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A food and resource distribution drive in Reston last month drew hundreds (via Cornerstones)

Prior to the pandemic, Fairfax County had the highest amount of food insecurity in the state. Now, some advocates say that number has more doubled.

According to the Fairfax Food Council and other county and local advocates, food insecurity remains a growing challenge for moderate-income families in what is a high cost-of-living area.

“Before the Covid [pandemic] hit this region, more than 16,000 people, including 5,000 children, turned to Cornerstones annually for help with food, affordable housing, quality childcare, job skills training, and health care access,” noted Kerrie Wilson, CEO of Cornerstones, a Reston-based nonprofit organization. “29 months later, amid the pandemic’s lingering economic and health impact, they still do.”

Cornerstones has distributed nearly 9,500 bags of fresh produce and provided support for 1,347 households in the past fiscal year through its Assistance Services and Pantry Program (ASAPP). The program also helped 38 households with roughly $20,000 in emergency utilities assistance.

Based on Cornerstones’ data, most of the households the organization served earned extremely low or very low income. Nearly 40% were led by women and 20% of the households had one individual aged 55 or above.

The rising cost of groceries, transportation and the lack of affordable housing are adding additional pressures, according to Cornerstones.

“Through this summer, our ASAPP program will continue to support families in need and work in close collaboration with local faith groups, corporate partners, and other community nonprofits to stock food pantries across the region,” Wilson said. “Our greatest need currently are donations of fresh produce and grocery store and gas gift cards.”

Overall, roughly 8% of the county is classified as food insecure, according to the Capital Area Food Bank’s latest hunger report, which uses a screener tool from the U.S. Department of Agriculture for food insecurity in the overall region and interviews conducted between February and March of this year.

Even though food insecurity appears to be rising, the county’s main method to connect residents to services and resources — Coordinated Services Planning — has seen a significant dip in the number of requests. After a surge in the spring of 2020, the county-based service saw a 61% decrease in emergency food requests for fiscal years 2021-2022 over fiscal years 2019 and 2020.

“Fairfax County recognizes that food insecurity is still a critical need,” Cristin Bratt, communications director for Fairfax County Neighborhood and Community Services said. “Additional supports have been put in place to support this need, which may account for the decrease in calls requesting assistance.”

The shift is in part through federal dollars granted through the federal American Rescue Plan Act’s food access program. Implemented in fiscal year 2022, the program allocated $7.5 million over three years to purchase food for community food providers and support for food system infrastructure.

So far, roughly $3.3 million has been dispersed during the first year of the program across 22 houses of worship and 26 community-based organizations. The county also offers a number of services online to those impacted by food insecurity.

But with surging inflation and an economic downturn possible on the horizon, the elephant in the room is rental and utility assistance. The county does provide help to those in need through a federally funded emergency rental assistance program, along with other federal and local resources.

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Person counts dollar bills (via Sharon McCutcheon/Unsplash)

A pilot program that will give monthly cash assistance to select low-income residents is in development in Fairfax County.

While eligibility criteria, payment amounts, and other details are still being determined, the county has allocated $1.5 million to the effort from its American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds, as noted in a stimulus update to the Board of Supervisors’ budget policy committee yesterday (Tuesday).

First proposed at a health and human services committee meeting on June 29, the pilot will help people improve their financial situation by providing an additional, flexible source of income, county staff say.

“At its core, it’s an economic mobility initiative, but it’s also an anti-poverty initiative, and it’s certainly innovative,” Deputy County Executive Chris Leonard told the board last summer.

If it implements the pilot, Fairfax County will join a nationwide experiment with basic income programs that has also drawn in Arlington County and Alexandria. Research from around the world suggests the initiatives boost people’s happiness, health, and economic stability without limiting employment.

Fairfax County plans to model its pilot on the nonprofit UpTogether, which gives underserved individuals and families access to cash investments through an online platform that doubles as a social network.

UpTogether’s emphasis on trusting recipients to make their own decisions and building community deviates from traditional social services, which deliver vital resources like food or housing but often come with conditions, such as work requirements.

Fairfax County is looking at the nonprofit UpTogether as a model for its proposed basic income pilot program (via Fairfax County)

It’s the difference between helping people survive poverty and giving them the tools to escape it, Board of Supervisors Chairman Jeff McKay explained, suggesting families, particularly those with young children, as a possible target population for the pilot.

“Part of what I think our obligation to do is to stop this generational poverty that seems to happen everywhere in the country,” McKay said. “If you’re going to break the trends of generational poverty, you somehow have to get to the youth.” Read More

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