 8, home to many of D.C.’s poorest residents, the numbers are up more than 60 percent since 2007 -- up to almost 43,000.
Loveval is one of those in the program. He works as a swing manager at the National Harbor McDonald’s, making about $1,300 per month before taxes for about 35 hours of work per week, he said.
Once he landed the McDonald’s job, Loveval, along with his wife, Laura, saw their SNAP drop to the minimum of $16 a month.
“Can’t do nothing with that,” he said. “What can I get for $16? A loaf of bread, a gallon of milk, and maybe a candy bar…. It’s a waste of time. I’m embarrassed to go to the store with them. Thank God for a job.”
On Wednesday, the couple was picking up food at the Allen Chapel.
They moved to the District from Texas a few years ago. In Texas, he could make ends meet, he said, but not here. “How can you pay $900 in rent when you make $8.50 an hour?" he asked.
It’s been hard for everyone the past couple of years, Laura said: “The cost of living goes up; the pay rate stays the same.”
When living costs rise, housing is the last thing that families with low incomes want to endanger, said Marian Barton-Peele, senior director of partner relations at the Capital Area Food Bank.
“What we know is that people will let everything else go. They’ll let food go,” she said. “The last vestige is having a roof over their heads.... People do their best to keep the roof over their head and their transportation.
"What [that means] is that food is left off the table," she said.
Alicia Horton, executive director of Thrive D.C., said her group’s target population is the homeless, but they’ve been seeing an increase of people who are just trying to make ends meet.
“D.C. is a hard place for people who are poor,” she said.
Thrive D.C. serves dinner for parents with children – the majority are female-led families, Horton said -- at its Columbia Heights location, offering after-dinner activities such as poetry reading and jewelry making. Bingo nights on Fridays are packed, she said.
Thrive also provides emergency bags of groceries any day of the week.
“We don’t ask a lot of questions…. It’s not an easy thing to do, to ask for help,” Horton said.
Keeping Kids Fed
Zante Woodward and his wife, Nicole, arrived at 7:15 a.m. Wednesday to wait for the mobile food pantry at the Allen Chapel AME Church. With them was their 11-month-old daughter, Zanihya.
“It’s best to get here early,” he said. “It gets crowded.”
Both of them are working, but their income isn’t enough to pay rent and buy all the groceries they need.
Woodward said he brings in about $950 to $1000 a month after taxes, and his wife brings home about $625. Before he got his current job, they received about $480 to $500 in SNAP benefits a month for them and their older child, a three-year-old son. They get about $150 now.
“Still being able to get [SNAP benefits], it helps a lot,” he said. “…It helps with keeping food in the house. You don’t really get much, but I make the most of it.”
They feed their family with a patchwork approach that includes SNAP benefits, the food pantry, and far-flung discount stores such as ALDI in Northeast D.C. and La Grande, an international grocery store in Riverdale, Md., although not having a car can make getting there a challenge.
Families in D.C. have to find creative ways to feed their children.
“I can’t imagine being a child and not knowing where your next meal is coming from,” said Barton-Peele, of the Capital Area Food Bank. “When you don’t eat, it’s hard to concentrate. A hungry child can’t learn."
D.C. Central Kitchen prepares 5,000 free meals each day and provides them to local kitchens, schools and rehab shelters.
“Most of the kids we serve are getting three meals a day at school,” said D.C. Central Kitchen’s Alex Moore. “We just make it so that the food shows up twice a day.”
While schools across the country have been implementing breakfast programs, advocates are getting more creative in providing food for kids even when school is out.
The D.C. Summer Meals program feeds anyone under age 18 who shows up at one of their sites at local churches and community centers, which often offer sports and other activities as well.
A USDA supper program also serves kids, as do weekend bags from the Capital Area Food Bank. The bags include one meal for the entire family, as well as “meal components that are easy for them to prepare if Mom or Dad aren’t around,” Barton-Peele said.
Food pantries at local schools -- such as Simon and Orr elementary schools in Southeast -- have the added benefit of getting parents more involved in their kids’ educations.
“The parents come in and choose what they want to take home. It’s more of a holistic approach, paired with parent activities,” Barton-Peele said.
The pantry at Simon led to an unintended bonus. The students there recently won a citywide math contest because preparation for the competition was paired with food distribution.
The students stayed late at school while their parents picked up food, Barton-Peele said.
The stigma of asking for food does remain for many, though Barton-Peele believes the food pantries help because parents are able to choose their own foods. “It adds to the dignity of the experience, being able to choose.”
"Maintaining the Safety Net"
That fear of embarrassment is a reason that Moore believes free breakfasts in the classroom should be universal regardless of whether students can pay.
“We've seen improvements where we do breakfast in the classroom,” he said. “When it gets switched to [being served] in the cafeteria, that increases the stigma. That means they are afraid to get in line and would rather go hungry.”
Few children were spotted at the Allen Chapel AME Church Wednesday, although Tiarasha, who didn’t want to give her last name, was there picking out food with her five-year-old son, Trayvon.
She said she’s been visiting the mobile food pantry for about five years now. She has three other children to feed as well, but said she said she wishes she could help others, too.
“I really think it can increase [the help] if we could donate. Sometimes I have canned food I don’t need,” she said.
Another mom of four, LaJuan, rested a box of food on top of her one-year-old daughter’s stroller while ticking off its contents: potatoes, onions, bread, bananas, lettuce and a cake.
Barton-Peele said the ultimate solution will be helping people make a living wage, but until that happens, city agencies and nonprofits are just trying to keep people fed.
“Maintaining the safety net is sort of the new normal until the real ideal, ensuring Mom and Dad make a living wage like most Americans,” Barton-Peele said.
Bing, the woman who was laid off in 2004, said she’s given up on trying to find a job. Instead she’s trying to help others in her neighborhood get the food they can’t afford. She collects it and brings it to those who can’t make it out to the mobile food pantry.
“And then with the sequester, they’re talking about cutting food stamps. What’s going to happen to low-income people?” she asked.
She said she’s more concerned about others than herself right now, and feels for those too overwhelmed to ask for help.
“I didn’t have a problem asking,” she said. “When you’re in need, pride goes out the window. It’s a survival thing.”