The Food Pantry at Bread for the City and its Economic Impact On Food Security in the District of Columbia

GUJHS. 2007 March; Vol. 4, No. 1

Christopher Corona

Department of International Health
Georgetown University

Abstract

As the plight of the hungry continues in the United States, more light is being shed on the correlation between poverty and hunger, and the impact of federal economic policies on this relationship. Bread for the City is a non-profit organization in Washington, DC, providing eligible citizens with regular access to necessary food items through a structured donation program. A study was conducted at this organization to measure the approximate economic impact that food resources provided by Bread for the City would have for a hypothetical family of four trying to achieve food security and self-sufficiency in the District of Columbia. The results of the study show that food insecurity is largely a product of both inadequate federal definitions of poverty and the economic policies that are based on these definitions. While grassroots organizations such as Bread for the City may provide a short-term solution to the problem, food insecurity cannot be eradicated and self-sufficiency not wholly realized until there exists efficient, large-scale federal policy reform to complement the actions of smaller organizations. Cooperation between these two integral facets of public health may help maximize their effectiveness as instruments of change in the face of a growing prevalence of food insecurity in the United States.

Keywords: food security, hunger, poverty, Bread for the City

Introduction

It is often assumed that the prevalence of non-profit organizations specializing in food security will suffice to conquer widespread hunger in the United States. As one of the main products of poverty, however, the prevalence of hunger is strongly correlated to federal poverty definitions and economic policies that attempt to provide aid for the nation’s most impoverished.

This study was done to provide a baseline assessment of the economic impact that the Food Pantry at Bread for the City has on the plight of a four-person family in the District of Columbia attempting to achieve food security. Observations regarding actual food types distributed by the Pantry and observations regarding the prices of these foods in markets surrounding Bread for the City were compared with data pertaining to national poverty definitions and DC Self-Sufficiency Standards. Analysis of these results lay the groundwork for a paper that addresses the following:

  • Social and economic factors and their impact on poverty and food insecurity.
  • The use of policy to build infrastructures designed to improve food distribution.
  • Ways to encourage population participation through grassroots organizations.

Before one can comprehend the whole of this study, it is first necessary to gain an understanding of certain economic concepts and how it is that these concepts relate to food security in the District of Columbia.

Poverty and Hunger in the United States

The federal Poverty Guidelines created by the Department of Health and Human Services are intended to serve as a cutoff for citizens in regards to aid reception from the federal government. Based only on food prices and varying only by family size, the guidelines consist of three sets of figures regarding annual household income: those that pertain to Hawaii, Alaska, and the 48 contiguous states, including the District of Columbia. For example, in 2004 the Department of Health and Human Services set the Poverty Guidelines for a family of four living in the District of Columbia at an income of $18,850 annually. The Poverty Guidelines, however, are a skewed comparison of food prices and living costs, and have spawned economic policies that worsen the plight of those trying to achieve food security. (Gist, 2005)

In 2004, the federal minimum wage was set at $5.15 per hour (Economic Policy Institute, 2006). Assuming that a 40-hour workweek is upheld, this translates into $206 per week, $824 per month, and $10,712 per year. It is important to note that the stated figures would put a family of four with two adults able to work full-time positions well above the established Poverty Guidelines of $18,850. Since these guidelines were created around food prices, it is assumed that this established minimum wage will suffice to feed every mouth in America. It turns out, however, that these assumptions are inaccurate.

In 2005, the organization Wider Opportunities for Women published an updated version of its Self-Sufficiency Standards for families living in DC. It is found that a hypothetical family of four, in order to be self-sufficient in the District, only has 16 percent of its income allowed for food expenses (Pearce, 2005). This is nearly half of the assumed 33 percent of annual income available for food expenses with which the federal Poverty Guidelines were calculated (Gist, 2005). Trying to calculate a sufficient minimum wage with an inaccurate poverty indicator creates a large gap between incomes enabling self-sufficiency and those allowing for government aid. The annual income designated for the same hypothetical family to be self-sufficient in the District is $53,727, almost $20,000 more than the level at which most government programs will intervene and offer any kind of food assistance (Pearce, 2005). The harsh reality is that the average American family falls somewhere in the middle of this gap, and ends up without enough income to be entirely food secure yet too much income to qualify for government assistance.

Fortunately, there have been countless programs established all over the country that aim to alleviate the suffering for those that have fallen victim to this unbeatable system. One example is the Food Pantry at Bread for the City, one of DC’s most prominent non-profit organizations. I chose to incorporate the statistics discussed in this section into a field study done using Bread for the City as the foundation for a baseline assessment of the effectiveness of the food program it provides.

Bread for the City

Bread for the City has two main locations: one in Southwest DC and another at 7th and P Streets in Northwest DC. The latter, housing the largest food pantry in the District, was where I bagged groceries and made observations regarding food distribution on three different occasions.

Each of the two main centers of Bread for the City offers five services free of charge to low-income, vulnerable residents of the District of Columbia. These services include a clothing room, a food pantry, a medical clinic equipped with a pharmacy, a legal clinic, and a center for counseling regarding social services. Each service has a unique set of eligibility criteria. Bread for the City houses 46 full-time employees and approximately 500 volunteers in total, and serves an average of 10,000 DC residents per month. Operating with an annual budget of four million dollars, approximately 85% of the funding for the organization is private and comes from sources including volunteers, individual donors, and corporations. The organization also receives donations of goods and services each year that amount to an estimated value of 1.4 million dollars.

As mentioned previously, the food pantry at Bread for the City’s Northwest center is the largest in the District, and helps to feed an average of five thousand households per month. For the calendar year running from March 2005 to March 2006, the food pantry reported visits from 27,469 clients that translated into 59,465 total people fed. This figure is equivalent to over 10 percent of the total population in the District at that time (U.S. Census Bureau, 2006). Clients of the food pantry must meet certain eligibility criteria that include being either elderly (over 60 years of age), disabled, or having children under 18 years of age, and having an annual income that is 125 percent or less of the federal Food Stamp guidelines. For a family of four in the District, this cutoff is an annual income of $24,195, a figure well above the federal Poverty Guidelines yet well below the suggested Self-Sufficiency Standards (U.S. Department of Agriculture, 2005). It is evident from this figure that Bread for the City aims to help those with an income level that places them at the greatest risk for food insecurity.

If the eligibility criteria are met, clients of the food pantry are allowed to make one visit to the Food Pantry each month. During each visit, each client is required to present an identification card before being give a three-day supply of food. The food supplies are adjusted according to family size, and are distributed according to a chart that hangs in the Pantry. The chart was designed by Bread for the City according to governmental nutrition recommendations. The following is an example of what a family of four would receive as a three-day supply of food according to this chart:

Cereal 2 boxes
Juice 2 cartons
Starch 2 portions
Soup 4 cans
Beans 2 cans
Meat 4 pounds
Vegetables 8 pounds
Fruit 2 pounds
Snack Food 2 portions

It is important to note here that no dairy products are given out by the pantry because of both their perishable nature and the fact that they are too expensive for the pantry to purchase and store. Also, the actual sizes of portions distributed by the pantry on any given day vary according to availability.

The pantry operates with a budget of 400,000 dollars per year, which is a portion of the total budget of Bread for the City and is used primarily to purchase food. The Capital Area Food Bank is the only organization from which the Food Pantry purchases food, and an actual daily invoice from the Pantry showing food purchased from the Food Bank on March 7, 2006, amounts to a total of $1,400.99.

The food pantry also depends largely on donations, and the value of food donations given to the pantry each year approximately matches its annual budget. These donations come from private donors such as individuals and corporations as well as organizations such as the Capital Area Food Bank and the United States Department of Agriculture. An actual donation invoice taken from the Food Pantry for the month of February 2006 shows food donations from all sources amounting to a total value of $15,719.19. During a number of hours spent performing volunteer work in the Pantry that included organizing food, bagging groceries, and distributing bags of food, I was able gather information regarding the specific amounts and types of food distributed, and take these observations with me into three local markets in the neighborhood surrounding Bread for the City.

Design and Results

In an attempt to gauge the actual impact that the Food Pantry at Bread for the City has on the plight of a four-person DC family trying to achieve food security, I visited three different grocery stores in the neighborhood immediately surrounding Bread for the City. At each location, I noted the prices of different food items that might be given out by the Food Pantry, and extrapolated from this data what it would cost to feed a family of four for three days according to guidelines drawn up by the Food Pantry at Bread for the City. These findings were then extrapolated further onto a 30-day month, and compared to the District Self-Sufficiency Standards released by Wider Opportunities for Women. From these findings, it was possible to ascertain an idea of the actual economic impact of the Food Pantry on a four-person family in the District, and the role that is played by the organization in alleviating food insecurity for its clients.

Choosing where exactly I was going to study food prices turned out to be more complex that I had originally anticipated. I have quoted a project log written in regards to this aspect of the study to explain in more detail this part of the decision making progress:

“Before I began this project, I was toying around with my outline and trying to decide how I was going to design a cohesive study. I knew I wanted to incorporate local markets, and, at the time, had always pictured myself using smaller bodegas as places to conduct my study. You could say that I had made a stereotypical association between these types of markets and the types of people that I assumed would use Bread for the City as a food resource. After speaking with a number of employees at Bread for the City, however, I realized that it would be in my best interest to use local chains such as Giant, 7-Eleven, and CVS/Pharmacy as sites at which to gather information. First and foremost, I learned that it is to places like these that the majority of Bread for the City’s clients go when grocery shopping. This has mostly to do with the fact that availability…selection [and prices] at these markets [are] optimal. I was forced to rid myself of the assumption that simply because people live on the cusp of food insecurity does not mean that they lack the ability to make smart shopping decisions. If anything, situations of that nature turn one into a better shopper by means of forcing [them] to find ways to maximize available resources. This is most easily done at larger markets where resources are plentiful [and least expensive]. As we were taught [by Andy Bell, M.H.S. of Norlink International during a guest lecture], it is more often logic rather than ignorance that fuels the actions of those that we perceive to be less fortunate” (C.D. Corona, personal communication, March 29, 2006).

At first I had a stereotypical image of the clientele of the Food Pantry as the types of people that had let bad decisions bring them to their current state. There was no association between food insecurity and how the government had largely influenced it, simply a kind of blame placed on those that needed help. It was this image that I extrapolated onto potential markets that I was to use in my study. When passing smaller bodegas that seem to characterize vulnerable neighborhoods, there was an assumption made that this was where clients of the Food Pantry would shop. While someone educated in terms of ways to maximize resources when food shopping would know that these types of shops are an inefficient option, I figured that someone trying to dig themselves out of food insecurity would not know any better, and would come to a bodega simply because it was part of the neighborhood. This perception changed, however, after listening to the aforementioned guest lecturer and speaking with some employees at Bread for the City.

One of the most common mistakes made by humanitarians when entering territories perceived as needy is to assume a tone of condescension and approach the situation under the impression that their ways are the best ways. One learns with experience, however, that the mere fact that one person is more fortunate than another does not inevitably translate to a difference in intelligence. People we perceive as needy have very good reasons for their ways, and us as the “fortunate” ones may not understand simply because we have never found ourselves in a situation that requires us to maximize our resources in such a way. Applying this dose of perspective to my project, I realized that it was obvious that someone in a pinch for food resources would choose to shop at larger supermarkets. It is at these types of markets that resources are the most plentiful and your dollar goes much farther. This was confirmed by employees and volunteers at the Food Pantry, who, when asked regarding recommendations for where I might study food prices, almost immediately listed the three largest markets in the surrounding area as places where it was known that Pantry clients shop.

It was not only what I was told while speaking with employees and volunteers about the shopping habits of its clients that fueled this decision. I also incorporated the proximity of each of the chosen markets to Bread for the City when making considerations. It turns out that all chosen markets are located within a four-block radius of the Pantry. Since the majority of food clients at the Northwest center live in the Shaw District immediately surrounding Bread for the City, I felt that it was necessary to choose markets in the same area. I was careful to consider the concept of transportation, however, and decided that any client having the means necessary to get himself or herself to the Pantry and transport groceries back home would also have the means necessary to make it to a market no more than four city blocks from the Pantry and also transport groceries back home. After incorporating these factors into my decision, I felt that I was choosing markets that were going to give me the most accurate assessment of Bread for the City as an instrument in the alleviation of food insecurity for its clients.

After creating shopping lists that were based upon three-day supplies of food given out by the Food Pantry at Bread for the City, I entered three markets in the Shaw District neighborhood to study food prices. The table presented below is one that lists the exact food items studied, corresponding prices, and three-day totals for each market according to Bread for the City recommendations:

GIANT FOOD STORE
7th & P Streets
7-ELEVEN
7th Street & Rhode Island Ave.
CVS/Pharmacy
7th & T Streets
BFTC Portion Actual Food Item Price Actual Food Item Price Actual Food Item Price
4 meats 4.2lb “Giant” chicken legs 

2lb “Bar-S” beef franks

$3.32 

 

$3.18

2×16.9oz “Banquet” chicken nuggets
2x16oz “Oscar Meyer” franks
$7.18 

 

$6.98

2x “Stouffer’s” baked chicken breast
2x “Lean Cuisine” baked chicken breast
$5.98 

 

$6.78

2 cereals 2 boxes “Giant” crispy rice $6.58 2 boxes “Kellogg’s” rice crispies $7.98 2 boxes “Kellogg’s” rice crispies $3.00
2 juices 2x96oz “Tropicana” OJ $11.38 2x64oz “Tropicana” OJ $7.98 2x64oz “Tropicana” OJ $7.98
2 starches 2x14oz “Giant” instant rice $3.78 2x14oz “Kraft” instant rice $6.38 2 loaves “Wonderbread” $3.58
4 soups 4x11oz “Campbell’s” chicken soup $3.16 4x11oz “Campbell’s” chicken soup $4.76 4x11oz “Campbell’s” chicken soup $4.76
2 fruits 2x15oz “Giant” fruit cocktail $2.18 2x15oz “Del Monte” fruit cocktail $3.18 2x20oz “Empress” pineapple $2.00
2 snacks 2-4×3.5oz “Giant” pudding $2.78 2 boxes Nilla Wafers $7.18 1-4×3.5oz “Hunt’s” pudding $3.18
8 vegetables 2lb “Giant” carrots
2x15oz “Giant” potatoes
2x15oz “Giant” sweet peas
2×14.5oz “Giant” tomatoes
$1.98 

$1.78

$1.58

$2.18

4x15oz “Del Monte” corn 

4x15oz “Del Monte” peas

$4.76 

 

$4.76

4x15oz “Green Giant” peas
2x11oz “Green Giant” corn
4x8oz “Empress” mushrooms
$6.12 

$3.06

$4.00

2 beans 2×14.5oz “Giant” green beans $1.78 2x15oz “Del Monte” green beans $2.38 2x15oz “Green Giant” green beans $3.06
TOTAL $45.66 $63.52 $53.50
GIANT FOOD STORE
7th & P Streets
7-ELEVEN
7th Street & Rhode Island Ave.
CVS/Pharmacy
7th & T Streets

 

The totals for each three-day supply were multiplied by ten so as to scale the amount to a thirty-day month. This equated to the following totals for thirty-day supplies of food according to Bread for the City recommendations: $456.60 at Giant Food Store, $635.20 at 7-Eleven, and $535.00 at CVS/Pharmacy.

The variability of the food items among the different markets is something that I initially perceived as a drawback to the study, but I have come to perceive this as an issue that makes the results more genuine and applicable to the real world. As mentioned earlier, there is a chart that hangs in the Food Pantry at Bread for the City that clearly delineates the number of portions of each food type that are to be given out to each client depending on family size. Upon analysis of this chart, one would notice that there are no units present to accompany these portions; they are characterized simply by a number. This is done because, on any given day, what is given out as a “starch” portion or a “meat” portion is entirely dependent on what is available. One day it could be 10 beef franks and a box of instant rice; another day it could be 5 fried chicken drumsticks and a loaf of French bread. After observing these discrepancies over three different occasions during which I bagged groceries in the Pantry, I figured that the fact that foods given out varied by day would make it difficult for me to make a baseline food list with which to go into each market and obtain prices. After visiting the first two markets listed, however, I realized that this was actually something that worked to my advantage, and that there was logic behind the fact that Bread for the City chose to create their chart in such a way.

At a large supermarket like Giant, the selection of meats and starches available, for example, was obviously much more plentiful than the selection at small convenience stores like 7-Eleven and CVS/Pharmacy. Whereas I had relative freedom to choose meat and starch portions at Giant, there was often only one option for each available at both 7-Eleven and CVS/Pharmacy. It became clear that I was not going to be able to come up with a hypothetical shopping list that I was going to be able to fulfill completely at all three locations. It also became clear, however, that this might not be such a bad thing. After all, this is how it works for consumers in the real world. We are all essentially at the mercy of what our chosen food stores decide to stock, and this has a very significant impact on the decisions we make when trying to feed ourselves and those that are dependent upon us. It is for this reason that items fulfilling different food portions are varied across all three lists. I feel that this discrepancy it is an adequate reflection of the struggles involved in the plight of the general public to ensure food resources, and fits perfectly into a baseline assessment such as this.

Analysis and Discussion

The data presented in the previous section gives a rough estimate of what it would cost a theoretical family of four living in the District of Columbia to feed itself for thirty days at three different markets immediately surrounding the Northwest location of Bread for the City. It is important to keep in mind when interpreting this data that the shopping lists compiled for study were made according to guidelines created by the Food Pantry at Bread for the City. As explained previously, these guidelines have neglected all dairy products because of both their perishable nature and the fact that they are too expensive to purchase and store given the budget of the Pantry. The fact that the actual foods distributed by the Pantry vary according to availability was explained in detail in the previous section as well, and this fact, as well as the impact it had on data collection, should also be kept in mind when interpreting the results. It is highly likely that the average family shopping in this neighborhood purchases at least a small amount of dairy products as well as other food items that were not on any of the three compiled shopping lists. Regardless of this probability, I believe that the data gathered still serves as the foundation for a significant baseline assessment of the economic impact that the Food Pantry at Bread for the City has on the plight of a DC family of four to achieve food security.

According to the 2005 District of Columbia Self-Sufficiency Standards published by Wider Opportunities for Women, a self-sufficient and food secure family of four in the District should have approximately $737 available each month for food expenses (Pearce, 2005). As discussed previously, however, the majority of four-person families eligible for the Food Pantry at Bread for the City have a total annual income of no more than $24,195 after taxes (125% of the income cutoff for the Federal Food Stamp Program). If the suggested 16 percent of this income is allotted for food each month, that leaves only $322.60 for food expenses, which is a mere 44 percent of what a theoretical self-sufficient family of four would have.

Analysis of the data presented in the previous section shows that a family of four using Bread for the City guidelines to shop at a Giant Food Store (the least expensive option studied) could use $322.60 to provide food for approximately 21 days. This figure was obtained by dividing the amount of money available per month for food for this family by the extrapolated cost of 30 days worth of groceries purchased at Giant ($465.60). The percentage obtained from this calculation was then multiplied by a 30-day month to reach a final figure of approximately 21 days. This would theoretically leave nine days each month where a family of four would have to manage without any food resources. Since Bread for the City provides what it describes as only a three-day food supplement once per month, a family using this Pantry as a resource would still have a theoretical six-day period where food resources are not covered either by income or donations from Bread for the City. Depending of whether clients are coupling the services of Bread for the City with other resources such as food stamps or other food pantries, a family of four in the District that is eligible for services from the Food Pantry at Bread for the City could feasibly provide itself with a constant resource for food with maximum effort. The Food Pantry at Bread for the City, however, could only play a minimal role in this effort.

There are recommendations that can be made, however, for implementing strategies that can help organizations like Bread for the City maximize the impact they have on the food resources of their clients. While it was explained before that no dairy products are given out by the Pantry for reasons of cost and storage, it would still be feasible to distribute dry milk powder as an accompaniment to the cereal it distributes. The facilities at the Pantry would certainly allow this, and, should the budget of the Pantry not be able to cover the purchasing costs, it is a product that many organizations or individuals could donate. This would translate into one less expense that Pantry clients would have to worry about, as well as increase the nutritional adequacy of the donated food supplies.

In the interest of maximizing the longevity and effectiveness of its distributed food supplies, the Food Pantry at Bread for the City could also encourage a sharing program among its clients. Since clients are required to give demographic information including a home address when going through the intake process, Bread for the City has access to information that it could use to help its clients coordinate with others in their respective neighborhoods. Through a program like this, clients could lend food resources to other clients who, for one reason or another, have already run out of their donated supply. This is a favor that could potentially be repaid at a later time. The implementation of this type of program is an intervention that could provide clients with a few extra days each month that are free from worry regarding the need to secure food resources.

Even as the largest food pantry in the District of Columbia, Bread for the City is only able to supply a relatively small number of eligible clients with a food supply that covers only three days per month. This translates into only 36 days per year. When put into these terms, it is clearly seen that food programs such as this provide only a short-term solution to the growing problem that is food insecurity in the United States. As explained previously, hunger has grown out of insufficient poverty definitions and presumptuous, incompatible economic policies. Food programs such as the Food Pantry at Bread for the City, while invaluable as food supplements for many citizens, cannot be depended upon to solve the problems underlying food security. They simply do not have the capacity, the resources, or enough of an effect on the root causes of the problem to do so. Assuming that increasing the number of food supplement programs present in the United States will eradicate hunger is akin to continually treating the physical symptoms of an illness without treating the illness itself that is responsible for causing those symptoms. At the end of the day, the problem remains and the symptoms return, often with more strength.

Perhaps the most eye-opening experience of this study came when I was bagging groceries on one occasion at Bread for the City. The atmosphere on that particular day could only be described as jovial: people smiling, conversing, and even dancing. I found it odd at first that so much celebration could be found in a place that was receiving some of the District’s most unfortunate citizens. Momentarily, however, a realization was made:

“The woman who runs the pantry was intent on playing old Motown classics while the time passed, and, with everyone laughing, dancing, and enjoying themselves, it occurred to me that this was all part of the plan: to make the clients of this pantry feel anything BUT shame, awkwardness, or discomfort when they came by to pick up supplemental groceries…It is often not the fault of these people who need a push into the realm of food security, but rather of a system that has set them up to be in this position” (C.D. Corona, personal communication, April 12, 2006).

It was at that moment that I knew exactly where the project was heading. Everyone around me was well aware of the realities associated with food security. They knew that the victims were not to blame. They knew that the system could not be beat. They knew that significant change was not going to be realized until those in positions of legislative power take the time to look seriously at the issue and draw up a practical plan of action. I have listened to many lectures explaining the causes of food insecurity and I have participated in many classroom discussions pertaining to ways to alleviate the problem. It was not until that moment, however, that I felt a genuine urge within to donate my time and effort on the front lines of the problem in an attempt to effect tangible results, even if it was only a smile brought to the face of a client on one particular day. At the end of this whole experience, I believe that it is both education into the true issues surrounding food insecurity (without stereotypes and fabrications) and first-hand experience serving some of its victims that will motivate people to take action. Whether the effort is as small as lending a few hours of time per month or as large as aspiring to a career in policy reform, it all begins with education and experience.

In the meantime, however, it is programs similar to the Food Pantry at Bread for the City that provide on occasion a much needed boost towards the realm of food security for the people it serves. As I noted in one project log, “The Pantry isn’t trying to single-handedly feed every mouth in DC…it has found its niche providing a supplement to those living on this explained cusp” (C.D. Corona, personal communication, April 12, 2006). For these citizens, food supplement services such as the Food Pantry at Bread for the City might very well be what keeps them going until the day that real action is taken and a change can be seen on the horizon. Until that time comes, maximizing the effectiveness of these organizations through any means possible is the greatest chance at hand to reduce the impact of food insecurity and disassemble the perpetuating cycle of poverty and hunger afflicting so many American citizens.

References

Gist, R. L. (2005) The Paradigm of Hunger: Poverty and Self-Sufficiency.
Washington, DC: The Capital Area Food Bank.

Income Rules for the Federal Food Stamp Program as reported by the U.S.
Department of Agriculture. (2005, October). Retrieved from
http://www.fns.usda.gov/fsp/applicant_recipients/fs_Res_Ben_Elig.htm.

Pearce, D. (2005). The Self-Sufficiency Standard for the Washington, D.C. Metropolitan Area 2005. Retrieved from the Wider Opportunities for Women Website:
http://www.wowonline.org/docs/dynamic-WITN-87.pdf.

Real Value of the Minimum Wage as reported by the Economic Policy Institute. (2006, January). Retrieved April 17, 2006, from http://www.epi.org/issueguides/
minwage/table5.gif.

State and County QuickFacts for the District of Columbia as reported by the U.S. Census Bureau. (2006, January). Retrieved from http://quickfacts.census.gov/
qfd/states/11000.html.

 

 

 

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