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Community pantries step in with solutions to more than just hunger

By Winnie Chan, Michelle Collins, Shane Gomez and Emily Hawkins

Youthcast Media Group®

This story was posted on the DC Line online publication November 15, 2023.

On a brisk spring morning, more than a hundred people snake their way around a group of semitrailers in the shabby parking lot at Lakeforest Mall in Gaithersburg, Maryland. A bustling wall of volunteers shout to one another behind a phalanx of folding tables, stepping over cardboard boxes and pulling vegetables, fruit and freshly baked bread from rows of crates to hand to the people filing by.

Behind them, a repurposed shipping container is painted with a tumbling cornucopia of produce and a smiling woman cradling a loaf of bread. The words “So What Else?” dance across the side in bright orange, hand-painted letters. The question also serves as the name of the organization feeding their community in this mall parking lot — as well as an implicit challenge to others to go beyond talking about helping their neighbors and take action.

About 40 minutes away in DC’s Meridian Hill Park, another nonprofit, Francis on the Hill, distributes food three times a week to about 700 families, giving out the contents of about 250 bags of groceries collected almost entirely from area grocery stores and wholesalers.

Pre-packed bags of groceries await delivery by volunteers of So What Else food pantry in Gaithersburg, Maryland on March 26, 2023. (Hannah Gaber for Youthcast Media Group)

Driven by volunteers, these independently sourced and funded pantries were started by nonprofits and have stepped into the breach to help feed their communities as inflation, ongoing supply-chain issues, and the end of supplemental pandemic-related public assistance have left many of the region’s families hungry.

So What Else, which distributes 100,000 pounds of food a week to 1,000 families per day, began in a community center in 2009 and originally provided child care and education about nutrition, among other topics.

“That all got shut down with COVID, and so they had to pivot,” says Will Harmon, former director of Montgomery County hunger relief for So What Else. People told the organization then that they needed help with the basics — diapers, clothing and food.

Pre-pandemic, Francis on the Hill staff and volunteers helped tend the plants at Meridian Hill Park, also known as Malcolm X Park, and keep the area clean.

When the group’s volunteers began working in the park — which Jay Steptoe, the organization’s coordinator and director describes as the surrounding neighborhood’s living room — they forged strong relationships with the area’s residents, many of whom Steptoe says work in food service and were hit hard by the pandemic.

Cinthia Hinjosa, of Rockville, helps distribute food with So What Else food pantry, which has supplied her with necessities in the past, in Gaithersburg, Maryland on March 26, 2023. (Hannah Gaber for Youthcast Media Group)

But despite the best efforts of such neighborhood-based groups, the scale and scope of food insecurity — the lack of access to affordable and nutritious food — is beyond what they can repair on their own, experts say. In 2022, 44.2 million people in the United States were affected by food insecurity, up from 33.8 million the year before, according to an October 2023 report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). Of that number, 13.4 million are children, according to the agency.

Now, with COVID-era benefit increases in the rear-view mirror, inflation at around 4% after peaking at 9% in June 2022, and significant changes to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) coming out of debt ceiling negotiations, vulnerable populations are facing a “hunger cliff,” says Gina Plata-Nino, deputy director at the Food Research & Action Center. The nonprofit researches poverty-related hunger in the United States and provides advice on ways to curb it.

“Things are not looking that great for low-income Americans who are struggling,” she says. “If you look at external forces, like inflation and high food prices, it's just not a good environment.”

This reflects what staff at So What Else and Francis on the Hill see on the ground. A noticeable spike in numbers of people showing up to receive food from Francis on the Hill occurred when the COVID-era Child Tax Credit enhancement ended, Steptoe says. Another came when the SNAP benefit enhancements stopped. It was at that time that Harmon says the number of families served by So What Else at each event jumped from about 250 to 1,000.

“The problem's getting worse instead of getting better,” Harmon says.

The loss of the expanded SNAP benefit during the pandemic has had a huge impact, Plata-Nino says, making it hard for small food pantries to keep up.

“For whatever meal a food pantry gives, SNAP provides nine,” she says. “So there's no way the local state or philanthropy, which is private funders, can make up the loss of what SNAP can do for a town, city or individual.”

It’s not because there isn’t enough food
People sort through food donations distributed by So What Else pantry in the parking lot of Lakeforest Mall in Gaithersburg, Maryland on March 26, 2023. (Hannah Gaber for Youthcast Media Group)

“It's an oxymoron that in one of the wealthiest countries on Earth, we have such a food security issue,” says Plata-Nino.

Finding private support to feed communities

Nonprofits like So What Else and Francis on the Hill, operating largely without public money or support, have found ways to partner with private businesses to redirect some of the U.S. food surplus that would otherwise be destined for dumpsters.

“We cold-called people and were stunned that one of the largest wholesalers on the East Coast, Coastal Sunbelt, had pallets of fresh produce,” says Francis on the Hill’s Steptoe.

“Organizations like ours are trying to get food to people who need it from organizations that have it and need to get rid of it so it doesn't go into landfills,” Steptoe explains.

As for So What Else, Harmon says it was a combination of naiveté, luck and simply showing up that cemented relationships with Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s, Giant and Safeway, all of which donate food they otherwise wouldn’t be able to sell and would have to throw away. The arrangements are mutually beneficial, says Harmon: They allow the grocery chains to receive tax deductions for their donations, and they provide the communities access to higher-quality food than they otherwise might find easily.

Despite these organizations being embedded in the community and having already built their own infrastructure, access to government resources remains scant.

The USDA’s pandemic-era Farmers to Families Food Box Program delivered more than 176 million food boxes to organizations, including Francis on the Hill, to distribute to individuals, but the program ended in May 2021.

So What Else did not receive its first grant from Montgomery County, about $130,000, until 2022, after already being operational for two years.

So What Else has received only meager support from government sources aside from that grant, the organization says. To Harmon, the process seems to work backward.

“It's like you have to build it before you get those resources,” he says. Instead, So What Else relies on grants and donations from other nonprofit organizations, including Capital Area Food Bank and Food Rescue US — its two biggest supporters.

Community-based organizations provide more than just nourishment, say food recipients and volunteers.

Cinthia Hinojosa, who received food every day from So What Else at the start of the pandemic, now travels 30 minutes from her home in Rockville on Sundays to help distribute food as a volunteer. She doesn’t see the time commitment as a burden, she says, because of the reward of being able to help her community.

“I started thinking about how I liked the organization, how they worked,” she says. “I said, ‘This is what I like: helping people.’ I asked if I could come help, too, and I started helping. … We need to help everyone because that is how we work as a whole.”

Food pantries act as a gathering place to share kindness and remind people that they are not alone, she says.

Federal Farm Bill looms large in public assistance battle

A refrigerated trailer used by So What Else food pantry is adorned with the logos of supporting companies in the parking lot of Lakeforest Mall in Gaithersburg, Maryland on March 26, 2023. (Hannah Gaber for Youthcast Media Group)

Not only does public assistance frequently fail to reach organizations like So What Else and Francis on the Hill — it also often fails to reach people of color. In 2013, USDA data showed 26% of non-Hispanic Black and nearly 24% of Hispanic households fell below the food insecurity threshold.

Only 10% of non-Hispanic white households fell below the same threshold, yet about 40% of SNAP recipients were white.

“It's not the demographics that you would expect,” given where the largest areas of need are, Plata-Nino says. “The majority of people utilizing SNAP are children. In terms of race, it's white women with children.”

This pattern plays out in the Washington area. Capital Area Food Bank’s 2023 Hunger Report shows that among those identified as falling below the threshold for food insecurity, 18% identified as white, 27% identified as Hispanic and 44% identified as Black. Yet 40% of the region’s SNAP participants are white, according to USDA data from 2020.

The SNAP changes enacted earlier this year as part of the debt ceiling deal included work requirements for ages 50 to 54, while exempting groups such as veterans and people experiencing homelessness. With the 2023 Farm Bill, which funds the food assistance program, being negotiated for passage this year, many are concerned about the changes already enacted by Congress, and what others may be ahead.

While SNAP assistance is geared toward individuals, Harmon feels there is room for public aid to groups like his in order to bolster the work they do in communities.

“It's disheartening that we're not getting enough help from the public sector. If we got more assistance from them, I feel like this is a manageable problem that we could help solve,” Harmon says.

Part of the work undertaken by Plata-Nino’s organization is to get the needs of individuals in front of Congress. She stresses that the Farm Bill, which is still under consideration, offers an opportunity for the public to share their perspectives with lawmakers — and for Congress to correct past mistakes.

“Those people who are being affected are the grassroots people who are actually doing the work,” she says. “They weren't part of the decision-making.”

Emily Hawkins and Shane Gomez are seniors and Michelle Collins is a junior at Annandale High School in Annandale, Va. Winnie Chan is a sophomore at Benjamin Banneker Academic High School in Washington, D.C. They were participants in a Youthcast Media Group reporting workshop on food insecurity and worked with YMG mentor-editor and former USA TODAY multimedia reporter Hannah Gaber. YMG is a nonprofit organization that teaches high school students across the country to report on health and social issues that impact communities of color, and the solutions to these issues.


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