Solving Hunger East of the River

The Triumphs and Struggles with Food Assistance
Photograph By
Candace Y.A. Montague

Wanda Flibbonds, Site Director, heads the Summer Enrichment and After School Programs for the Frederick Douglass Community Center.

Food insecurity was and still remains a grave concern for many families. Although there are programs available to assist in times of trouble, the need has grown and the suppliers are overwhelmed with requests. 

Capital Area Food Bank offers assistance to organizations all across the metropolitan area.  They help stock the shelves for groups that serve the families, the elderly, and the disabled. But beyond the benevolence of CAFB there is a reality that leaves some families constantly worried that their food will run out. 

Together We Can Solve Hunger

Capital Area Food Bank is the area’s largest hunger relief organization apportioning 45 million pounds of food every year across the District, Prince George’s County, Montgomery County and Northern Virginia. The non-profit organization, now in it’s 34th year of existence, partners with 500 agencies including soup kitchens, food pantries, homeless shelters, faith-based organizations and more. CAFB has several programs to address hunger among the estimated 31,000 kids who are hungry in the city. Although the Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) program and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance (SNAP) Program help, it isn’t enough. 

 Nancy Roman, President and CEO of the Capital Area Food Bank, says their non-profit helps other organizations fill in those gaps. “We don’t exist in substitution of Federal Programs; we complement them. We don’t want there to be any square mile where there are people without access to the food they need. People aren’t aware of the stories of hunger around the city. The need is real and palpable.”

In addition to training programs that show community partners how to teach parents to create healthy meals at home with a few ingredients, CAFB offers free programs such as Kids Café, Weekend Bags, and the Summer Meal Program that provides breakfast and lunch to summer programs all over the city. “People aren’t aware of how much the school infrastructure provides a safety net around children.  They may live with a single parent who works a lot and there isn’t much food in the household. So we have expanded to put programs into parks and recreation programs,” says Roman. CAFB provides food assistance to more than 150 partner agencies, 14 kids’ afterschool programs, and 21 kids’ summer programs in the District

Reaping the Benefits

Approximately 10 miles across the city, there is a community center next door to the historic Fredrick Douglass Home that hosts many of the neighborhood kids after school and during the summer. The Frederick Douglass Community Center provides a summer enrichment program for elementary school aged children to come to during the day.  In Ward 8, it is estimated that 49% of the children live in poverty so it is critical that any program that will host children all day offer free meals. Wanda Flibbonds, Site Director for the Community Center, says the meals provided by the center, like the weekend bags, help families get by during the rough times. “Parents rely on those bags. Kids may not want to take it home. They’ll call me and say ‘if my child doesn’t want to bring that bag home, call me. I’ll come get it.”

Wards 7 and 8 are often decried for being food insecure areas with little promise of change.  Having the Capital Area Food Bank supply food for programs such as the Frederick Douglass Community Center has been a welcomed ‘blessing’ that fills in the gaps. “The meals and weekend bags help parents because between shopping times things may get tight and those bags usually has something in it to help stretch a meal. Tuna fish, snack bars, soup, etc.  A lot of them appreciate it.”  FDCC also offers supper meals during the school year in their afterschool program.

A paper trail to nowhere 

What’s the hold up for food for families in poverty? Government programs supplement household budgets so parents can spend less of their money on food. So why would children be hungry? One obstacle that impedes progress is processing forms for SNAP benefit.

According to the DC Human Services Economic Security Administration, in fiscal year 2011 alone over 135,000 DC residents benefited from SNAP.  Hundreds of applications are received and processed every month.  DC Fiscal Policy Institute and the Legal Aid Society of the District of Columbia published a report in May 2014 entitled Closing the Gap Between Policy and Reality: Preventing Wrongful Denials and Terminations of Public Benefits in the District of Columbia.  The report asserted that lost applications and recertification documents, inaccurate information and long wait times have interrupted SNAP benefits for families across the city. And while caseworkers and clients struggle with paperwork blunders, food becomes more and more scarce in households. 

Chelsea Sharon, Staff Attorney at Legal Aid Society says there are several possibilities for why paperwork isn’t processed in a timely manner. “Families experience many barriers to getting and keeping public benefits like SNAP.  The report shows some of these reasons include: long lines at service centers that require families to choose between getting and keeping benefits and getting and keeping their jobs; language access problems; paperwork that is lost or not processed in a timely manner; and difficulty receiving accurate information from government agencies.” It can be a frustrating process. When charity runs out and relatives are tapped out, what will the children eat while their parents are waiting for application approval?

It seems unlikely that things will change for the better in the future.  Last fall, Congress voted to cut $39 billion dollars from the SNAP budget over the next ten years. Reduction in benefits undoubtedly means a dire need for more food assistance, more educational opportunities, job training and help with financial literacy so that families can achieve independence.

For more information about the Capital Area Food Bank and how you can donate or volunteer, visit  www.capitalareafoodbank.org.

Capital Area Food Bank stocks storage shelves with donations from food drives and individual donors.
Capital Area Food Bank volunteer moves produce to the cooler area.

Candace Y.A. Montague is the health reporter for Capital Community News.


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