Packing grocery bags at DC Central Kitchen. Photo courtesy of DC Central Kitchen.

With the holiday season approaching, D.C. food banks, food pantries, and other food service nonprofits are preparing for unprecedented levels of need during what is historically their busiest time of year. 

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, 28.6 percent of children and 16.7 percent of adults in the District—150,000 people total—are projected to be food insecure, according to the DC Food Policy Council’s recent report. Feeding America, a national network of 200 food banks, defines food insecurity as “a household’s inability to provide enough food for every person to live an active, healthy life.” 

Food insecurity disproportionately affects low-income, BIPOC communities and vulnerable populations such as seniors, children, people experiencing homelessness, and undocumented immigrants. D.C. had the highest senior food insecurity rate in the country in 2018 at 14.3 percent. And, this April, surveys completed by the DC Food Policy Council revealed that Latinx and Black households were four and 13.5 times more likely than White households to report that they didn’t have enough to eat.  

The Capital Area Food Bank estimates that the current number of people in D.C. who are food insecure—82,000 people—could rise by as much as 48 to 60 percent. As the primary food bank serving the D.C. metropolitan area, CAFB provides food to more than 450 organizations including Bread for the City, DC Central Kitchen, Martha’s Table, and So Others Might Eat. These organizations then distribute that food or turn it into meals for the community.  

Prior to the pandemic, CAFB received two-thirds of its food as donations from retailers and wholesalers. Within the span of one week in March, those donations dropped by 75 percent as grocery stores began stocking up and holding inventory for shoppers. Now, CAFB buys most of its food directly from wholesalers and food brokers across the country. “We have seen what we allocate for food purchasing go from $3.5 million to $20 million,” says Radha Muthiah, CAFB’s president and CEO. 

While the organization isn’t currently projecting an increase beyond the current demand, Muthari says they’re anticipating it will stay at this heightened level “for at least a year, if not more, and likely more.” She adds, “I had hoped, at the beginning of the pandemic, that it would be more of a sprint. But as the pandemic has unfolded, it’s clear that this is less of a sprint and more of a marathon.”

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Food insecurity in the District long predates the pandemic. In 2019, 10.6 percent of adults and 19.3 percent of children were food insecure, and according to the D.C. Policy Center, “D.C. has 6.5 square miles of food deserts overall—about 11 percent of D.C.’s total area.” 

While the USDA defines food deserts as a “condition of limited or uncertain access to adequate food,” food justice activists such as Karen Washington prefer the term “food apartheid,” because it emphasizes that food insecurity is a structural problem, not a natural one. More than 80 percent of the city’s food deserts are in Wards 7 and 8, where 26.6 percent and 34.2 percent of the population, respectively, live in poverty. In Ward 7, 92 percent of residents are Black; in Ward 8, 89 percent are Black.

The compounding crises of COVID-19—widespread unemployment, a lack of sustained government aid, and the exacerbation of longstanding racial and economic inequities—are fueling the rise in food insecurity. 

“It’s devastating,” says Ona Balkus, food policy director of the DC Food Policy Council. “Knowing that poverty and unemployment are factors of food insecurity, and that COVID-19 has disproportionately affected communities of color, I imagine the disparities will continue to grow.” 

That widening disparity—and the racism at its center—is the driving force behind Bread for the City’s work, says George A. Jones, the organization’s CEO since 1996. “Systemic racism perpetuates poverty and food insecurity and other socioeconomic disparities that people of color experience,” he says. “Racism in and of itself is an important lens through which to understand this work.” 

Before the pandemic, Bread for the City served 300 households a day in walk-up food pantries in Anacostia and Shaw. Now, it reaches almost 1,000 households each day—30 percent through socially distanced pickups and another 70 percent via delivery.

The organization has retooled its Holiday Helpings program by giving clients gift cards to shop independently for holiday meal ingredients. During November and December, Jones estimates that Bread for the City will serve 15,000 households, up from 12,000 last year.

“We are bracing for levels of food insecurity that are worse than anything we’ve seen in our 31-year history,” says Alex Moore, the chief development officer at DC Central Kitchen. The nonprofit has served 2 million meals since the onset of COVID-19. It currently distributes around 10,000 meals daily. Amy Bachman, the organization’s director of procurement, adds that Thanksgiving is when the organization typically receives the donations it utilizes for months to come.

For years, DC Central Kitchen has coordinated its holiday activities with the Edlavitch Jewish Community Center of Washington, D.C. and FRESHFARM Markets. Pre-pandemic, hundreds of EDCJCC volunteers prepared side dishes for DC Central Kitchen’s Thanksgiving meal, and proceeds from FRESHFARM’S food drive at the Dupont Circle farmer’s market went directly to DC Central Kitchen.

EDCJCC volunteers will now work in socially distanced groups outdoors and pack dry goods to go alongside DC Central Kitchen’s produce bags. The FRESHFARM fundraising drive will move online. 

“Thanksgiving is always busy for us in an exciting way,” says So Others Might Eat President Ralph Boyd. Before the pandemic, in addition to its 5K Turkey Trot fundraiser, SOME held a Thanksgiving meal at its dining hall for 1,000 guests and distributed Thanksgiving dinner baskets to 600 families. This year, the Turkey Trot will be virtual, volunteers will provide the holiday meals as to-go kits, and staff members will distribute dinner baskets offsite. 

A Martha’s Table community event in 2019 (before the pandemic). Courtesy of Martha’s Table.

Martha’s Table counts on the giving spirit surrounding the holiday season to fuel its many programs. “About half of our financial gifts from individuals come during the holidays,” explains Assistant Director of Communications Whitney M. Faison. “It’s an especially critical time for us to raise the resources that make our programs possible.” 

Contributions are particularly valuable this year as demand for the organization’s healthy groceries is at 400 percent of pre-pandemic levels. On average, Martha’s Table serves 8,000 people a week. Sometimes they serve 2,000 people a day. 

For Thanksgiving, the organization has shifted its in-person Community Harvest Dinner, a Thanksgiving-style meal with performances and kids activities, into to-go dinners available for pick up at locations in Wards 7 and 8, with optional delivery. The event is the organization’s largest, serving roughly 2,500 people. 

Faison says that community donations have been vital in positioning these programs to continue to exist and be nimble in the face of new challenges. “We were inspired by this overwhelming response and are hopeful that support will continue,” she says. “We are grateful especially to those who are continuing to invest in our work, since this need is not going away anytime soon.”

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While these food service organizations have pivoted both their holiday and year-round operations for the pandemic, they’re also thinking about what recovery will look like in the year’s ahead. They’re hoping it includes a food-secure future for more D.C. residents.

The DC Food Policy Council report shared some strategies such as increasing healthy food access in Wards 7 and 8 and investing in urban agriculture. “Those longer term goals really speak to how we help the District recover in an equitable way that addresses the racial wealth gap and helps with more of the chronic causes of food insecurity,” Balkus explains.

Food service organizations, meanwhile, are building on the partnerships and networks that both predate the pandemic and have been lifelines during it.

“No single nonprofit can meet this rising tide of need, and local and federal food assistance programs were not built for a crisis of this scale and duration,” says Moore from DC Central Kitchen. Last week, the organization announced a partnership with World Central Kitchen and Dreaming Out Loud that will create 14 mobile food distribution sites, serve 7,000 meals, and deliver 1,200 fresh produce bags each week to children, families, and seniors, primarily living in Wards 1, 7, and 8. The partnership is currently expected to run until March.

Moore emphasizes the importance of donations in ensuring these programs can continue.“Whether folks give to us or any of the other wonderful groups fighting on the front lines,” he says. “Please give what you can now.”

The Thrive East of the River Initiative joins Bread for the City and Martha’s Table, along with 11th Street Bridge Park and the Far Southeast Family Strengthening Initiative. The $4 million pilot program will support 500 families in Wards 7 and 8 over a five-month period. Those families will receive $1,100 per month ($5,500 in total), weekly groceries, and assistance navigating benefits such as unemployment insurance. 

“We need to solve our macro issues—housing insecurity, food insecurity, income insecurity—because that is the best weapon against whatever the next big crisis is,” Jones says. “All this effort is about our future.”

This post has been updated to correct the spelling of Capital Area Food Bank President and CEO Radha Muthiah’s name. We regret the error.