Commentary, Local Commentary

Our Man in Arlington

Reader, please tolerate a surplus of numbers. They represent a deficit of meals for local compatriots.

“Food Insecurity,” as examined Jan. 11 at the Arlington Committee of 100, has worsened in our pandemic times. But a coalition of county, school, and nonprofit professionals and volunteers has new plans for spreading the nourishment.

The push against hunger comes as Andrew Schneider announced he is stepping down after seven years as director of Arlington Thrive, which helps our needy with broader living expenses, food among them. The effort also arrives as Congress is ending the pandemic’s emergency SNAP federal food assistance.

And it prompted new organizational tactics laid out last October in 28 recommendations by a task force in the county’s new “strategic plan for food security.” Watch for better coordination among groups, improved data collection and help from AmeriCorps VISTA.

“I’m worried,” said Stephanie Hopkins, Food Security Coordinator at the Human Services Department. An estimated 7 percent of Arlington’s population, or 16,670 individuals, are unsure of their next meals. Demand rose 12 percent over the year ending July 2022. “It’s not one-size fits all.” Some visit the Arlington Food Action Center weekly, “but for others it’s not enough.” They use the Salvation Army, Our Lady Queen of Peace Catholic Church and Capital Area Food Bank. Food is easier to seek help for than “rent, utilities or medical expenses.” A family of four at 30 percent of the poverty line pays 30 percent of income on food.

“We provide dignified access,” said Charlie Meng, CEO of the Arlington Food Assistance Center. With 15 distribution sites in Arlington, one in Falls Church and another coming in Alexandria, AFAC has removed “Arlington” from its mission statement to reflect a broadened reach. They deliver to 150 homes.

Qualified clients can pick up goods once a week for six months, and then their social worker can renew eligibility. Food choices include high-cost milk, eggs, chicken, beef and fish, along with vegetables, fruit, canned goods, cereals, pasta, and “culturally specific” fare such as dried beans. AFAC’s 24 employees purchase 2 million pounds of food annually. More is donated by grocery stores, congregations and businesses, for a total of 4 million pounds. With no federal or state money for its $8.2 million budget, it gets $577,720 from the county.

There’s a socio-economic imbalance. Though Hispanics are 15.6 percent of the population, they account for 49 percent of deliveries; blacks are 8.9 percent of the county but 20.8 percent of clients; whites make up 64 percent of the county, but 11.8 percent get food help. During the pandemic, Meng says, referrals rose 60 percent, from 2,100 families to 2,600 weekly.

Our Lady Queen of Peace, said Social Justice & Outreach Minister Sally Diaz-Wells, had 26,325 visits from the food-needy in 2022. That costs $12,000 weekly for its 25 volunteers and two staffers. “We don’t ask where you came from. You present a need, we give you a bag of food,” she said, invoking the Gospel of Matthew. Before the pandemic they served 235 families weekly. Since March 2020, it’s been 650-700.

Amy Maclosky, director of Food and Nutrition Services at Arlington Public Schools, observed that “kids cannot learn when they’re hungry.” Working with 36 schools, her staff administers the national school breakfast and lunch programs, and supervises state eligibility applications for emergency electronic benefits. Strongest needs are at Barcroft, Drew, Carlin Springs, Barrett and Randolph schools.

Last year through November, APS’s 160 workers provided 650,000 meals and snacks, distributing seven days a week during the pandemic. Maclosky prefers the reduced paperwork of the universal program. “It eliminates stigma and builds strong school community.”

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Whom to believe? At the Jan. 8 rally to oppose Missing Middle housing, consumer protection attorney Jon Ware accused the county of dishonesty in claiming it sent 150,000 postcards reminding residents of the initiative. A state FOIA request, Ware said, showed postage for only 15 percent.

Not quite, I’m told by communications manager Erika Moore. “According to documents included in FOIA responses, we can confirm 151,048 postcards were printed, which matches the number of addresses provided by the Missing Middle Housing Study team. The county print shop worked with a mailing house on distribution, and the invoice shows 121,613 postcards were mailed via USPS carrier routes.” About 80 percent.