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Nearly 1 in 4 Fairfax County residents are food insecure, report finds

A stocked shelf at the nonprofit Food for Others’ Merrifield warehouse (staff photo by Angela Woolsey)

Finding sufficient, quality food remains a challenge for many people across the D.C. area, even with the immediate economic disruptions triggered by the pandemic in the rear view mirror, the Capital Area Food Bank (CAFB) says in a new report.

Released last month, the nonprofit’s 2023 Hunger Report found that the region is still seeing elevated levels of food insecurity that are nearly identical to what was reported a year earlier. In Fairfax County, 24% of residents are food insecure — the exact same percentage as in 2022.

CAFB didn’t start issuing its annual hunger reports until 2020, making a direct comparison to pre-pandemic years difficult, but the amount of food it distributes in the county has risen from 5.2 million meals in 2019 to almost 7.2 million this year, as of mid-September, indicating more need. Meal distributions peaked at more than 9 million in 2022.

“While signs of improvement seem to be everywhere in our economy over the past twelve months, there’s a far different story unfolding for over a million of our neighbors,” CAFB president and CEO Radha Muthiah said. “This year’s Hunger Report makes clear that food insecurity and economic inequity are still enormous problems in our area.”

Overall, about 32% of D.C. area residents are food insecure, including 18% who are severely food insecure, according to the 2023 Hunger Report, which is based on data collected between May 2022 and April 2023.

The only surveyed jurisdiction with less food insecurity than Fairfax County was Arlington, where 17% of households struggle to find food — a decline from 21% in 2022. Prince George’s County had the highest rate at 45%.

Food insecurity levels in the D.C. area from the 2023 Hunger Report (via Capital Area Food Bank)

Other notable findings from CAFB:

  • Food insecurity is more prevalent among Black (47%) and Hispanic (52%) respondents than white respondents (14%)
  • About 82% of food-insecure households are low-income, which is defined as earning $83,000 a year or less, but 1 in 5 families who earn the area’s median income of $120,000 still experience food insecurity
  • 76% of food-insecure individuals are employed — a higher rate than the one for food-secure individuals (73%)
  • 10% of children are experiencing food insecurity, a lower rate than the general population that the report attributes to parents prioritizing feeding their kids over themselves and access to school meals

The lack of improvement in the region’s food insecurity levels, despite signs of a strong recovery for the U.S. economy, reflects “the pandemic’s ongoing impacts on employment, high rates of inflation, and the rollback of…government assistance programs,” such as the emergency Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits that ended in March, the 2023 Hunger Report says.

According to the report, 52% of all respondents reported feeling the impacts of high food costs, which rose 20% between May 2020 and this past May, but the impact was more widespread among food-insecure households, particularly low-income, Black and Hispanic households.

To address food insecurity, the report urges providers like CAFB to increase access to food assistance. It also recommends government support for public programs like SNAP — which is funded by a farm bill that expired at the end of September — and better coordination between social services intended to alleviate poverty.

“Every sector in our region has a role to play in addressing this ongoing crisis, both in the short and longer term, to create more opportunity and brighter futures for our community,” Muthiah said.

Over the past two years, Fairfax County has distributed $9.5 million in relief funds from the American Rescue Plan Act to support community food providers, including $4 million that will be allocated this fall, according to Ramona Carroll, equity manager for the county’s Department of Neighborhood and Community Services.

The county also devotes over $1 million annually to nonprofits that provide emergency food assistance through its Consolidated Community Funding Pool (CCFP), which provides funding for nonprofit and community human services organizations through an annual, competitive process.

In addition, the county began accepting applications last month for an economic mobility pilot that will give eligible families monthly payments of $750 for 15 months. Initial data from similar basic income programs that have cropped up around the country, including in Alexandria City, suggest they can help people afford housing, food and other basic needs.

For community members who want to assist those experiencing food insecurity, Carroll recommends donating to local food providers and the county’s annual Stuff the Bus campaign. She also recommends that organizations consider applying for the community funding pool.

“The funding allocated to organizations through the CCFP serves as an investment and catalyst for strengthening the human services network of programs available for Fairfax County residents,” Carroll said.

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