Food stamp cuts boost demand for D.C.-area food banks ahead of Thanksgiving

Since the federal government cut pandemic-era food aid in March, Taja Peet has been skimping on laundry. “I have three bags of dirty clothes because I had to spend money on groceries,” said Pete, a 26-year-old single mother in Southeast D.C. “I had to make sure my son had food.”

A reduction in aid that had supported payments under the Supplementary Food Assistance Programme, affected more than one million households like Pitt’s in the D.C. area, according to a report by the nonprofit Food Research & Action Center. Now, as the country approaches its first Thanksgiving since similar safety net programs expired, some local food banks say the need is higher than it has been in years.

“We’re seeing unprecedented demand,” said Jackie DeCarlo, CEO of Manna Food Center, a nonprofit food distribution center in Montgomery County.

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Manna provided food to 5,781 families last month, DeCarlo said, eclipsing its monthly peak during the pandemic by about 1,000. Food for Others, a Fairfax County food bank, has distributed 30 percent more food this year than last, serving about 200 up to 250 people daily, development and communications coordinator Hannah Brockway said.

And the Capital Area Food Bank, which provides food to about 400 partner pantries and distribution sites in the area and nearby suburbs, has distributed 31 percent more food since July 1 than it budgeted for, said President and CEO Radha Muthia – which represents millions more meals that the food bank had to purchase or request through donations.

While inflation has begun to ease, the year has brought additional financial stressors, such as the removal of people who were kept on Medicaid rolls during the pandemic and the resumption of student loan repayments in September. For some, those extra payments of $200 or $300 each month “cause this increased level of need when it comes to food,” Muthia said, “because that’s the part that people tend to squeeze.”

At So Others Might Eat, a D.C. nonprofit that distributes food, more people are coming this year than last to make up for lost benefits from the pandemic and, more recently, to prepare for possible government shutdowns, Darryl said Wright, its senior vice president of community outreach. The crowds also, he said, included migrants bussed to D.C. from Arizona and Texas.

Pitt, who began the pandemic living in a homeless shelter, said she received up to $375 a month in extended food stamp benefits to feed herself and her son. She got an apartment through quick rehousing and a job earning about $15 an hour, although the end of that extra help means she’s left with $98 in food.

Pete hoards as much meat as possible, which she says is the most expensive part of her food budget. But there is little left for starches, vegetables and other foodstuffs.

“I don’t have any spare money,” Pete said, and food was still too expensive, she found, after she stopped going to the laundromat and started washing her clothes by hand instead. Combined with other hard costs like rent, she felt suffocated, she said. So she and thousands of others in the D.C. area are increasingly turning to food pantries.

No progress on hunger in D.C. region since pandemic, new report finds

A report the Capital Area Food Bank released in September found that the region has made no progress on food insecurity since the pandemic. Thirty-two percent of local residents did not have enough food in 2023, the report said, compared to 33 percent in 2022.

Although employment numbers remain high, many D.C. area residents report struggling with the high cost of living even before the spring benefit cuts.

Kim Lehmkul, 43, a D.C. resident who visits the Rosedale Recreation Center for food once a month, has seen lines of people wrap around the block, she said. What was once a one-hour wait before March has turned into an hour and a half delay.

Faced with such demand, some food banks have seen a drop in community donations, leaders said. “We received 50,000 pounds of food, which was really appreciated. But that was 6 percent less than what we got last year,” said DeCarlo, of Mana in Montgomery County. “It just goes to show that … people who have means [to donate]even they are feeling price pressure.”

Food for Others, Fairfax’s food bank, has been able to meet the needs so far thanks to early planning and generous community donations, said Executive Director Deborah Haynes. Collects non-perishable food items for Thanksgiving from individuals and local organizations and in the summer and stocks foods like yams for the holiday season. Last week, Haynes said, a local Catholic high school brought in “a box of food a day for five days.”

Taken together, “It’s a very large influx of food,” she said.

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Donations to So Others Might Eat have been just as strong, Wright said.

But in Northeast D.C., Lehmkuhl said she still sees homeless people on her block going hungry. And she hopes to fulfill her role, if only for a day.

Thanks to the Rosedale center’s monthly food pantries, the $291 in food stamps she receives a month, and careful budgeting, Lehmkuhl, who is unemployed, has amassed a small surplus of food. “I have leftover cranberry sauce from last year, mashed potatoes, onions, stuffing,” she said, and plans to use them to host Thanksgiving a holiday for your homeless neighbors.

However, the turkey is still unavailable.

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