Sarah Stepherson (center) stands beside her grandson next to a table covered with dozens of apples at H. Winship Wheatley Early Childhood Center in Capitol Heights on May 3 as she collected food provided by the Capital Area Food Bank. (Demetrious McKinney/The Washington Informer)
Sarah Stepherson (center) stands beside her grandson next to a table covered with dozens of apples at H. Winship Wheatley Early Childhood Center in Capitol Heights on May 3 as she collected food provided by the Capital Area Food Bank. (Demetrious McKinney/The Washington Informer)

Prince George’s County has a hunger problem.

According to figures from the Capital Area Food Bank, the county had nearly 138,000 people, or about 16 percent of the population who struggled to get food last fiscal year.

The figure ranks the highest of all the jurisdictions in the Washington Metropolitan area.

“We have definitely seen an increase of need in the county,” said Kirsten Bourne, the food bank’s communications coordinator. “Although we see a benefit throughout the region, Prince George’s has been an area of concentration.”

The food bank, the region’s largest, helps feed about 12 percent of population and works alongside hundreds of food pantries, soup kitchens and other nonprofit organizations. It has two warehouses in Northeast and Lorton, Virginia.

Although the D.C. area has been recognized as one of the most affluent communities in the nation, the food bank has received $70.4 million in federal and state grants, in-kind food contributions and other donations last fiscal year to distribute 46 million pounds of food throughout the region.

People wait in line for eggs provided by the Capital Area Food Bank on May 3. (Demetrious McKinney/The Washington Informer)

Here’s a snapshot on how many meals were distributed in 2015:

• 6.2 million in Northern Virginia (Fairfax and Prince William counties);

• 9.5 million in the District; and

• 10.3 million in Maryland (Prince George’s and Montgomery counties).

The food bank has seen a decrease in Montgomery County with 70,510 residents in need of help to obtain food, nearly half compared to Prince George’s.

One reason stems from the lack of available grocery stores for residents to purchase food.

“The food bank is so helpful to have, especially not having to go inside a busy grocery store,” said Latreese Hawkins of District Heights, a mother of three children, one with special needs. “The cost of food in grocery stores are high, so [a food bank] is definitely convenient for me in my situation.”

The county’s Planning Department and Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission prepared a proposed 252-page food system study with dozens of strategies and policy recommendations.

Some of the ideas are creating a food policy director/coordinator position; start a “Water is Life” campaign to encourage drinking water; and provide incentives for local farmers.

It also highlighted how economics play a role in food.

The average price for a basket with a portion of the five food groups in Cheverly cost $13.39, but is nearly seven dollars more in Suitland at $20.84. The average household income in Cheverly ranks at $77,370, compared to $69,775 in Suitland.

Gül Güleryuz, a planner coordinator in the Countywide Planning Division, presented the report last year to County Council.

In an email Monday, May 8, she said the M-NCPPC continues to seek suitable land for urban farming and county’s Economic Development Corp. searches for companies to provide affordable and healthy food options in underserved communities.

The Prince George’s County Food Equity Council, an independent group established in 2013 that advocates for healthier food choices, seeks the county council’s support for a $100,000 grant to help with staffing, boost outreach efforts with various agencies and host an annual forum.

“Over the next year, [Food Equity Council] wants to continue exploring incentives for alternative grocery store models to support residents in food deserts, advocate for programs and policies to reduce food waste and encourage edible food recovery,” Sydney Daigle, director of the equity council, said in a May 2 letter. “We can’t do these things without your financial support.”

‘It’s a big help’

The food bank invested $3 million this fiscal year in Prince George’s — a $1 million increase — to offer various programs and hand out more food.

Last week, it partnered with UnitedHealthcare Community Plan to provide nearly 4,800 pounds of food for dozens of residents at H. Winship Wheatley Early Childhood Center in Capitol Heights.

That area was chosen because it’s considered a “food desert,” a place with limited access to grocery stores, farmer’s markets and other providers of healthy food.

A Safeway in Seat Pleasant on Central Avenue at least three miles away from the school closed in July. For about a four-mile stretch on that road between Interstate 495 in Capitol Heights and the District’s border, there’s no major food retailer.

Before residents such as Sarah Stepherson and her 8-year-old grandson, Shawn Harris of Forestville, went shopping inside the school, they got to taste a sample of apple and red cabbage slaw prepared by Gayle Plummer Owens, a chef from Gaithersburg partnering with UnitedHealthcare. The company offered health information cards and items such as green beans, peppers, strawberries and broccoli.

Since September, the food bank has rejected donations of soda, cakes and other junk food to promote a healthier lifestyle. In about 48 percent of the households it serves, at least one person has high blood pressure, and while 22 percent of the households have someone with diabetes.

Meanwhile, the food bank provided copies of the slaw recipe that notes nutrition facts in both English and Spanish, as well as some of the ingredients for residents to take home.

The apples are high in fiber that aids Stepherson, who suffers from diabetes.

“The food bank help the families that are in need and provide for families with small children,” she said while holding her bags of apples, cereal, eggs and other items.

Before Keith Scott of Hyattsville picked up his grandson from school, he stopped by Wheatley to get bags of frozen chicken, spinach and eggs.

“This is really good what [the food bank] is doing,” he said as he placed his bags of food in the trunk of his car. “It’s a big, big help.”

Coverage for the Washington Informer includes Prince George’s County government, school system and some state of Maryland government. Received an award in 2019 from the D.C. Chapter of the Society of...

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