D.C. seniors eating lunch
D.C. seniors eating lunch before the pandemic. Credit: Darrow Montgomery/file

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Helping senior citizens ranks at just about the same level as kissing babies or cuddling puppies for politicians during election season. So, on the surface, it makes sense that At-Large Councilmember Anita Bonds is moving legislation aimed at addressing the District’s alarming rate of senior hunger a few weeks before Nov. 8.

The problem? She’s managed to outrage many advocates for the elderly (and one of her colleagues) in the process.

Let’s back up: Ward 3 Councilmember Mary Cheh has been working on the issue for well over a year now, convening a work group on food insecurity, then introducing legislation last October to better coordinate the city’s efforts to feed seniors. Her bill would push a variety of city agencies to better utilize federal programs that could get food to older people, and create an interagency task force that could pull together all the disparate programs across the D.C. government and make them work together.

Cheh’s bill picked up seven co-introducers and scored a hearing back in February, where it earned near unanimous support from advocates, two good signs that it was on its way to passing. Yet the legislation has languished in Bonds’ committee ever since, even though she was among the lawmakers to introduce the bill. Bonds’ panel primarily deals with housing, but a recent change to move the decidedly unrelated issue of “executive administration” under her purview ensured that she also has oversight of the Department of Aging and Community Living, which Cheh’s bill is primarily aimed at changing.

In mid-September, Bonds suddenly changed course, introducing her own “Senior Nutrition and Well-Being Equity Amendment Act” without moving Cheh’s forward. Besides lacking the snappy title of Cheh’s “No Senior Hungry Omnibus Amendment Act,” it stripped many of the new requirements for agencies and axed the interagency panel in favor of a “community-led task group” of seniors to advise DACL. Advocates were particularly galled that the bill leaves in references to a “Senior Food Security Plan” that appeared in Cheh’s legislation, but doesn’t actually require anyone to produce such a plan. That would’ve been the interagency task force’s job, but with that section removed, the plan simply floats in the ether.

Cheh tells Loose Lips that Bonds did not consult her about this move, calling the new legislation “a useless, empty bill” and “a misguided, unfortunate capitulation to agency apathy” that has left her “appalled,” “deeply disappointed,” and “upset” at this “pretty unconscionable” situation. Please, councilmember, tell us how you really feel.

“I don’t even want to say it’s a pale comparison to the bill that we put forward because it’s useless,” Cheh says, noting that the latest data suggest that D.C. still leads the nation with 13 percent of its seniors living with food insecurity. “Maybe she wants to have a bill of her own making to make some claims about what she’s doing as she’s in a reelection campaign. I don’t know.”

Bonds spokesman Kevin B. Chavous argues that his boss is a “full supporter” of Cheh’s bill and is only moving this other legislation because she had trouble getting necessary data from DACL and other impacted agencies to the Office of the Chief Financial Officer, which is required to estimate the fiscal impacts of Council legislation. Since any bill that doesn’t pass before the end of the year will need to be re-introduced (as the Council period ends), Chavous says Bonds saw it as “crucial to get some version of legislation passed in order to address the problem.”

“This is not an indication of her not supporting the original bill, it’s more so about doing something that’s achievable right now in the face of the agencies not being responsive,” Chavous says.

Bonds herself made similar arguments at an Oct. 11 hearing she convened on her senior hunger legislation, claiming she worked for “many months” to get a fiscal impact statement finished on the bill, to no avail, and her alternative was “proposed in earnest to at least move the ball forward.” Cheh finds those claims “completely disingenuous.”

“It’s just an excuse,” Cheh says. “I have introduced and passed bills of far greater complexity, with challenges in obtaining the fiscal impact statement, and we would get it. She has had months and months and months to do that. And she said, ‘Well, I’ve been trying.’ Well, not hard enough … She’s covering for the agency that doesn’t want to have additional responsibilities. It’s the agency’s apathy.”

Cheh suspects that DACL’s opposition, in particular, has contributed to Bonds’ decision to advance her substitute. Agency officials have generally been supportive of Cheh’s legislation in public, though Interim Director Jessica Smith said at the Oct. 11 hearing that they have “implementation concerns” even as they “support the spirit” of Cheh’s bill. A DACL spokesperson didn’t respond to a request for comment.

If DACL truly supported the bill, Cheh suspects they would’ve had little trouble delivering information on its fiscal impact, especially because many of its provisions won’t cost much money. Assembling the interagency task force shouldn’t require much in the way of spending, for instance, just extra staff time. Same goes for the provisions requiring the Office of the State Superintendent of Education to enroll eligible adult day care centers in a federal program that provides reimbursements for healthy meals, or for the expansion of a Medicaid program to cover food deliveries to seniors.

“You’re changing a simple system or simplifying a system, or you’re talking about basically training community-based organizations on how to apply for reimbursement,” says Winnie Huston, food policy strategist for the nonprofit DC Greens and a supporter of Cheh’s bill. “It’s more staff time maybe, but it does not seem to me that we’re talking so much money and that it would be so complicated. It feels from our outside view like an excuse. What I do know for sure, however, is that seniors will continue to be hungry.”

In fact, Smith said at last week’s hearing that DACL is already taking steps to do some of the things required by Cheh’s legislation, like coordinating more with other agencies, increasing data collection on hunger, and expanding meal delivery services. If that’s the case, Cheh asked, why would there be an extra cost to the city to pass her bill and why would it be so difficult to estimate those costs?

“A lot of times when you’re getting different agencies together, there is a big need for specific [employees] that would do that coordination work,” Smith said. “There’s oftentimes a lot of reporting and research that goes into that.”

Smith added that the agency is “taking a hard look” at how many employees this interagency work would require, and pledged to deliver estimates to Bonds’ committee within 10 days of the hearing.

Advocates like Huston believe there’s virtually no point in passing Bonds’ bill if it doesn’t include some sort of mandate for agency coordination, no matter how many employees it takes. She argues that “this is not an issue that any one agency can address on its own,” and views it as a “slap in the face” to the organizations working in this space to ignore such a critical recommendation.

“It seems to me that senior hunger is sufficiently widespread that it’s worth pushing on that fiscal impact statement despite how complicated it might be,” Bill Dietz, a top public health professor at George Washington University, told Bonds during the hearing. “To me, the absence of this in your current bill means the lack of coordination of the 14 groups within agencies [working on senior hunger] will continue and there’s not going to be any leadership.”

Chavous says Bonds is “certainly going to push” to add elements of Cheh’s bill back into her legislation, should fiscal impact estimates make it her way. But otherwise, Bonds seems intent on moving her bill forward, not Cheh’s—it will likely need a committee mark-up before it heads to the full Council, which would have to take two votes on it before the end of the year.

If Bonds does so, Cheh says she will use some parliamentary maneuvering to bring her original bill back up for a vote, perhaps by moving it as an “amendment in the nature of a substitute” to Bonds’ bill, swapping in her language instead. That’s an aggressive move, but she suspects her colleagues would support her, since her legislation has already been vetted and attracted the full support of advocates. It’s also a bit of a legacy issue for Cheh, who has been hoping to get this bill done before she retires at the end of the year.

“I’m leaving, so I don’t matter anymore, and she’s probably staying, so maybe my colleagues don’t want to go to a full-court press on this,” Cheh says. “I don’t know what the dynamic will be. But I’m going to try.”

Huston certainly hopes she succeeds. If she doesn’t, Huston is not sure where advocates will turn instead. She doesn’t expect working with Bonds will be all that productive, considering that her office “wasn’t communicating with the advocacy community” about the status of Cheh’s legislation for months before introducing her own bill seemingly “under cover of night.” She may well need to cast about for a new champion on the Council, and find someone who isn’t quite so daunted by the challenges of wringing information from city agencies.

“If complexity was what kept things from changing in America, there would be no Civil Rights Act, there would be no Voting Rights Act,” Huston says. “For the first time in my life, I’m aware of how much the price of food has increased every time I go to the grocery store. And so how can councilmembers say, ‘Oh gosh, it’s just too hard to figure out how to do this’?”