Food Insecurity in the DMV
Thousands of children (and parents) in the DMV area are unsure where their next meal will come from. In the District Of Columbia, 65,750 people are facing hunger – and of them, 19,430 are children. It may be shocking, as this is one of the most affluent metropolitan areas in the country, but the 2022 Hunger Report (conducted by the Capital Area Food Bank and the University of Chicago) found that nearly 1 in 3 DMV households experienced food insecurity in 2021. Furthermore, it found that food insecurity is twice as likely in households with children (about 49%) than without (about 25%). Over 38 million people across the nation are affected by food insecurity, and people who live with children are at a higher risk. This means that there are children waking up, arriving at school and going to sleep hungry, affecting their ability to succeed, much less excel.
Here are some of the 2022 Hunger Report’s other main findings:
- Nearly two-thirds (61%) of non-white households with children experienced food insecurity over the last year.
- Prince George’s County had the highest prevalence of food insecurity, affecting nearly half of the surveyed households.
- Minorities are more likely to be food insecure, with a prevalence of 50% in Black people and 55% in Hispanic people.
- Less educated households have a higher prevalence of food insecurity.
- The employment rates are about equal (actually slightly higher) when comparing food insecure households to food secure ones.
So what is causing these disparities in food security?
First, what is food insecurity?
The USDA defines food insecurity as a “household-level economic and social condition of limited or uncertain access to adequate food.” It has two levels: low food security and very low food security. While low food security households experience a lower quality and variety of food, they typically do not have a reduction in quantity. This means there is a normal amount of food to pick from in their grocery stores, but it is likely that there are less fresh produce items and more foods that are higher in sugar or sodium. On the other hand, very low food secure households experience lower quality, lower variety and a noticeable reduction in food intake. A lot of these households not only experience food insecurity like the low food secure group, but they are also more likely to live in food deserts (in D.C. this usually means it’s greater than a half-mile walk to the nearest grocery store). By these definitions, we see that 17% of DMV households experience low food security and 16% experience very low food security.
How are children affected by food insecurity?
Food insecurity results in an increased risk of hunger, obesity, chronic illness and stress in millions of people. However, the effects can be even more dangerous in children. Kids under 3 are in a developmental period in which food insecurity can disrupt and increase their risk for cognitive problems. School-age children are also more likely to get sick, be hospitalized, have stunted growth or have behavioral issues.
“We know there are kids who do not have enough to eat,” says Emily Richardson, the Youth Programs Director at Common Good City Farm in Washington, D.C. “It affects their ability to sit, focus and learn in class.” Physical well-being is only one dimension of health. We see that hungry children are not only affected physically, but also mentally, emotionally, socially and even environmentally.
Who are the most food-insecure people in the DMV?
The 2022 Hunger Report included the District of Columbia (D.C.), Montgomery and Prince George’s Counties in suburban Maryland, and Alexandria, Arlington, Fairfax and Prince William Counties in Northern Virginia. Prince George’s County reported the highest prevalence of food insecurity, at 48%. Prince William County and Washington, D.C. reported that nearly 36% of households experience food insecurity. However, this doesn’t mean that the other counties do not experience the same problems. In fact, Arlington County (which reported the least prevalence, at 21%) has about 50,000 people who are suffering from food insecurity.
Location is not the only disparity that affects food security. As noted earlier, minority groups are more likely to experience food insecurity. This injustice is likely a result of cofactors such as low wage/benefit jobs for Black and Hispanic women. While the pandemic brought many of these issues to light, minority groups continued to suffer even more when they were unable to work their front-line jobs and therefore could not care for their families in the same way.
Residential food insecurity and the Covid-19 pandemic in the DMV
Food insecure residents were also more likely to report an inability to pay bills such as credit cards or rent/mortgage at some point during the Covid-19 pandemic. The residents of counties with a higher prevalence of food insecurity were the least confident in their ability to keep up with expenses and believed it would take 6 months or more to recover from the effects that the pandemic had on their households. Residents were surveyed about their abilities in 2021 – the year after the world was hit by the global health crisis, recession and disruption in supply chains. The DMV was already heading in the wrong direction pre-pandemic, but the area’s poor health status was further revealed as offices closed and assistance programs were less accessible.
“People who have children who would be eligible for school meals are getting about $114 per kid per month for a period of time to help feed those kids, because schools are closed and they can’t get food that way.” said Sara Bleich in the Food Insecurity, Inequality and COVID-19 Forum produced by the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. “But there are lots of rules associated with these programs.” Families have to be certain sizes, make less than a set income and qualify for other programs to receive food assistance from these special programs. This causes many problems, as the majority of these issues were not fixed until months after parents lost their jobs or made extreme decisions to keep feeding their families. Consequently, in our expensive DMV area, families were using their savings or moving to cheaper living situations just to keep up with the disruptions of the pandemic. It has been hard to recover and, in fact, many families still have yet to recover.
What can we do to stop it?
Building a new grocery store takes time but there are other ways to increase food access. Organizations like Common Good City Farm or Curbside Groceries provide the community with gardens and mobile grocery stores to help tackle food insecurity in D.C. National food assistance programs such as the National School Lunch Program (NSLP), the Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) program and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), as well as state, county and local programs, address barriers to accessing healthy food. The charitable food sector, including institutions like food banks, food pantries, soup kitchens and feeding programs, work towards addressing food insecurity while promoting health. It’s important that families have more than one way to access food, like an anchored grocery store. More options means more access and sometimes, more affordable food. We can also push our local government representatives to fight for additional funds for recreational centers that serve food every day of the week so that students have access to food on weekends and during school breaks.
- Manna Food Center in Montgomery County
- The UpCounty Hub in Montgomery County
- The Bowie Interfaith Pantry and Emergency Aid Fund in Prince George’s County
- William H. Bennett Food Pantry in Prince George’s County
- Bread For The City in NW D.C.
- Saint Thomas More Food Pantry in SE D.C.
- Arlington Food Assistance Center in Arlington
- Our Lady Queen Of Peace Church – Food Distribution Center in Arlington
- ALIVE! Food Distribution in Alexandria
- West End Food Pantry in Alexandria
- Food for Others in Fairfax
- Haymarket Regional Food Pantry in Prince William
- ACTS Hunger Prevention Center in Prince William
- Little Food Pantry currently has 9 locations in D.C. and Northern Virginia