Even before the pandemic, about 415,000 people across the DC region—one in ten—didn’t know where their next meal was coming from, according to the Capital Area Food Bank (pictured).
“DC was one of the most economically stratified regions prior to the pandemic,” says Melissa Hawkins, director, undergraduate programs, Department of Health Studies. “Although food insecurity is more prevalent in low-income communities, the pandemic and resulting economic disruptions have impacted many more people and exacerbated the issue’s complexities.”
While nearly one-third of DC’s food insecure are children, hunger doesn’t discriminate. Defined by the USDA as “a lack of consistent access to enough food for an active, healthy life,” food insecurity disproportionately affects women, seniors, grandfamilies, immigrants, and college students—one in three of whom regularly go to class hungry, according to health promotion professor Stacey Snelling, CAS/MS ’85, CAS/PhD ’90, part of the AU team that received a historic $15 million grant in 2021 to study wasted food. DC also leads the nation in food insecurity among seniors, says Kathryn Whelan, CAS/BA ’19, grants coordinator, DC Central Kitchen.
People of color, too, are overrepresented among the food insecure. According to a 2021 report released by DC mayor Muriel Bowser, SPA/MPP ’00, nearly one in three Latinx households with children and one in five Black households with kids don’t have enough to eat. “Similar to power, we have food in the District that’s not equally distributed due to structural inequalities,” says SOC doctoral candidate Tambra Stevenson, also among the researchers examining wasted food.
Impacts of the public health crisis are as wide-ranging as the populations it affects. “Food insecurity predicts poorer health among adults and poorer academic achievement among children—even when children themselves are not experiencing reduced intake—[due to] parent stress and mental health issues,” says Department of Public Administration and Policy professor Taryn Morrissey.
AU changemakers have made it their mission to ensure that every Washingtonian has enough to eat. And while they come at the challenge from a variety of disciplines, they all bring empathy, humility, and fierce determination to their work. Meet some of them here.
“I realized that our society’s approach to food insecurity—providing ingredients for meals at food pantries—wasn’t addressing the problem in its entirety. Those who are food insecure often don’t have pots and pans or the wherewithal to cook. By providing healthy, chef-prepared meals for free on a regular basis, Feed the Fridge is helping to solve hunger.”
—Mark Bucher, SPA/BA ’90, cofounder, Medium Rare, and founder, Feed the Fridge, which pays local restaurants to stock nine refrigerators across the DC area with fresh meals
“In 2007, Crossroads Farmers Market launched the double dollar program, which matches SNAP and other federal nutrition benefits like WIC. The program, which makes healthy, fresh food more accessible and puts more money in farmers’ pockets, has since become a model for farmers markets across the United States.”
—Sara Servin, SIS/MA ’15, farmers market program manager, Crossroads Community Food Network
“Food is the key to unlocking a person’s potential. When a single mom has the food she needs for her children, she can pursue her career and create a better life for her family. A child can focus and do well in school. A homebound senior can live a healthier, happier life.”
—Patrick Marion Bradley, CAS/MFA ’15, marketing director, Capital Area Food Bank
“Students who do not have the means to buy food may skip meals, reduce their consumption, or choose low-cost foods with less nutritional value. Hunger is debilitating; it can hinder a student’s opportunity to succeed in school and later in life.”
—Kandice Heise, CAS/BS ’22, advisory board member, AU Food Market, which has provided nutritious, nonperishable food 24/7 to more than 500 students
“There is an immense gap in food access. The 85,000 residents of Ward 3 have 13 full-service grocery stores (with a 14th opening soon), while the 80,000 residents of Ward 8 have just two.”
—Lillie Rosen, SIS/BA ’09, SIS/MA ’10, senior policy specialist, ZERO TO THREE HealthySteps
“Food insecurity among seniors is more prevalent in our city than any other across the United States—13.5 percent, according to Feeding America. After giving back throughout their lives, our seniors deserve care and energy sent back their way.”
—Caroline Hockenbury, CAS/MFA ’23, content and storytelling fellow, Capital Area Food Bank
“What can people do to help? Get involved. We Are Family can always use more volunteers for our grocery deliveries and other work. We can all play a part in building a movement that makes the fight against poverty and hunger in our city and our country a burning priority—from maintaining pressure on our leaders to working within our communities to support and advocate for those in need.”
—Sam Lavine, CAS/BA ’10, grocery delivery assistant, We Are Family Senior Outreach Network, which delivers groceries, holiday food baskets, gifts, and more for 1,000 area residents
“Meal programs have faced a host of challenges these past two years. Staples are hard to come by; food deliveries often arrive late or not at all; there's still a shortage of cooks and drivers; and inflation is pushing costs up. And now, schools are losing critical flexibilities as nationwide child nutrition waivers are set to expire June 30, 2022. Even as we hope to move back to 'normal', one in six kids across the nation could be struggling with hunger.
“No Kid Hungry, which has distributed more than $108 million in grants, is working to end childhood hunger by helping launch and improve programs that give all kids the healthy food they need to thrive. Right here in DC, No Kid hungry has granted about $1.4 million to 21 organizations, resulting in more than 12 million meals served.”
—Ana Maria Rivera, SIS/MA ’18, field associate, and Annessa Bontrager, CAS/MS ’15, senior project manager, Share Our Strength, which launched the No Kid Hungry campaign in 2010
“DC Central Kitchen’s Healthy Corners program supplies corner stores in food apartheid areas—like Wards 7 and 8—with fresh produce and healthy snacks at a wholesale price, makes it more affordable for consumers. We also provide nutrition education resources and cooking demonstrations in low-income neighborhoods and operate a farm-to-school program, supplying 18 schools (primarily in Ward 7) with healthy school lunches five days a week. Additionally, because a lack of financial resources contributes to food insecurity, our culinary job training program provides culinary arts training, career services, and case management to youth and adults facing barriers to employment. Our historic job placement rate remains at 85 percent or higher.”
—Kathryn Whelan, CAS/BA ’19, grants coordinator, DC Central Kitchen
“Residents in Wards 7 and 8 have far fewer grocery stores than every other ward in DC. However, access is only one part of the solution. Other areas that must be addressed include the social drivers of health—stable housing, employment opportunities, access to quality education and health care—and supporting the health promoting aspects within communities, like parks, safety, and social connectedness.”
—Stacey Snelling, CAS/MS ’85, CAS/PhD ’90, chair, Department of Health Promotion