D.C. hunger report details pandemic’s effects in city

Nearly 150,000 District residents have filed for unemployment insurance as business closures during the coronavirus pandemic led to reduced hours and layoffs. And many residents have applied for food assistance through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.

“I’m saddened by the fact that the numbers spiked up,” said George Jones, chief executive of Bread for the City, a nonprofit group that provides food, medical care and legal services to low-income D.C. residents. “But I’m not surprised, because we’ve seen similar spikes in our own food pantry and demand for food there.”

Before the pandemic, Bread for the City served 400 households in the District on its busiest days, Jones said. Now, the organization is distributing food to 1,000 households a day. The Capital Area Food Bank’s nonprofit partner network, which includes Bread for the City and serves the Greater Washington region, has seen increases between 30 and 400 percent, according to a spokeswoman for the food bank.

The D.C. report released Tuesday comes months after the Capital Area Food Bank’s hunger report from July, which projected an increase of up to 60 percent in food insecurity across the region this year. That report said the pandemic would push up to 250,000 people into hunger in the District, Montgomery and Prince George’s counties in Maryland, and Arlington, Fairfax and Prince William counties and the city of Alexandria in Virginia.

The pandemic has exacerbated food insecurity in communities of color, data shows. The Office of Planning report refers to a survey from April that found that Black households in the District were 13.5 times more likely to report that they sometimes did not have enough food to eat than White households in the city.

And Latino households were 6.5 times more likely to report they sometimes did not have enough food to eat than White households. The projected increase in hunger is consistent with what the Capital Area Food Bank found for the Washington region.

“This new reality magnifies the urgency of achieving true health equity in the District, with every resident having meaningful access to healthy, affordable, and culturally appropriate food,” Ona Balkus, the food policy director at the D.C. Office of Planning, said in a news release.

The report recommends increasing healthy food options in Ward 7 and Ward 8, which are the District’s poorest wards. Each has more than 70,000 residents, but Ward 7 has just two full-service grocery stores and Ward 8 has one, said Calvin Smith, the chairman of the Ward 8 Health Council.

“Because the median income is between $30,000 and $35,000 a year in Ward 8, there is not a great business case, as they tell us, for supermarkets to make their level of investments,” Smith said.

Hunger in the city appears to be growing most in Ward 7 and 8, which signals that other wards in the city are probably better managing the economic fallout of the pandemic.

The report also references a Feeding America report that estimates the child food insecurity rate will be 28.6 percent in the District, up from 19.3 percent in 2018.

The D.C. report recommends the city move to extend and expand waivers for federal nutrition programs. The District has received waivers from the U.S. Agriculture Department, including one allowing it to increase SNAP benefits to the monthly maximum for all beneficiaries. The District received an extension of that waiver through September and will be approved to continue issuing the benefit each month of the public health emergency.

Another waiver allows District residents to use SNAP to purchase groceries online, and another allows it to provide benefits to families whose children normally receive free or reduced school meals through the Pandemic EBT program. Families can receive $5.70 per child per school day.

The report on food insecurity is required under the District’s Coronavirus Support Emergency Amendment Act of 2020.

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