By Jordyn Fields, The Undivided for Howard University News Service
Nine months ago, the COVID-19 pandemic changed the lives of countless people. In Washington D.C., COVID-19 put a tale of two cities on full display, one dealing with food insecurity and one not.
Seventy five percent of D.C.’s food insecurity exists east of the Anacostia River in Wards 7 and 8, putting them at higher risk during the pandemic. Ward 5 is also an at-risk community with 11 percent of the Districts food deserts.
Ward 7 and Ward 8 which are over 90 percent African American, faced the pandemic without many of the resources they needed to maintain their health. Over the course of the pandemic, African Americans have made up 80 percent of the covid related deaths in D.C. Underlying illnesses are not uncommon in the predominantly black communities nationwide.For example, 26 percent of Ward 7 and 8 residents have diabetes. Life expectancy is lower; in Ward 8 the average life expectancy is 72 years but is 87 in Ward 3 which is 81 percent white. The national average life expectancy is 78.7 years.
These health disparities are only furthered by the access, or lack thereof, to food, shelter and healthcare in the communities.
Wards 7 and 8 are home to 150,000 residents, most of which experience food insecurity. Alongside a median household income of $30,000, there are only two grocery stores in Ward 7 and one in Ward 8. Residents travel over a half a mile to reach a food supply. Most of the grocery stores exist in Northwest D.C. where the demographics skew more white with higher tax brackets. Residents in at risk communities are also more likely to be customer-facing workers and use public transportation to get to and from their destinations.
“Everyone kind of woke up to the story of oh my gosh there’s food insecurity. People woke up to the notion that it’s not just a couple of areas of D.C. that deal with food insecurity. When you’re talking about originally 1 in 5 kids in D.C. dealing with food insecurity and now with covid potentially 1 in 3 kids dealing with food insecurity in D.C. that punches you in the gut- it’s not even a slap in the face,” said DC Food Project co-Founder Lucie Leblois. An organization that provides biweekly bags of groceries to families out of schools.
Food insecurity existed in D.C. before the current public health crisis began. Prior to the pandemic, 10.6 percent of residents faced food insecurity, and it is now estimated the rate is up to 16 percent. Rates are even higher among the elderly, undocumented immigrants, children and those that are homeless, reports D.C. planning. The pandemic had shut down normal sources of nutrition such as schools where many children receive breakfast and lunch, summer camps, after school programs, shelters, churches, soup kitchens and for a time, community organizations. This left more people exposed to a lack of food resources.
“It’s (hunger) rooted in some deep-seated racial and equity disparities. Until we are able to deal with that, until people have living (a) wage, until people have housing, until people have jobs that grow that they can move up in you’re not going to end hunger. Hunger is a result of poverty,” said Beverly Wheeler of D.C. Hunger Solutions. The organization is dedicated to ending hunger and poverty in D.C.
Despite the challenges the pandemic has posed, the D.C. government has been praised for its handling of the Covid-19 pandemic. Especially for its efforts of using relatable communication methods to get Covid related messages out to the community. The mayor’s office has also made promises to treat the side effects of Covid-19, including food insecurity. The city set up emergency food programs, reached out to seniors and set up an increased amount of testing sites in minority neighborhoods.
“I have to say, from the public health perspective, I was quite impressed with the response by the city, and by the health department in particular, in terms of messaging, in terms of the testing, free testing, and really trying to make sure there’s resources available in the community,” said Dora Hughes, a former Obama administration counselor for Science & Public Health.
In addition to government action against food insecurity, residents and community based organizations also tried to combat the pandemic-induced food crisis.
D.C. Food Project, Bread For the City, Martha’s Table, D.C. Central Kitchen are among many of the local organizations that took aggressive action to reach out to at risk residents and get them food and resources when they could not provide for themselves. Many organizations were overwhelmed with clients- many handing out twice as many meals or groceries a day as people who were not previously food insecure came out. Outside of that there were still people who were in need and not reaching out. Organizations have stated that they abandoned their previous screening practices because potential clients would not be able to access resources if they were above the allotted income. For many their circumstances may have drastically changed in the last few months.
“A lot of these families weren’t comfortable going to meal sites. It was kind of a pride thing for a lot of people sometimes. The one place families were comfortable was going to their schools,” said MacClellan. Her organization hands out a 10-day supply of donated goods to families every two weeks at schools around the city. “They knew their schools and knew there would be no judgment. It’s not these random people who are there with their logo shirts on and handing out food, it was their teachers, principals and guidance counselors. It was such an important distinction for people to be comfortable.”
Many of the community providers operated as independent entities, serving their areas of the city. When the pandemic disrupted their procedures they began to work together. DC Central Kitchen procured food and helped to pack bags for DC Food Project. Bread for the City found an alliance with Capital Area Food Bank to receive food when stock ran low. external partners also began to chip in. Amazon and Uber Eats assisted Bread for the City deliver food to those in need at no cost. The local organizations now participate in a weekly call to share resources, get updates about the state of the city and see what areas of need they can fill.
“In the early days we were scrambling, and in fact we went to non-traditional sources to try to get food from almost anywhere. A group that started to get really active was the local farms themselves. Farms that ended up with a backlog of things just started to get it out into the community, some of it just pro-bono,” said Bread for the City CEO George Jones.
Jones went on to describe that though it seemed like there wasn’t food available due to empty grocery stores and the panic seen in the community- there really was. Much of food providers day-to-day operations had just been interrupted, stopping them from being able to deliver food to stores or pantries.
Volunteers became another main source of success for dealing with food insecurity. Teachers donated their time to deliver grocery bags to their students, people who were also experiencing food insecurity helped procure and deliver food to others. The organization Shift Smart provided a percentage of volunteers as well in D.C.The program pays those who are out of work to volunteer in communities.
Communities in D.C. aso took it upon themselves to organize outside of pre-established groups. Around the nation’s capital, mutual aid societies began to appear- a way for neighbors to help neighbors. Much of the outreach was by word of mouth and social media under the tags #DCMutualAidNetwork and #WeKeepUsSafe. Societies have also posted physical flyers around the city offering groceries, grocery delivery, childcare, toiletries and other services to those in need.
“Initially the request was for food. Sometime later they asked if they could use our southeast center. We wanted to have more of a presence in Wards 7 and 8 so we said sure. They were packing bags basically every day, Monday to Friday their volunteers come through. They have a hotline that they set up where folks call in and ask for help. It’s a win-win for us because these community members that are calling them are the ones that ordinarily would have just come to our center,” said Jones on Bread for the City’s partnership with Mutual Aid Societies.
“Mutual aid is the one thing that I’ve done that makes it feel like I’ve actually done something that’s affecting people and helping them specifically,” said Mutual Aid volunteer, Mekdelawit Tilahum.
“Part of the reason I do this kind of thing is because government and the people in charge don’t do enough to help the people who need it. I feel like this is the only actual way that people get help. Community helping each other is the only way,” she continued.