A new coalition will tackle how Arlington nonprofits and county government distribute food and support people who are food insecure.
The group held its kick-off meeting at Central Library last week, attended by 65 people. It will be focused on three areas: improving food access, increasing outreach to the community and making systemic change through policy advocacy.
The coalition “creates the infrastructure to systematically monitor the needs of Arlington’s food security system, allowing us to not only act more quickly when greater need arises, but also to identify and rectify systemic challenges earlier,” says County Board member Matt de Ferranti, who campaigned in 2018 on ending child hunger by 2022.
Although considered one of the wealthier localities in the D.C. area, several thousand Arlingtonians do not have consistent access to healthy meals and pantry and fridge staples. Arlington has historically supported these individuals through a patchwork quilt of nonprofit grocery and meal distribution programs, while county staff processed food stamp applications and Arlington Public Schools provided free and reduced-price breakfasts and lunches.
That began to change when Arlington County hired a food security coordinator, Stephanie Hopkins.
“My job is to look at the bigger picture,” she tells ARLnow. “One of the things I found when I started was that there wasn’t a good centralization of resources. Arlington Food Assistance Center and smaller churches each promoted their services, while the county promoted its programs, but there wasn’t a list of everything that’s available.”
The first step, says de Ferranti, was hiring Hopkins to get a better baseline of food assistance needs in Arlington. She worked with the Urban Institute to release a study on food insecurity and stood up a task force — comprised of food pantries, community leaders, and school and county staff — to develop a strategic plan to address hunger over the next five years.
“A lot of folks worked adjacent to each other, knew each other, but had few opportunities to work together,” she said. “Through this process, they made friendships and professional relationships where now, if they need something, they call each other.”
“There has been progress, with a couple of more food service sites that help children, but we have much, much more to do on the goal of ending child hunger in Arlington,” he said. “I am committed to that work and will work with APS, the School Board, and Bethany Sutton in particular on child hunger.”
The coalition is tasked with implementing the strategic plan, which was released in October 2022. By January 2024, Hopkins says she aims to have at least one new food distribution location, at least one new tool for committing resources to residents and more accurate data on meal and grocery distribution trends.
Sally Diaz-Wells, who coordinates the food pantry at Our Lady Queen of Peace Catholic Church in Arlington, just got the weekly egg bill.
It was $2,000, which makes up nearly 20% of the church’s weekly budget of $12,000 for purchasing food for distribution.
Arlington Food Assistance Center CEO Charles Meng says the wholesale price for a dozen eggs in January 2021 was $0.98. This month, AFAC paid $4.45 per dozen. Overall, food prices are up 35% for AFAC, which is already over its $1.3 million budget by $160,000.
The uptick in food prices, driven largely by inflation, is squeezing local food and meal distributors, which are at the same time seeing more Arlington residents come, and come more often, for free food. Inflation again is to blame for this, as clients report their earnings are covering less of their grocery bills, local food assistance providers said during an Arlington Committee of 100 panel on hunger held Wednesday.
“These numbers are not pandemic-related numbers,” Meng said. “These are numbers related to the basic need in Arlington, plus the burdens based on our families by inflation in particular.”
Providers say this is hitting the working poor the worst.
“This group comes to us when they need us, once or twice a month,” Meng said. “When their other benefits start running out, they’ll come to us more often.”
They tend to come after paying for other necessities like rent, utilities and medical expenses, says Stephanie Hopkins, the food security coordinator for Arlington County Department of Human Services.
“We find that people spend their available income on rent, utilities and medical expenses, and other bills, and if there’s enough money to pay for food, they will pay for their own food,” she said. “If there’s not enough money, that’s when they lean on food assistance network.”
More families who otherwise would be able to pay are leaning on Arlington Public Schools for meals, too, says Amy Maclosky, the director of the Office of Food and Nutrition Services for APS.
“Student meal debt has increased a lot this year and it has increased for paying students,” Maclosky said. “Every student is entitled to a free breakfast and lunch, whether they have the funds or not, but they do incur debt. Our debt is up $300,000 right now among people who do not qualify for free or reduced but aren’t able to pay.”
The rising need for food assistance needs comes as Arlington County is preparing to launch this month a Food Security Coalition tasked with implementing some two dozen strategies for tackling hunger.
Food insecurity affects about 7% of Arlington residents — 16,670 people — says Hopkins. It disproportionately affects people of color: 53% and 20% of AFAC clients are Hispanic or Latino and Black, respectively, while comprising 16% and 9% of the county’s population.
Food insecurity can mean “‘I’m worried that my food will run out before I have enough money to get more,’ to ‘I have zero food in my house,” Hopkins said. “We know there are people on both ends of that spectrum in Arlington and people journey that spectrum all the time.” Read More
The Arlington Food Assistance Center, which provides meals to families in need, is experiencing a boom in demand that it doesn’t expect to go away anytime soon.
AFAC currently serves 2,007 families and 8,028 individuals, a 40 percent jump since July 2013 and a 37 percent increase in the last calendar year, according to Executive Director Charles Meng. Meng projects the nonprofit will exceed its $700,000 food purchase budget this year by $150,000.
Meng claims the increase is a direct result of two policy changes in Congress — the passage of the farm bill, which will cut more than $8 billion from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (commonly known as food stamps) over the next decade, and the end of long-term unemployment benefits. Both resulted in cuts that have affected millions of low-income and unemployed Americans, and both have come within the last eight months, he said.
“It’s a very clear cause and effect in my mind,” Meng told ARLnow.com this morning. “The reductions in the SNAP program took effect Nov. 1, and it was November that our numbers started going up. It was a reduction of about $36 per family of four. You and I don’t think much of $36, but when you have very little funds, that’s a significant reduction in your income. That’s what caused people to come here.”
Meng said AFAC is transferring funds from other parts of its budget to cover the food expenses until the fiscal year ends, and its board of directors has approved a budget with an additional $150,000. However, Meng said AFAC must increase its fundraising goals and efforts or it must begin tapping into its reserves.
“This is unlike a recession situation when we see people coming to us, and when the recession eases, they’d be leaving us,” he said. “We’re not seeing that, these are basically going to be our clients on a long-term basis because this is a structural change to the funding available from the feds.”
In a letter to the editor to The New York Times, the president and chief executive of the Food Bank for New York City, Margarette Purvis, pilloried Congress and President Barack Obama for allowing the cuts to pass along with the farm bill.
“Charities will not be able to step up and save the day,” Purvis wrote. “We expect — and should expect — more from our leaders in Washington when it comes to keeping Americans from going hungry.”
Meng said “food donations are always a great help,” but AFAC is more actively seeking financial assistance to stem the tide of demand outpacing funding.
“At this point, financial donations are much more important,” he said. “The bottom line is, we can basically purchase three times as much food with one dollar as a family could in a grocery store. If we get the right funding, then we can purchase a lot more food.”
Old Post Office Property Vote Tonight — This evening the County Board is scheduled to vote on the property at 1720 S. Eads Street in Crystal City, which used to be a post office. The proposal before the board is to re-zone the property and build a nearly 211,000 square foot residential building. County staff members recommend the Board approves the measures.
Food Stamp Use Doubles in Arlington — The number of people receiving food stamps in Arlington doubled over the past decade. That’s lower than the number of people in Fairfax County (triple) and the city of Alexandria (quadruple). The spike isn’t just due to the recession, it’s because more people are now eligible for food assistance. With expanded eligibility it’s estimated that half of the food stamp recipients now live above the federal poverty level. [The Arlington Connection]
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