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

We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.

A few weeks ago, At-Large Councilmember Anita Bonds was adamant: There was just no way she could advance a bill from Ward 3 Councilmember Mary Cheh aimed at combating senior hunger before the end of the year. So it might surprise you to learn that the Council took its first vote on that legislation Tuesday.

Cheh’s “No Senior Hungry Omnibus Amendment Act” would force more agency coordination and open up new resources to address D.C.’s disturbing rate of food insecurity among seniors, and is now set up to pass next month after it seemed dead in the water as recently as late October. The development has advocates for seniors pleasantly surprised, if a bit bemused, that Bonds passed it out of her committee just a few weeks after Cheh raised a stink about the issue (and made those concerns very public in an interview with Loose Lips).

Bonds had previously argued that Cheh’s legislation was commendable, yet too complex, claiming she wasn’t able to get the government agencies involved to estimate the bill’s potential costs in time to bring it up for a vote. She instead backed a much more modest bill, the “Senior Nutrition and Well-Being Equity Amendment Act,” viewing it as a way to “move the ball forward” in the absence of Cheh’s legislation. Local activists and Cheh herself dismissed Bonds’ bill as an empty half-measure.

But that was all before people started paying attention. On Oct. 20, the same day LL’s article on this dustup published, Bonds spokesman Kevin B. Chavous followed up to say that his boss spoke with Cheh “and they are now on the same page as far as the two senior hunger bills.” He wrote in an email that Bonds’ legislation was actually “meant to complement” Cheh’s bill, and Bonds planned to move both out of her Committee on Housing and Executive Administration once she received fiscal impact statements on each one.

As luck would have it, Chief Financial Officer Glen Lee forwarded along those documents on Nov. 8, despite Bonds’ previous claims that she’d given up on getting a fiscal analysis on Cheh’s legislation after working to do so since March. Bonds then passed the two bills out of her committee on Nov. 9 to set up the full Council vote Tuesday.

“It is a costly bill, but it is an important one to address senior hunger in the District,” Bonds said during the Nov. 9 committee meeting.

Cheh disputes the idea that this was the result of some grand compromise between the two. In fact, she says she spoke with Bonds not long after LL’s last article on the matter published, and that Bonds assured her the Senior Nutrition bill was always meant to move in tandem with No Senior Hungry. Cheh says she chided Bonds that such an explanation “strikes me as having some revisionism here,” but added that “I don’t care” if it means her legislation moves forward.

“At the end of the day, I’m not going to criticize an outcome that promotes my bill,” Cheh says.

Winnie Huston, food policy strategist for the nonprofit DC Greens and a supporter of Cheh’s bill, expects the No Senior Hungry bill would be “dead” but for Cheh’s advocacy and some press attention. That doesn’t mean, however, that she sees a clear victory just yet. She’s been pressing lawmakers for years to take action on this issue, working with Cheh and others to craft this legislation, and she still fears those fiscal impact statements could be its undoing.

The FIS for Cheh’s legislation is hefty. Lee’s office estimates that the bill will cost more than $75 million over the next four years to implement. A big price tag from the CFO has spooked plenty of lawmakers in the past (fueling suspicions among councilmembers that these numbers tend to get inflated for bills agencies don’t support), and Huston worries it could work to the detriment of Cheh’s legislation.

But she notes that most of the costs described in the FIS are pretty small—the Department of Aging and Community Living will have to hire a handful of staffers to manage interagency coordination and data collection, for instance. The biggest budget item is the expansion of a Medicaid program to cover the costs of home-delivered meals, and, naturally, that largely requires the use of federal funds. The bill’s impact on the local budget is really more like $26 million, but Huston frets that the Council may only focus on the top-line number when it comes time to take a final vote.

Considering there’s a “good bit of redundancy” with the two bills, Huston wonders whether the Council may simply prefer the cheaper option. The CFO estimates that Bonds’ legislation will only cost $1.6 million through 2026, but Huston believes it won’t achieve nearly as much to help seniors get fed. For what it’s worth, the Council Office of Racial Equity suggested that Bonds’ bill will have an “inconclusive impact on nutrition outcomes for Black, Indigenous, and other seniors of color” in D.C.; the office said that the changes to Medicaid and SNAP benefits in Cheh’s bill “will likely improve” outcomes.

“I’m just hoping there’s some straight talk on whether we need both bills,” Huston says.

Both measures were on the Council’s consent agenda Tuesday, so there wasn’t any discussion on either one just yet (though At-Large Councilmember Robert White did ask Bonds about the issue at the Nov. 9 hearing). Debate will likely come when the legislation comes up for a second vote, expected at the Dec. 6 Council meeting.

The debate is unlikely to end there, even if Cheh’s legislation passes. Both bills are being moved with the dreaded “subject to appropriation” language attached, meaning their provisions won’t go into effect until Mayor Muriel Bowser or the Council itself finds money in the budget to fund them. Cheh has spent years on this particular fight, but its ultimate resolution will probably come after she’s returned to private life.

“There’s no point in passing stuff like this if it’s not going to get funded,” Cheh says. “Somebody else will have to be the champion on this.”