What can the region do about rising food insecurity?

What can the region do about rising food insecurity?

A federal judge struck down a Trump administration rule that would have taken over 700,000 people off the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), more commonly known as food stamps. Bread For The City, a D.C. nonprofit, was one of the plaintiffs which sued over the rule.

The ruling comes after the release of a Capital Area Food Bank report that projected that food insecurity in the region could rise by as much as 60 percent due to the pandemic.

With unemployment rates rising, and no hope of a coronavirus relief bill in the foreseeable future, what are some solutions to this growing issue?

Produced by Richard Cunningham


  • George Jones Executive Director, Bread for the City
  • Eliza Berkon Reporter for the Affordability Desk, WAMU; @eberkon

Resources For Those Dealing With Food Insecurity

We are compiling a list of resources for people dealing with food insecurity and hunger during this pandemic. To see the list of local nonprofits and food distribution programs, click the link here.


  • 12:00:03

    KOJO NNAMDIYou're tuned in to The Kojo Nnamdi Show on WAMU 88.5, welcome. Later in the broadcast we'll discuss Chef Marcus Samuelsson's latest book. It's called "Rise: Black Cooks and the Soul of American Food." But first with unemployment rates rising and no coronavirus relief on the horizon, many in the region are dealing with food insecurity. The Trump administration had been pushing to require more of those getting federal food assistance known as SNAP to work or else lose their benefits.

  • 12:00:32

    KOJO NNAMDILast week a federal judge rejected the move, which was projected to affect nearly 700,000 people across the country including 20,000 in the District of Columbia alone. Joining me to discuss the implications of the rule is Eliza Berkon, who is a Reporter for WAMU's Affordability Desk. Eliza, thank you for joining us.

  • 12:00:52

    ELIZA BERKONOf course. Glad to be here.

  • 12:00:53

    NNAMDIEliza, tell us how this all came about. What's the background here with this case?

  • 12:00:58

    BERKONSure. So the new rule dates back to December when the USDA announced it would it make it more difficult for states to wave time limits on benefits for what it calls able-bodied adults without dependents or a-bods. Since 1996, as part of welfare reform legislation signed by President Clinton, these individuals, who are ages 18 to 49 have been eligible for benefits for no more than three months in a three year period unless they're working, volunteering or participating in a work training program for at least 80 hours a month.

  • 12:01:33

    BERKONBut states have generally been allowed to apply for waivers of that time limit if unemployment rates are high or there aren't enough available jobs in a given area. Under the new rule, which was set to go into effect in April, states would have faced tighter restrictions when applying for waivers meaning fewer people could get their benefits extended. So in March a federal judge issued a temporary injunction of the rule and last week vacated the rule entirely.

  • 12:02:00

    NNAMDIWhat reason did the administration give for tightening the work requirements to access SNAP?

  • 12:02:07

    BERKONWell, the Trump administration issued the new rule at a time when unemployment was relatively low. You remember this is before the pandemic back in December. And it said at the time that the rule would help move more U.S. residents towards self-sufficiency. Agricultural Secretary Sonny Perdue said at the time that quote, "government can be a powerful force for good. But government dependency has never been the American dream."

  • 12:02:31

    NNAMDIWell, the judge's ruling came after the beginning of the pandemic. Did the pandemic have an influence on his ruling and did the judge say?

  • 12:02:39

    BERKONIt certainly seems that way. There were a number of reasons that the judge laid out for the ruling itself, but I have to look into that a little bit further.

  • 12:02:53

    NNAMDIJoining us now is George Jones, the CEO of Bread for the City. George Jones, thank you for joining us.

  • 12:02:59

    GEORGE JONESMy pleasure. Thanks for having me.

  • 12:03:02

    NNAMDITell our listeners a little bit about Bread for the City. What work does your organization do and how many people do you serve in this region?

  • 12:03:10

    JONESSo Bread has been around since the mid-1970s and we own and operate two community centers that are sort of one stop shops. We provide food, clothing, medical, legal and social services to communities, who live on low incomes, individuals and families. And we also do a lot of work in terms of organizing community to advocate for the kinds of reforms that we think really will ultimately help end poverty one day in the Washington D.C. We serve in a typical month of pre-COVID we would have served about 5,000 households every month. We actually saw our numbers spike up during COVID particularly around food insecurity.

  • 12:03:50

    NNAMDIYour organization was one of the plaintiffs in this case. So this ruling is in fact part of your doing. What effect would this ruling have had on the region at this moment had it been ruled differently?

  • 12:04:06

    JONESSure. One of the reasons we were able to join the lawsuit was because we were able to make the case that there would have been a direct impact on Bread for the City itself. That we would have anticipated a spike in the number of people directly turning to us for supplemental groceries or food assistance on a given month. And not that we would have minded addressing that, but we had to make the case that in fact we thought there would be a direct impact on our own ability to serve the community.

  • 12:04:33

    JONESBut, you know, we were more concerned to be quite frank about the 20,000 people you referenced earlier who would have been, you know, even more food insecure. As many people have said a number of times since the pandemic, you know, the disparities that show up in food and housing and income for people of color and people living in poverty in general, you know, were already horrendous pre-COVID. And so to be quite honest with you, it was heaven sent, this decision because I couldn't imagine if this had really taken place during this pandemic. It just would have been an unimaginable hardship for the people we serve.

  • 12:05:08

    NNAMDIYeah. It's important to point out that what we are talking about in terms of your being one of the plaintiffs in this was before the pandemic came down upon us. And you talked about how many would have been affected at that point as many as maybe 15 - 20,000. But we're now more than seven months into the pandemic. What has that meant for your organization and for the need here in the D.C. area?

  • 12:05:37

    JONESYeah. You know, practically it's meant that we've had days when the demand for our food has spiked by, you know, 200 plus percent. We've had on a typical day before the pandemic we would have had maybe between 200 to 300 maybe as many as 400 households stopping at our two food pantries to get supplemental groceries, which is what we offer. We offer groceries to families, who have places to prepare the food stuff we give out. But we've had days during the pandemic, well, we've had as many as 1,000 households served on one given day. And we have -- so that's been the real practical implication is that the numbers are way up. And even on just a typical day during the pandemic we were serving no less than 500 households a day.

  • 12:06:26

    NNAMDIGeorge Jones, who is this issue affecting the most. Where are the needs most prevalent?

  • 12:06:33

    JONESWell, again, that was not surprising, but certainly disappointing is that people of color, Black people in particular in Washington D.C. where Black people I think still represent about 47 percent of the population, are disproportionately impacted by food insecurity and have been disproportionately impacted during this pandemic in terms of food insecurity. You know, they're overrepresented in service sector jobs and so many of those folks either got laid off or just are all together fired, because business is closed.

  • 12:07:02

    JONESAnd so, yeah, people of color. We actually also saw an influx of folks who identify as Latinx calling us for food, one of the things that we did, we had pivot around during the pandemic because of the social distancing guidelines. And we started delivering groceries. So historically people would come to our pantries and pick them up. But 80 to 90 percent of the foods we now distribute are through delivery. And we're actually partnered with a number of groups who helped us deliver those groceries to food insecure households.

  • 12:07:32

    NNAMDIEliza Berkon, how many people in this region are using programs like SNAP due to food insecurity caused by the pandemic?

  • 12:07:41

    BERKONSo some 1.7 million residents of D.C., Maryland and Virginia received SNAP in August. And that number reflects some substantial increases during the pandemic. As of late summer participation in D.C. is increased by about 23 percent compared to pre-pandemic numbers. There's also been a 14 percent increase in Virginia, and a 43 percent jump in Maryland. Nationally participating is up about 17 percent. And part of that is due to temporary flexibility and expanded benefits that the USDA has granted during the pandemic.

  • 12:08:17

    BERKONI spoke to Capital Area Food Bank a few weeks ago. And CEO Radha Muthiah said that the number of people dealing with food insecurity in their coverage area has shot up by 50 percent since the pandemic began. Muthiah noted that a strong SNAP program allows organizations like hers to assist more people in need as well as stimulating economic activity.

  • 12:08:41

    NNAMDIAnd yes, Radha Muthiah has been a guest on this show frequently discussing this issue. We got an email from Debbie in Greenbelt who says, "I think hunger in America is deplorable. And taking the SNAP away from people is awful. I really feel for the people who don't have any kind of way of getting anything. And I have suggested in my place employment to take the extra food to homeless people and I have been rejected for years for that idea. I think more people should be doing that. Then maybe people could eat."

  • 12:09:13

    NNAMDIWhat do you think? How do you think the region should deal with food insecurity? George Jones, experts predict that food insecurity in the region has increased by between 48 and 60 percent due to the pandemic. Do you think that local non-profits and other food distribution services are prepared for this?

  • 12:09:32

    JONESThat's a good question. I think that we certainly are -- you know, we see it as our mission to be responsive to even these kinds of fluctuations. And so Bread for the City has spent probably 50 percent more on food over this pandemic than we would have done previously. So we, you know, had to rev up our fundraising machines and really sort of get ready. I know the food bank has done the same thing to really, you know, generate resources to be responsive to this.

  • 12:09:57

    JONESBut the truth of the matter is, you know, in a lot of ways this is always sort of a Band-Aid solution that the longer term solution is to deal with widespread income insecurity, to deal with the sort of challenges of unemployment in our communities. So we've always been sort of if you will kind of the alternative to some more systemic solutions. And that's one of the things that our advocacy department really pushes for is, well, dealing with sort of root causes of poverty and the reason that particular people of color experience disproportionately so many of the ill effects whether it's housing insecurity or food insecurity, lack of access to healthcare.

  • 12:10:31

    JONESSo, yes, non-profits will be here to do that. But we really need more systemic solutions to -- and certainly things that are antithetical to the idea of cutting food stamps. For instance, we're talking about really expanding programs like that. I think that like the speaker just mentioned that in a lot of ways when people have more food stamps, they become a kind of economic engine. And I think those are the kinds -- we need to think creatively about how to use public dollars to really deal with some of the system issues that causes the Bread for the City to be necessary to be quite frank.

  • 12:11:03

    NNAMDIAnd how long do you think these spikes in people using your services will last?

  • 12:11:09

    JONESYou know, I told my staff recently that I'm thinking, you know, all through 2021. We should be thinking 2022 before we, you know, are to see the light of day in terms of getting out of -- maybe not just pandemic, but the ill effects of the pandemic things like unemployment, things like food insecurity, and even that maybe still too optimistic to be quite frank.

  • 12:11:35

    NNAMDIGot to take a short break, when we come back, we will be continuing this conversation on food insecurity amid the pandemic. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

  • 12:12:07

    NNAMDIWelcome back to our conversation about food insecurity amid the pandemic in this region. We're talking with George Jones, the CEO of Bread for the City and Eliza Berkon, who is a Reporter for WAMU's Affordability Desk, taking your calls at 800-433-8850. Eliza, we're still waiting on Congress to pass a coronavirus relief bill. What has this delay meant for people and what would legislation do to help in this situation?

  • 12:12:35

    BERKONRight. Well, a new round of federal relief would go a long way. The HEROES Act, for example, which passed the House in May would temporarily raise the maximum SNAP benefit by 15 percent as well as raise the minimum monthly benefit from $16 to $30. But the Senate, however, has not passed that bill. And the White House and congressional leaders have not yet reached a deal regarding a new relief package. The Senate adjourned Tuesday until November 9th. So we'll likely need to wait until after the election to see any additional relief.

  • 12:13:10

    NNAMDILet's go to the phones. Here's Joann in Washington D.C. Joann, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:13:16

    JOANNHi, Kojo. Thank you for taking this topic and exploring it. I just want to say, food insecurity can hit anyone. I'm a white professional woman, who works for a hospital system. And my hours were cut in half so therefore my paycheck is cut in half. And there's only enough, you know, to pay for housing right now. And shortly I think the entire job is going to be gone. But I found can goods, you know, left at spots along the sidewalk like dusty, rusted dented cans that I think like no name brands, I'm not sure where they came from. But they helped make vegetable soup.

  • 12:14:05

    JOANNSo I stretched what I can. I want to say, I've been on SNAP before and my suggestion-recommendation is that to make the most of the SNAP dollars, I think they should limit it to the types of food that you're allowed to buy. I was surprised that you could buy all kind of junk food, cakes and pies and processed foods. And if they limited it to, you know, meats, vegetables and fruits, some basic cooking things, it would go a lot further.

  • 12:14:43

    NNAMDIGeorge Jones, how would you respond to that?

  • 12:14:47

    JONESWell, although, I guess I can appreciate the sort of thinking there, I'd be really worried when the government tries to be parochial about what people can do -- what grownups can do with their benefits. I think it's a slippery slope to go do down that aisle and talk about "We're going to help you out. But we only want to help you if you do exactly this." And so I would not be a proponent of that. But I do appreciate -- and by the way, I also would say, again, both the sort of examples that were cited, you know, the anecdotal is that there may be problems in the area, but I don't know that there's really any proof that that is in fact widespread.

  • 12:15:28

    JONESPeople both living cans on the street after they pick up food from pantries presumably or buying a lot of candy with their food stamps. So I'd also sort of caution from sort of thinking that that is somehow indicative of what happens. My suspicion is -- my experience with people with low incomes is they tend to do the right thing.

  • 12:15:46

    JONESThere's a whole narrative about people doing things that are not sort of smart. But my experience is that people, they have children. They're trying to do the best by their kids. And so I think the government should really focus in getting more into the households and folks and not really thinking about creating shopping lists for anybody.

  • 12:16:06

    NNAMDIThank you very much for your call, Joann. Here now is Tyler in Delaware. Tyler, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:16:15

    TYLERGood morning, folks. My scope of my question was really why haven't we developed some sort of national policy to deal with the food that is thrown away at grocery stores thanks to nothing, but aesthetics or shelf rotation. So it's fine. It's not expired. It's not dangerous to eat or anything, but it might not look as good or it might just need to be rotated based on the vendor contract. That's an amazing amount of food that we're just throwing away.

  • 12:16:43

    NNAMDIGeorge Jones.

  • 12:16:45

    JONESWell, I'm interestingly enough, you know, we talked about the Capitol Area Food Bank. And people may not know, but there's a kind of food chain that exists in the food insecurity business. And it starts with Feeding American, which is the national clearing house for food stock. And so a huge percentage of foods actually do come to feeding America across the country and often times it is stuff that grocery stores don't move for whatever reason. They just don't sell well or the cans are dented.

  • 12:17:10

    JONESAnd so, now, again, I don't know specifically what the percentage of stuff that gets to Feeding America. But that process is already a part of the system. And so a lot of things that Bread for the City, for instance, gets ultimately from the food bank and then distributes to families actually do come from grocery stores who have donated it to Feeding America. So that is a real idea that is long standing in terms of how food stuff gets into families who are food insecure.

  • 12:17:38

    NNAMDIGeorge Jones, do you think that there are specific reforms that the SNAP program needs?

  • 12:17:44

    JONESYeah, well, again, I think the biggest one is I think we should be thinking about expanding. When we talk about the economy and how to rev it up, we should think about expanding food stamps for households particularly since, to be quite honest with you, people think about food stamps as being a robust set of resource for families. But oftentimes people are getting really marginal amounts, $10, $15, $20 in food stamps. And so one, we shouldn't overestimate how much families get and we should really think about I think in terms of national policy. And if we're really talking dealing with inequity, dealing with racial inequity, dealing with poverty in general, how do we use government resources to actually fuel the economy and food stamps is one of the best ways to do that. So expanding that program is the first place I would start and not shrinking it.

  • 12:18:36

    NNAMDIHere now is Steve in Washington D.C. Steve, your turn.

  • 12:18:40

    STEVEKojo, thank you. I wanted to just jump in and complement George for his work. And mention that I work at the Southwest Business Improvement District and late in March we got together with Jose and the Nats Foundation and started delivering meals to Sifax, Greenleaf those neighborhoods in southwest. We found ourselves quicker than you could have imagined delivering 1,000 meals a day. We were well over 100,000 meals total before the program ended. I was thinking about what George says. I agree with it. I don't see anything in 21 or 22 that would make that sort of need go away.

  • 12:19:25

    STEVEAnd I must tell you, it is stunning to see that. I don't think we're known as a big food distribution entity at all. Most people wouldn't credit a bid with being a food distribution business. The same thing is true with produce plus. We underwrite that at our Saturday food market. I think we went from like 50 or 60 people to 125. I don't think we're scratching the surface here.

  • 12:19:53

    NNAMDIThank you very much for your call. George Jones, care to respond.

  • 12:19:57

    JONESYeah. I really agree with that. You know, before the pandemic there were 100,000 plus people living in D.C. who were living at or below poverty. So unfortunately we've always known at Bread for the City we were only reaching a portion of the community. And even the whole safety net that includes other food providers I think are only reaching a percentage of folks who were food insecure before the pandemic. And so it's only gotten worse. And we need to I think again that's why I think we both on the private side like non-profit, but more importantly on the government side need to be prepared to do more to make legislation that is responsive to the fact that these are hard times and doubly hard for those folks who are living on low incomes how have lost their jobs who were food insecure even before the pandemic.

  • 12:20:46

    NNAMDIElize Berkon, how can people dealing with food insecurity get the resources they need?

  • 12:20:52

    BERKONSure. So there's a lot of resources in the D.C. area if you're dealing with food insecurity. One option is mutual aid, which is essentially groups of community members assisting other community members with tasks such as delivering groceries or preparing meals. And there are several active mutual aid groups throughout the D.C. region some of which my colleague Jenny Gathright recently wrote about. Another resource, of course, is the many food banks in the area including Maryland Food Bank, the Arlington Food Assistance Center and the Capital Area Food Bank, which also has a searchable directory on its website for users to find assistance with food as well as housing, jobs and other needs.

  • 12:21:35

    NNAMDIWe only have about a minute or less left, George Jones, but what other policies of relief should the region enact to directly address food insecurity?

  • 12:21:45

    JONESYou know, I've already talked about expanding food stamps. But one of the other things we've been experimenting with is cash transfers, which with some people it's even more controversial. But Bread for the City has been in a partnership with three other non-profits. Together we've raised $4 million to due cash transfers directly to households so they can pay for food expense or housing expenses. So we have to be really progressive and expansive in what we're willing to try to sort deal with ...

  • 12:22:16

    NNAMDIThat's all the time we have. George Jones, Eliza Berkon, thank you both for joining us. When we come back, we will talk with Chef Marcus Samuelsson about his latest book "Rise: Black Cooks and the Soul of American Food." I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

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