Area food banks have seen a surge in demand since the pandemic began.

Area food banks have seen a surge in demand since the pandemic began.

Mr. Rogers once said, “My mother used to say, a long time ago, whenever there would be a catastrophe that was in the movies or on the air, she would say, ‘Always look for the helpers. There will always be helpers. You know, just on the sidelines.'”

Since the pandemic began, we have certainly found the helpers. Some of the key helpers have been the people providing food and meals at area food banks. The demand for their services have increased tremendously. For instance, the Capital Area Food Bank has seen up to four times as many people than they normally do. And with the federal unemployment money ending at the end of the month, we’re likely to see a greater need for their services.

But, what happens if the food banks run out of food?

Produced by Kurt Gardinier



  • 12:32:02

    FRED ROGERSMy mother used to say, a long time ago, whenever there would be any really catastrophe that was in the movies or on the air, she would say, always look for the helpers. There will always be helpers, you know, just on the sidelines. That's why I think that if news programs could make a conscious effort of showing rescue teams, of showing who -- medical people -- anybody who is coming into a place where there's a tragedy, to be sure that they include that. Because if you look for the helpers, you'll know that there's hope.

  • 12:32:56

    KOJO NNAMDIWe listened to Mr. Rogers and did an entire show on the helpers back in April. Today, we'll check in on some of the people providing food and other critical services to those in need. The demand for assistance has increased tremendously since March. So, what happens when demand outstrips supply of volunteers and of food? Joining me now is Scott Lewis, the executive director of Enterprises, Education and Employment at Catholic Charities of Washington. Scott Lewis, thank you for joining us.

  • 12:33:27

    SCOTT LEWISOh, thank you for having me, Kojo, on this great show.

  • 12:33:30

    NNAMDIRadha Muthiah is the president and CEO of the Capital Area Food Bank. Radha, good to talk to you again.

  • 12:33:37

    RADHA MUTHIAHGood to talk to you, too, Kojo.

  • 12:33:39

    NNAMDIRadha, what is the mission of the Capital Area Food Bank? Tell our listeners.

  • 12:33:44

    MUTHIAHThe Capital Area Food Bank provides food to hundreds of thousands of individuals who are hungry or food insecure in our region. And we do that through a network of about 400-plus partners, nonprofit partners, including, actually, many organizations like Catholic Charities. For example, the Father McKenna Center here in D.C. And so we work to provide food through these soup kitchens, pantries, senior centers, other community-based organizations. And, typically -- and I emphasize the word typically, here -- in a typical year, we provide roughly about 30 million meals to those in need in our community.

  • 12:34:27

    NNAMDIThirty million meals on a typical year, but that was before the pandemic. How many have you -- how many people have you been serving, and how many meals have you been providing for since the start of the pandemic?

  • 12:34:42

    MUTHIAHIt's a great question. You know, we're tracking this data since about March, is when we look at the pandemic as sort of beginning in all earnest in our area. And we've seen tremendous increases in demand. Anywhere from, you know, 30 percent in some months, with some partners, to 400 percent increase in the number of individuals who are in need.

  • 12:35:04

    MUTHIAHI'll explain a little bit why these numbers are so high. Typically, those who are in need of food rely on the food bank for about three to five days' worth of food every month. Many of these individuals are working, and they have some income to be able to support their nutrition needs. But they have a gap, and they come to the food bank to help address that gap.

  • 12:35:27

    MUTHIAHWhat's happened in the course of the pandemic is that those individuals have relied on us, not just for three to five days' worth of food, but closer to two weeks' worth of food. One, because we've all heard the public health guidance that we should have a good amount of food, you know, in our homes. And so, you know, those who we're supporting need to have that same amount of food, as well.

  • 12:35:49

    MUTHIAHBut the other reason demand has gone up is because there are so many more individuals who, in the past, were, you know, comfortable working paycheck to paycheck, but at least able to meet their own food needs, who've recently become unemployed. And so those individuals who were, you know, working paycheck to paycheck not having that paycheck has unfortunately put them in a situation of food insecurity. So, we are, you know, supporting those who we may have supported before the pandemic, but a pretty large number of individuals who are new to having to navigate this emergency food assistance system in our area.

  • 12:36:28

    NNAMDIScott Lewis, same question to you. What is the mission of Catholic Charities?

  • 12:36:32

    LEWISWell, the mission of Catholic Charities is to serve all people in need, to be able to open doors for services that others aren't able to access. Catholic Charities has legal services, social services, mental, dental, behavioral health, food and employment services and many more. And during this pandemic, we have seen, just as the Capital Area Food Bank has, exponential increase in the need for food.

  • 12:37:02

    LEWISThe people that we serve, when this pandemic hit, really didn't have the money to have two-weeks' worth of food in their pantry. Again, living paycheck to paycheck, they were kind of left without anything and without a job. And so, during this period, we have increased the amount of food that we've distributed into the community through three of our locations, one that's in Mount Pleasant in Columbia Heights, one that's up in Silver Spring, and then another location down in southern Maryland in Charles County in Waldorf.

  • 12:37:40

    NNAMDIYou mentioned...

  • 12:37:40

    LEWISThat wasn't enough -- oh, I'm sorry...

  • 12:37:43

    NNAMDINo, no, no. Go right ahead. I was going to ask you more specifically about your Mount Pleasant food pantry, but go ahead.

  • 12:37:49

    LEWISYeah, so the Mount Pleasant food pantry, before the pandemic hit, served maybe 50 to 75 families a week. And right after March 13th, we saw this huge increase. And we are serving, every week, about 650 families. We're doing it using social distance and PPE. We're actually even giving out PPE equipment and masks and hand sanitizer, along with protein, fresh fruits and vegetables, meats, diapers. We've partnered with a dairy to give out fresh milk.

  • 12:38:37

    LEWISAnd what I was going to say, also, is that this wasn't quite enough. We have other -- there were other places that aren't in these three locations, so we started a series of community food drops. Every week, we do another drop of 500 to 1,000 packages in some area in this -- in some parking lot or area in Prince George's, Montgomery County, or in D.C., and usually serving up to 500 to 1,000 families.

  • 12:39:10

    NNAMDIBefore the pandemic at your Mount Pleasant location, how many families a week were you serving, compared with how many families you're serving every Wednesday now?

  • 12:39:23

    LEWISWell, we were serving 50 to 75 families before the pandemic, and now we're serving, consistently, about 650 families. It's a huge increase.

  • 12:39:37

    NNAMDIWow. On to the phones. Here is Terri in Herndon, Virginia. Terri, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:39:42

    TERRIHello there, Kojo. Thanks for having me.

  • 12:39:44

    NNAMDIYou're welcome.

  • 12:39:45

    TERRII am a volunteer. I was going to say I work for, but it is a volunteer position for She Believes in Me. And we're an organization in Herndon, Virginia, and we are helping the most vulnerable families here, which are mostly immigrants.

  • 12:40:00

    TERRIAnd we have kind of changed our focus since COVID hit, and we are now feeding families every week through an adopt-a-family program with fresh foods. We have a number of community partners here in Herndon and northern Virginia. We partner with (word?) UMC, a church that gives us space, and we have a pantry now with diapers and food and fresh food. Cornerstone helps support us (unintelligible), and then (word?) they give us feminine hygiene products.

  • 12:40:32


  • 12:40:32

    TERRISo, yeah, we're out there just serving the community every single day. And we're now developing new programs that are going to reach them for emotional support, where we're going to have, like, wellness liaisons meet with the families, of course, social distancing, and checking on their needs, and transition more to giving them activities because, you know, many of these kids are going to be home for the school year. And, you know, kind of easy mind games (sounds like) and things to keep them engaged, as well as a bunch of snacks. These families' parents going back to work, they need easy-to-fix meals for themselves.

  • 12:41:11

    NNAMDIOkay. Thank you very much, Terri, for sharing that with us, and for the good work you're obviously doing. Radha, where were you getting food for distribution before the pandemic, and how are you receiving it now?

  • 12:41:23

    MUTHIAHSo, prior to the pandemic, about 60 percent of the food that we receive at the food bank is donated to us. Whether it's from area retailers or large, you know, food drives that companies, schools, etcetera would hold. Right at the beginning of the pandemic, we saw that decline by about 75 percent. I think it won't be a surprise to your listeners, given that all of us were probably going to the stores at that point to, you know, get anything we could get, and food was flying off the shelves. So, retailers just didn't have as much to donate to us.

  • 12:41:58

    MUTHIAHSo as a result, we are having to purchase just, you know, multiple times more what we would have purchased ever before at the food bank. You know, as I look back at, you know, the last few months and compare that to the 40 years that the food bank has been here serving the Washington, D.C. region, this has most certainly been the most resource-intensive period that we have witnessed. From mid-March, we've purchased about 350 truckloads of food. And so just in the last few months, we've purchased close to 12 times what we purchased, you know, the entire last year. So, what we're not getting in terms of food donations, we're substituting in the form of purchases that we are making for the community.

  • 12:42:48

    MUTHIAHI think it's also important to highlight the important role that we and other nonprofits have engaged in as it relates to advocacy. Because there's a lot of food banks and partners, you know, like Catholic Charities and like, you know, the other organizations in our area, you know, there's a lot we can do on our own, but there's a lot that the government can do, as well. And so the advocacy component has been really important to ensure that there are programs that the government can run through USDA that really help bring the food that's available from farms and help funnel that, if you will, through food banks to those who are in need.

  • 12:43:30

    MUTHIAHSo, we've been lucky in that our advocacy and engagement with USDA has resulted, just about a month-and-a-half ago, in a new program called the Coronavirus Food Assistance Program that really provides healthy produce, protein and dairy that helps farmers and helps those who are hungry. And that's facilitated, at least through the end of December. So, programs like this are really important, because they allow us to do more of what needs to be done to be able to meet the demand that's currently out there in the community, and we know might be out there for some time to come, given that the economic recovery could take a while.

  • 12:44:15

    NNAMDIHere's Pam in Washington, D.C. Pam, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:44:19

    PAMHi. Thank you so much, Kojo. I actually am at So Others Might Eat downtown, dropping off hundreds of baked goods that have been baked by a whole host of teenage and tween-age kids who I work with at (unintelligible) congregation. And they have been totally amazing in not only studying people experiencing homelessness in their situation and gentrification and racial justice, but they've put -- they're walking the walk. They are making hundreds and hundreds of cookies and baked goods, making all of these masks and making meals for Calvary Women's Services. They are just amazing. So, it's a shout-out for all of these young people, yes.

  • 12:45:08

    NNAMDIThank you very much for sharing that with us. And Radha, Pam said she is downtown, which causes me to raise this issue. Has the increase in people going to your pantries been even across the region, or are there certain areas that have a greater need of your services?

  • 12:45:24

    MUTHIAHI'm really glad that you asked that, and it's great to hear that Pam's at So Others Might Eat. SOME is a big partner of ours in D.C., and we're proud to continue to work with them in a big way. We cover the entire greater Washington metropolitan area, so all eight wards in the District, as well as the counties in northern Virginia and suburban Maryland, so Prince George's and Montgomery County.

  • 12:45:46

    MUTHIAHThere's no question that need has increased significantly across the entire region. What is interesting, as we, you know, start to look at unemployment claims, you know, over the last few months, there we do see some unevenness in terms of where we have greater numbers of unemployed. So, as we study those claims, we are seeing that, you know, while, of course, unemployment is increasing across the board, it seems to be particularly high in Fairfax County, Montgomery County, Prince William County.

  • 12:46:18

    MUTHIAHAnd so for those who are unemployed and who happen to, you know, have earned incomes that are on the lower end of the spectrum, we know that that unemployment can correlate with poverty and food insecurity very, very quickly. And so we're paying particular attention to these counties that are experiencing, you know, high growth rates of unemployment, knowing that there may be more newly food insecure individuals in those areas. But the statistics I shared earlier in terms of the growth and demand, that's consistent across the entire region. And so we see tremendous growth across our area.

  • 12:47:00

    NNAMDIScott Lewis, in less than two weeks, 30 million people will lose the additional federal unemployment money of $600 per week that they've been receiving. Are you prepared, because of that, for a potential surge in demand?

  • 12:47:13

    LEWISYes, we're prepared for the next, I'd say, two months. We have been purchasing food and relying on a lot of our partnerships also with farms, farmers and other retailers in the area to fill our pantries full of food. But I'm afraid that, you now, we're going to come to an end, at some point. And we're only able to do this because of the generous donations of some corporations, many families, many people that gave to us at this period of time.

  • 12:47:49

    LEWISAlso, I'm really thankful for the volunteers that help us to do this work. But, yes, I'm really worried. We've been filing unemployment claims or helping file unemployment claims with clients that call us, as well as connecting people to SNAP benefits. And we know that it's huge, and we know that those folks need the money. And when this cut comes to unemployment, it's going to be dramatic, and it's going to cause a large financial problem for our families.

  • 12:48:23

    NNAMDIHere's Habiba in Washington, D.C. Habiba, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:48:28

    HABIBAHi. I just wanted to mention that we (unintelligible) food bank for at least three years if not four. And we give out fresh food, produce and hot meals, lately, once a month to the community in Anacostia, which is a food desert, as you know. And so I just wanted to mention that we are there. We've been doing it for four or five years, working with the food bank two to three years. And we've also been making lunches for the kids (unintelligible) snacks, and now they're missing that. So, we do lunches Tuesdays and Thursdays. And we take them around to the kids in their homes, and we give it out to the community. So, we're actually doing one this weekend, the food bank, fresh food giveaway, this weekend.

  • 12:49:12

    NNAMDIOkay. Habiba, thank you very much for sharing that information with us. On to Denise in Washington, D.C. Denise, your turn.

  • 12:49:21

    DENISEOh, good morning. Thank you so much for having me. I'm Denise Woods, and I'm coordinator for Sanctuary DMV Food Justice Initiative. And we started with the hopes of providing food to people who had been accompanying on ICE appointment. And that was a very small group. And within a week or two, we skyrocketed and exploded to 1,200 people. And now we have 2,300 on our waitlist. And we have raised $200,000 and provided food justice for approximately 18,000 people in three-and-a-half months.

  • 12:49:56

    DENISEAnd we pretty much built the plane while we flew it in order to make sure that people who were running out of food could get food on their plates that day. We were then completely overwhelmed and had to shut down our intake. We were getting a hundred to 2 to 300 requests a day. And what we found out is a beautiful firestorm, because people were telling everyone they loved, and then some, our number. They are putting it on Facebook, putting it on the radio. And we just couldn't keep up.

  • 12:50:27

    DENISEAnd so now we really need volunteers, because people, black and brown immigrants, are disproportionately impacted by COVID and unemployment. And they're locked out of the system in terms of government funds. So, we really would love to see the community rally around because our government is basically abandoning. And the people need food justice right now.

  • 12:50:52

    NNAMDIDenise, thank you very much for your call. First you, Scott Lewis, a lot of people want to help, but it might be a little difficult for some of them to contribute. But how challenging has it been raising money to meet the additional demand?

  • 12:51:05

    LEWISWell, it's been a challenge, but we've got some great folks working on writing grants and asking for money. And we have gotten it only through the generosity of many great donors. I think that this problem is not going to go away, not for the people that we serve and not for the short term or the long term. And so I do ask that people give what they can. And if they can't give, they can give their time. We have volunteer opportunities for people. They can come to our website at, where they can donate. Or they can find out an opportunity where they can volunteer with one of our programs.

  • 12:51:50

    NNAMDIThank you very much. Before I put the same question to you, Radha, let's hear from Becky in Washington, D.C. Becky, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:52:00

    BECKYHi. Thank you so much for having me. I have a local retail shop in D.C., and we try to use our platform for good when we have a community issue. And so I'd love to host a fundraiser. I remember the same discussion happening just a few weeks after shutdown. And I'm curious to know if I want to raise money with my customers for food banks in the area, is it better for them to donate direct cash or food, like, what kind of donation?

  • 12:52:34

    NNAMDIRadha, could you answer that, please?

  • 12:52:37

    MUTHIAHSure. Well, thank you for offering your support. And I agree with what, you know, Scott has said, as well, in terms of volunteers as well as financial resources. Specifically, at this time, given that we're purchasing so much food and we're purchasing it in such huge quantities, right -- millions and millions of pounds of food -- financial resources are really what we do need at this point, as opposed to food donations. We're trying to -- we're building boxes of nutritionally balanced food and we're trying to ensure that there's adequate amounts of protein, dairy, carbohydrates, vegetables, etcetera. So, if we have funds to be able to purchase, it makes it easier to construct these nutritionally balanced boxes.

  • 12:53:19

    MUTHIAHAnd I think, you know, what you've heard, Kojo, in this show and in prior shows that you've done as well, there are very creative, innovative ways of coming together to support our community during this time. Certainly, many of your listeners and others in the community have supported us in the last few months, and we thank them all, you know, greatly. Because we wouldn't be able to purchase the amount of food that we need to without their support.

  • 12:53:42

    MUTHIAHThis is, unfortunately, looking like a longer term scenario for us, rather than a short, few-month crisis. So, we encourage those who've donated already to please think about donating again because the size and the number of individuals who are in need only seems to be growing at this point. And we will use those funds to purchase food, but also to better target those communities that are in need, and be able to provide the food through means that are most applicable and channels that are most relevant to the most vulnerable within our communities.

  • 12:54:18

    MUTHIAHSo, if you got to Capital Area Food Bank dot o-r-g, you'll be able to easily donate. And there's also a volunteer connection there to be able to volunteer, as we need more support in the communities.

  • 12:54:30

    NNAMDIAnd I'm afraid that's all the time we have. Radha Muthiah is the president and CEO at the Capital Area Food Bank. Radha, thank you so much for joining us and for the work you do.

  • 12:54:39

    MUTHIAHAlways a pleasure. Thanks, Kojo.

  • 12:54:41

    NNAMDIScott Lewis it the executive director of Enterprises, Education and Employment at Catholic Charities of Washington. Scott Lewis, thank you for joining us and for the work you're doing.

  • 12:54:51

    LEWISThank you very much, Kojo.

  • 12:54:52

    NNAMDIThis segment on the state of area food banks was produced by Kurt Gardinier, and our conversation on racism with Geoffrey James Madison and RuQuan Brown was produced by Lauren Markoe. Are you a student, teacher or parent? We'd like to hear from you. What are you most worried about when it comes to school this fall? Record a voice memo on your cell phone and email the recording to, subject line school reopening.

  • 12:55:16

    NNAMDIComing up tomorrow, the first segment in our education series, what will school look like this fall? Local districts are drafting plans. While some are opting for 100 percent remote instruction, others are aiming for a combination of in-person and online learning. So, what factors into these decisions, and what are schools doing to ensure the safety of students, teachers and other support staff? We'll hear from public health experts and school district leaders. That all starts tomorrow, at noon. Until then, thank you for listening, and stay safe. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

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