''Can I have a Superman and jelly sanwich?'' asks Ricky Henderson, 11, as he holds out his 3 cents.
''Sure,'' says volunteer Tom Sinclair, smearing peanut butter from a jar with a Superman label on some white bread and swirling some grape jelly over it.
Tony Thorne, 11, wanted one, too, and so did Rocky Brown, 10. Tony had 3 cents in his jeans to pay for his sandwich, but Rocky hung back, just looking.
At Martha's Table, a volunteer-run ''soup kitchen for All God's Children'' in one of Washington's poorest and toughest neighborhoods, no child goes hungry. After a minute, one of the adults noticed Rocky watching his pals eat and asked if he didn't want a sandwich, too. He turned his head away, looked down at the floor, and mumbled that he didn't have the 3 cents. ''You can bring it next time. Right now, you eat,'' said Dr. Veronica Maz, the kitchen's director, as she broke out the sliced bread to make him a sandwich. With the sandwiches (surplus cheese on white also available), the kids drank paper cups of red fruit juice or milk at 2 cents a cup.
''Martha's Kitchen'' is named after the biblical Martha, the sister of Mary and Lazarus who prepared a dinner for Jesus. At this point, says Dr. Maz, its founder, a former sociology professor at Georgetown University, it's too poor to have a real kitchen. But she's lining up a refrigerator and other appliances to make one soon. It is not the sort of government-issue effort that requires the needy to appear with their social security numbers, bills and receipts for the past year, and proof of poverty to be filled out in triplicate. It's a ramshackle gray building in the heart of the inner city, a two-story storefront that used to be a day-care center. Here, neighborhood children from 2 to 12 who haven't eaten that day, or who haven't had enough to eat, can walk in and find a meal nearly free.
A society that provided $5.45 billion this year for Aid to Families with Dependent Children and $2.8 billion for the Child Nutrition Program is somehow not reaching these children. Even with $452 million of the latter program earmarked for school lunches, $1.7 billion for special meals assistance, and $ 375.5 million for school breakfasts, kids like Ricky, Tony, and Rocky are showing up hungry at Martha's Table. Dr. Maz says that often by mid-afternoon the kids who arrive have not had breakfast, or they have not had lunch. Sometimes they have not had either.
''It's the only meal for many of them,'' she says. When the kitchen opened, a group of local teachers asked her to serve breakfast, too, because so many of their students were arriving at school hungry. But there wasn't enough money. According to Ed Cooney, a child nutrition specialist at the public-interest law firm Food Research and Action Center (FRAC) in Washington, there are 3.4 million fewer children in school lunch programs this year than last. Of these, 1.4 million children were at the poverty level, qualifying for free meals or reduced-cost meals.
Mr. Cooney suggests several reasons for this decline: the fact that 2,200 schools nationwide have left the program entirely because federal cuts in aid have made it too costly, and the chilling effect on low-income families of the new documentation requirements. Parents must provide their social security numbers, a procedure some consider a form of harassment. Others without social security numbers now assume they're ineligible, Cooney believes.
But a volunteer effort like the children's soup kitchen can stretch only so far. It first opened in early February with $93 in donations and only three or four children to feed. Now it feeds between 50 and 60 children a day. So far, contributions have reached $3,000. The rent, when it can be paid, is $650 a month.
The kitchen, open from 2 to 5 p.m., seven days a week, is in the heart of a poor inner-city neighborhood. The first day I visited the kitchen, just beyond the intersection of 14th and W Streets, the vacant, trash-strewn lots next door and across the street were filled with a couple of hundred young black men standing four- and sometimes five-deep in the spring sunshine. Some were simply idle, some apparently very much employed as one-man drugstores for the white and black customers who made quick buys from their cars -- quick because police cars frequently cruise the scene. The intersection is at the heart of the riot corridor of the late 1960s.
The day after my first visit, word got out in the neighborhood that a local TV camera crew was coming to film the kitchen. That night the police raided the corner, sweeping the drug traffic out temporarily with squad cars, drug-sniffing dogs, and a helicopter with a searchlight overhead. By the next afternoon the corner was nearly empty; the traffic had moved like a school of fish down one or two blocks and was gradually working its way back up again.
Dr. Maz is a veteran of feeding and sheltering the needy. She is the founder of two successful centers: the House of Ruth, a shelter for homeless women; and SOME (So That Others May Eat), a soup kitchen for hungry men and women. It is her hope that Martha's Table will eventually expand from a kitchen into a shelter that will offer a temporary home to some of the displaced children she's seeing in this area. She would also like to add a learning center, a reading center, and an interdenominational chapel.
''We are seeing some children here who are strictly homeless,'' Dr. Maz says, ''whose mothers or fathers have moved out and left them behind. The family across the hall will take them in and call them cousins. We're seeing more and more of that, situations in which the mother tells them 'stay here, I'll be back' and never returns. There are abandoned children everywhere.'' But she also explains that many of the kids who come to the kitchen are not ''street children ,'' but those living in poor families under crowded conditions who spend a lot of time out on the streets.
Nationally, those who run soup kitchens and emergency food pantries are reporting seeing more of ''the new poor'' - families with children who, under the new administration cuts, have run out of food -- says Nancy Amadei, director of FRAC. ''We have started seeing whole families . . . who have worked lifelong, lost their jobs, and when unemployment ran out and food stamps were cut back, can't get through the month.
''People with children might normally hesitate to go to soup kitchens, which are traditionally places where you see people who have no place else to go - the winos and bag ladies, the elderly alcoholics, former addicts, those with mental problems -- not a pretty group of people for children to see. The soup kitchens do exist to serve them, so when the churches and community groups who run them started seeing more and more children going through the lines, they knew they had gone a step further, in a new level of deprivation,'' Ms. Amadei says.
Dr. Maz, who calls herself ''the official scrounger,'' is now lining up not just more volunteers to add to the 25 already on the rolls, but also gifts of time, skills (a neighborhood woman has volunteered to teach crafts here, for example), money, goods for renovating the storefront, and clothes for a family thrift shop on the premises. The children's soup kitchen is also staffed full time by the Rev. Curtis D. McKinney, a Pentecostal minister who specialized in social action in Harlem for the National Council of Churches. Mr. McKinney had heard about the children's soup kitchen through a friend of Dr. Maz's and came to Washington from New York to volunteer his time.
''The homeless and the very poor need a great deal of love, need people who are genuinely concerned about them,'' Dr. Maz says. ''We have to help the homeless men and women, but we have to start with the children.'' Adults are fed at the soup kitchen only on Sundays and only if accompanied by a child.