Carolyn Kaster/AP/File
Student volunteers sort nonperishable food at Capital Area Food Bank in Washington, D.C., March 19, 2020. The organization serves those who are food insecure, offering dry goods and produce at several locations and through its delivery service.

For the newly food insecure, help that preserves dignity

As job losses rose in 2020, so did the number of Americans facing food insecurity. DC Central Kitchen expanded from job training to emergency feeding.

For the newly food insecure, help that preserves dignity

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Odessa Davis is used to helping families as a public school teacher and summer camp director in Maryland’s Montgomery County. But when the pandemic forced camps to close, the single mother realized her own family was in need. So she swallowed her pride and sought help to feed her 11-year-old son.

Ms. Davis is one of many Americans who struggled to put food on the table for the first time during the past year. As job losses skyrocketed, the number of Americans facing food insecurity reached 265 million in 2020, according to a Northwestern University estimate.

To meet the rising demand, relief organizations had to get creative. In Washington, D.C., Capital Area Food Bank teamed up with Goodwill to distribute pre-packed boxes of food to families like Ms. Davis’.

Hilary Salmon, communications director of Capital Area Food Bank, says helping people work past the stigma of asking for help is an important step in combating hunger. “There’s nothing more important than making sure you and your family are getting your basic needs met,” says Ms. Salmon. “Our partners are deeply committed to making sure everybody who walks through their doors are treated with respect, dignity, and support.”

Episode transcript

Clay Collins: Welcome to “Rethinking the News” by The Christian Science Monitor. I’m Clay Collins, one of its editors. Today we’re offering a story that’s very much of the times. Our Ibrahim Onafeko takes a look at the changing face of hunger in the United States – and at a nimble organization in the Washington, D.C., area that has reinvented itself to better serve some of those who’ve had to seek out food assistance for the first time in their lives. Here’s Ibrahim’s story.


[Ambient sounds: A kitchen cabinet swings open. A woman says, “I’m just seasoning the halibut, waiting for the pan to heat up.” Amid the sound of pots and cooking utensils being used, she says that she’s getting another pan to sauté vegetables as she turns on the tap to get water to first rinse the pan. “I’ve got oil in both pans,” she says. “So now that the pan is hot, I just take the fish and I gently put it in it.” As she drops the fish in the oil, it sizzles. “And don’t touch it,” the woman says. She describes placing the vegetables in the other pan.]

Ibrahim Onafeko: This is Odessa Davis, a teacher in Montgomery County, Maryland. A single mother of an 11-year-old boy, she usually splits her year between teaching at a local public school and working as a summer camp director. This was before the pandemic hit, shutting the summer camp down and leaving Odessa suddenly without income, hampering her ability to provide for her family.

Odessa Davis: When the school stopped, you know, that was where my trouble started because I was basically depending on my savings. Because usually, during the summer, I am a camp director. The school system is only a 10-month job. So my other job will pick up where the school left off at. And the camps were closed, and I applied for unemployment, but I couldn’t get it because I was still technically working for MCPS (Montgomery County Public School). So, I struggled a lot during the summer and part of the beginning of the new school year.

Ibrahim: While Odessa didn’t qualify for unemployment, she was able to receive the Pandemic Electronic Benefit Transfer (P-EBT). The P-EBT card, which is designed to replace meals lost due to the coronavirus school closures, provided Odessa with $5.70 in benefits for each school day for her son. Unable to fully meet the needs of her family, Odessa began receiving food assistance from Capital Area Food Bank last summer.

Odessa: My P-EBT card; I didn’t have any money on it. So, that was my food stamp card for the pandemic, and I didn’t have any more money on it. They said I won’t get it again til it was like that December or something like that. And so, I was like, man, let me just get the help.

The first time it’s like you want to hide yourself, type of thing. You don’t want people to see, but because I was in my car, it was like, it was OK. Once you get past that first one, that first time doing it.

Ibrahim: Many people like Odessa have found themselves newly facing food insecurity during the pandemic. She was one of hundreds of thousands that sought food assistance last year from Capital Area Food Bank, the largest food relief organization in the Washington, D.C., area. As millions of Americans lost their jobs during the pandemic, the number of people experiencing food insecurity skyrocketed. In 2019, some 35 million people experienced food insecurity. But that number has more than doubled in 2020, according to an estimate by Northwestern University.

Historically, people often associate food insecurity with homelessness. But that’s a misperception. More often, those experiencing hunger are people like Odessa.

Hilary Salmon: People who are experiencing homelessness, that community is the most visible. And that is only about 5% of the community that the food bank is serving.

Ibrahim: That’s Hilary Salmon, the Communication Director of Capital Area Food Bank.

Hilary: The people who are experiencing food insecurity in our area are very often working. Things have changed obviously with the pandemic, but these are often people who are working two and three jobs, sometimes very long hours to try and put food on the table to keep the family afloat.

We live in a really expensive region ... and so if you’ve got even a series of low income jobs, it’s going to be really difficult to make ends meet between rent and utilities and food, we know that when budgets are stretched, food is almost always the first thing to go or to be cut back.

Ibrahim: For Odessa, asking for and getting the help she needed wasn’t easy. There’s a lot of stigma when it comes to asking for food assistance.

Odessa: When you think of asking for help for food, it’s like you’re struggling. But at that time of the pandemic, you know, I have one job, but I was still struggling and kind of [felt] ashamed. But I had to look at it a different way and say, just take the help. You know, put your pride to the side and just take the help….

Ibrahim: For Capital Area Food Bank, helping its clients overcome this stigma is an essential part of food relief work. Here’s Hilary again.

Hilary: We have someone who works on what we call the “hunger lifeline,” encouraging them that everybody needs help sometimes. And it’s OK to ask for help because there’s nothing more important than making sure you and your family are getting your basic needs met. And then of course our nonprofit partners are deeply committed to making sure everybody who comes through their doors is treated with respect, dignity, and support, and that the barriers to getting people the food they need are as low as possible.

Ibrahim: As food insecure households have risen over the last year, food relief organizations have had to be creative in finding new ways to serve their communities. DC Central Kitchen, an organization that combats hunger and poverty through job training and job creation, turned its cafe into an emergency feeding site.

Alex Moore: So when the pandemic hit, our cafe became an emergency feeding site. The schools where we serve healthy meals in the cafeterias became emergency healthy feeding locations. In many cases, we had to set tents outside of those schools in order to serve kids safely.

Ibrahim: That’s Alexander Moore, chief development officer at DC Central Kitchen.

Alex: Our community meals program had to go from serving family style meals that would be served at each partner agency to doing individually packaged meals so that every single client can have a safe and secured prepackaged meal under COVID, we had to figure that out in 48 hours after doing meals the same way for 30 years. We had to start doing mobile feeding, where we would send out a delivery van and DC Central Kitchen’s staff to areas where we knew there were transit gaps, where there might be neighborhood tensions, where there might be seniors or kids who’d have trouble getting to a school, a grocery store, or another feeding site. And we’d set up shop for a couple of hours, handing out meals and groceries at those locations.

Ibrahim: Capital Area Food Bank – which believes in letting people come to its food bank and pick the foods they like – had to shift its approach as well. They now pack food in boxes and deliver them to people in need.

Radha Muthiah: We believe in a client-choice model where clients can pick and choose what they like to cook. You know, maybe speak with the nutritionist, learn a little bit about the nutrition value of certain types of foods, how to prepare it so that their kids would eat it. You know, things like that.

Ibrahim: That’s the president and CEO of Capital Area Food Bank, Radha Muthiah.

Radha: That’s been our typical model, but obviously, in COVID and with social distancing and limited interaction, we haven’t been able to do that. So, we’ve been assembling boxes of emergency foods that are nutritionally balanced.

Ibrahim: To do this, they’ve partnered with some nonprofit organizations to help with the building and distribution of these food boxes. They’ve also created jobs for unemployed members of their community.

Radha: We’ve completed the distribution and building of 400,000 of these emergency COVID boxes over the course of the last 12 months. And we wouldn’t be able to do that just with the volunteers or our staff, and so, we have actually been in a partnership where a foundation has hired those individuals who have become unemployed. And we have benefited from them, as they have come to help us pack many of these COVID emergency boxes.

Ibrahim: Goodwill Industries International also pitched in.

Radha: They realized they weren’t using their trucks, people weren’t coming to their stores obviously to acquire household goods. And so, they volunteered their trucks and drivers to be able to help us with our deliveries.

[Ambient sound: We hear the sound of a vehicle moving around a warehouse. Hilary Salmon, Capital Area Food Bank's communications director, describes the system of warehouse racks, stacked high. A forklift passes, beeping. “This is where we’ve got all of our food,” she says, “and [it’s] the central place we distribute all food out of.” She adds that it’s one of several warehouses now needed to handle the volume of food her organization is distributing. The forklift passes by again and Ms. Salmon moves to another part of the warehouse. “So right here they’ve started building the boxes,” she says, “and eventually they’ll start putting things in, but for now, they’re just building the boxes.” We hear cardboard shuffling and packaging tape being applied.]

Ibrahim: For Odessa and her son, these food boxes have been a stress reliever.

Odessa: So you get two boxes, one that was produce and one that was dry goods. There were turnips, there were carrots, I don’t know what it was ... I know the dry stuff was, you know, it was like the basic stuff, peanut butter; it has, like cans of soup, tuna, rice, soup. That’s all I can think of right now.

I was less stressed and I got to be creative. I took it as a challenge, tried to figure out what I could make with this. It kind of felt like the TV show Chopped, because it was like, you open the box. You don’t know what’s in the box. So, I just looked and I figured out what they had. And I was like, oh, I can make something real quick with this. Yeah.

Ibrahim: While the boxes can help families, they’re not perfect. People have different dietary needs and restrictions, and delivering perishable items before they go bad can be a challenge. But most families make do with what they get.

Odessa: The dry goods [part] was fine, you know. If there was something I didn’t eat, like I don’t like mac and cheese, so I just gave it to, you know, another friend of mine. But the produce was good, but not good at the same time, because when you open the box, it looks fresh, but as I went to take the stuff out to rinse it off, certain parts on the bottom were molded.

So I told Anna and Hanna, the people that work at Capital [Area], just to let them know. Like that’s the only part that needs to be improved, because it’s bad enough the stigma of getting it.

Ibrahim: In many ways, pre-packaging food for recipients goes back to the old model of food aid distribution – just take what is given to you. Dr. Caitlin Caspi, the director of the Food Security Initiative at the University of Connecticut, says choice is an important part of the conversation.

Dr. Caitlin Caspi: There was really a large movement in the decade prior to allow people visiting pantries and other charitable food assistance programs to choose what they’re taking home. What we found in our research is that the most important thing to someone who’s visiting a food pantry is that they can choose what they take home.

Ibrahim: Dr. Caspi says the model of giving people the choice helps them meet their individual needs.

Dr. Caspi: If you can sort of imagine, like any of us, there’s family preferences, there’s kind of culture preferences, there’s allergies and special diets that people are on. And so, giving people the choice in what to take... in our research certainly has not shown people are less likely to take healthy foods when you give them choices, and it results in a more dignified experience certainly for clients who are relying on these programs. And so, we’re hoping that we haven’t seen a true back-pedal in offering choice.

Ibrahim: Even as food banks adopted new strategies, they still struggled to respond to the high demand for food assistance. Their food donations dwindled, causing them to rely much more heavily on financial donations.

Radha: In a typical year, prior to COVID, about two-thirds of our food is donated to us by area retailers. And then the remainder is either from the U.S. government or food that we purchased through financial contributions from community members and donors.

Ibrahim: That’s Radha Muthiah again, the president and CEO of Capital Area Food Bank.

Radha: That switched completely, and we almost ceased to get any donations from our retail partners as they were selling everything that was available on their shelves and in their stores. So we had to pivot and purchase a lot more food than we ever have. Last year, we purchased over 750 truckloads of food to be able to meet the need.

Ibrahim: While financial support and donations continue to keep food banks running, it does raise the question: should food security rely on charity? Dr. Caspi points out that we will continue to be forced to rely on a charitable food system until we change how we approach the issue.

Dr. Caspi: And it has to exist because there isn’t an adequate safety net for people who need access to food. And the safety net is comprised of a bunch of federal programs and state-run programs and local programs, the biggest of which is SNAP or Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. And the purpose of this program SNAP is really leading the way in terms of alleviating food insecurity. And to a large extent, it works, it does. It is effective for large segments of people experiencing food insecurity and will mitigate food insecurity. The bigger question is what do we do so that it’s not just about increasing the safety net?

Ibrahim: And Alex Moore, the chief development officer at DC Central Kitchen, says we shouldn’t think about food security as being only about food: it’s also about politics.

Alex: Hunger is not a food problem. Hunger is only even barely an economic problem. Hunger is a political problem, and a political choice. Some of the biggest drivers of food insecurity in America are the fact that wages haven't kept up with the cost of living, that it is hard to move up the economic ladder, especially for folks who face systemic barriers to opportunity. Whether those are language barriers, or their incarceration record, or their history of homelessness.

Ibrahim: And if we want to address some of these issues, then society should look at ways to increase opportunities within communities, and allow that to be a pathway out of food insecurity. Here’s Dr. Caspi again:

Dr. Caspi: If you look even further upstream, it’s about if we’re going to pass a policy, should the policy be increasing the safety net? Or should the policy be increasing opportunities for economic stability and prosperity? And many of us can agree that we need to look further upstream and it’s not just about increasing this safety net comprised of both government and private organizations. It’s about increasing opportunity for people to have enough resources for their family so they are not food insecure. And policies like minimum wage policies, policies that are broader anti-poverty programs, and policies or even antiracist programs, all of that promotes or provides this platform for equity that means that further down the line you might not have as high reliance on SNAP or on the charitable food assistance program.

Ibrahim: According to Alex, their organization takes the approach that eradicating hunger is everybody’s responsibility. And until things change at the systems level, DC Central Kitchen will continue to provide much needed support and nourishment to their recipients. Not just filling their bellies, but paving a way for their futures too.

Alex: We're happy to do our part from a food distribution perspective, but our magic is in job training and job creation, and taking on these systemic failures by piloting innovative solutions. It's not that we alone will train every returning citizen in Washington, D.C. But if we can help demonstrate in our nation's capital that somebody who has experienced incarceration can become a thriving manager and a leader and someone who is instrumental and essential in responding to our city's greatest hunger and economic crisis in generations, that should get people thinking about what it means to hire returning citizens. So all of this work, at the charitable nonprofit level, needs to be informing larger political conversations.

Ibrahim: In the midst of her struggle, Odessa’s belief in living as an example for her son fills her with the strength to persevere.

Odessa: [It’s] my beliefs, and having a son, because like, [what] I taught him is don't give up. Even though, if you don't want to do it, it's OK to like, yell, scream, [be] mad. You know, but still do it, but don't [ever] quit. So, so yeah. He's watching me, so I’ve got to stick to my guns to what I told him. 

Narrator: Thanks for listening. This story was reported, produced, and narrated by me, Ibrahim Onafeko. Editing by Jingnan Peng, Samantha Laine Perfas, and Clay Collins. Sound design by Tim Malone.

This story was produced by The Christian Science Monitor, copyright 2021.