The queue at the Salvation Army on Sherman Avenue in Washington snakes along the side of the building, a string of forlorn men (and a few women) eager for what will likely be their only hot meal of the day.
As seats become available inside the dining hall, a door monitor lets in a handful more people. They eat quickly, speak little, and head right back out into the brisk December air.
It is a scene repeated many times a day throughout the city, and, with increasing frequency, throughout the country. More and more, too, entire families are turning up, desperate for a bag of groceries or a plate of food.
From Santa Monica, Calif., where the loss of food stamps for legal immigrants has hit hard, to Boston, where requests for emergency food have nearly doubled in the past two years, most cities are seeing a rise in hunger.
The good news is that supplies of emergency food are also up. Government at all levels has boosted funds; nonprofit groups are expanding programs and working smarter.
But people are still being turned away: According to the United States Conference of Mayors, which today releases its annual survey on hunger and homelessness, about 19 percent of requests for emergency food went unfulfilled in the past year.
"Agencies are reporting to us for the first time ever that they're actually running out of food and they have empty shelves, sometimes by the third week of the month," says Sharon Daly, an official at Virginia-based Catholic Charities USA.
What's going on? America is experiencing its most robust economic conditions in a generation, and yet is losing ground in meeting poor people's basic needs. Cuts in the social safety net - such as the removal of 975,000 legal immigrants and about 400,000 able-bodied childless adults from the federal food- stamp program - provide only part of the picture.
The No. 1 factor is low-paying jobs, say the Conference of Mayors and heads of relief agencies.
A family of three with one working adult earning the minimum wage ($5.15 an hour) is living below the poverty line - and money for food is often the first part of the family budget to run dry before the end of the month. Food money is also most likely to be diverted into emergency expenses, such as a car repair or medicine.
Some people receiving public assistance are finding the checks cover rent but little else. Angela Smith, part of the lunch crowd at the Sherman Avenue Salvation Army, says she gets $474 a month in federal disability, pays $440 a month for a room, and, for reasons she can't explain, was turned down for food stamps.
"I go for a free meal about three times a week," says Ms. Smith, whose two children live with her mother. "Sometimes I just don't eat."
Demand in face of reform
Welfare reform, which requires recipients to work and places time limits on benefits, can't account for most of the rise in hunger. Because reforms have just started in most places, it's too soon for most people to be losing benefits. And demand for emergency food began rising well before the national welfare system changed. Catholic Charities USA reports that between 1995 and 1996 demand for emergency food increased by more than 14 percent, from 4.9 million people served in 1995 to 5.6 million in 1996.
Some states, especially those with large immigrant populations, are picking up some of the slack and continuing to provide food aid for some categories of legal immigrants. California is spending $35 million of state money to buy federal food stamps for legal immigrant children and some elderly immigrants, though 178,000 legal immigrants are still unserved, according to California Food Policy Advocates in San Francisco.
Counties take charge
Some hard-hit California counties, such as Santa Clara and San Francisco, have used their own funds to buy food and set up new pantries in immigrant neighborhoods. In San Francisco, on the first day the new pantries were open, 300 people showed up. One pantry ran out of food.
The bottom line is that state and local governments can't fill the gap for legal immigrants, says Laurie True, research policy director for California Food Policy Advocates. "Congress needs to step in and restore these benefits," she says, noting that President Clinton objected to cutting food stamps for legal immigrants. "It's not something states are uniformly going to restore."
Congress, meanwhile, has boosted funding for the government's emergency food assistance program, in which the Department of Agriculture (USDA) buys food (some of it farmers' surplus) and gives it to pantries. Program funding in 1996 was at $40 million and is now at $145 million a year. Of the billion pounds of food a year that go through food pantries, USDA commodities account for about 10 percent.
But the nation's web of pantries is failing to keep up with demand. Mergers in the food industry and advances in the management of the food supply have resulted in less overstocking - and therefore less to donate to charity. Also, Americans are eating more fresh food and less canned, which means less storable food available for pantries. And more people are eating out or buying prepared foods to eat at home.
"So we're having a shortfall, that's the long and short of it," says Christine Vladimiroff, president of Second Harvest in Chicago, the national umbrella organization for food pantries.
Speaking on Friday afternoon, Ms. Vladimiroff said she had just received a call with an offer of 24 truckloads of fresh fruits and vegetables. "We can't move them until Monday, and they won't be fresh by then," she says. "By the time they offer them to us, there's a three-day window."