- The Washington Times - Monday, March 8, 2004

Hunger knows no season. No one knows this better than Christel Hair, chief development officer for the Capital Area Food Bank.

Poor children on school vacation breaks, sick senior citizens on fixed incomes, and unemployed and disabled workers must receive daily nourishment. The food bank’s member agencies serve 1.7 million meals monthly to D.C., Maryland and Virginia residents.

However, most well-meaning donors and volunteers don’t think of food drives and donations until they prepare for their holiday gift-giving or their end-of-the-year tax shelters.

As the March winds signal spring’s arrival, so, too, do they mark the advent of sparse shelves at the food bank. But calls to their hunger hot line tripled in the past year. So for the first time in its 24-year history, the Capital Area Food Bank will hold a fund-raising party to stock its dwindling coffers.

First lady Laura Bush has lent her name as honorary patron to the first Farmer’s Blue Jeans Ball, which will be held March 21 at the Pryzbyla Center of Catholic University, 620 Michigan Ave. NE. Prices range from $100 for a “just plain blue jeans” ticket to $25,000 for a “designer blue jeans” ticket. The event will feature live music and dancing from 6:30 to 10:30 p.m.

Ms. Hair said her staff came up with the idea from farmers who sell their produce at the farmers market they built in Southeast, an area of the city that has only one grocery store. The Farmer’s Blue Jeans Ball was planned with the help of chefs from Sodexho catering, joined by noted chefs from eight D.C. restaurants, including Kaz Okochi of Kaz Sushi Bistro, Enzo Sargione of Barolo, Todd Gray of Equinox, Jim Swenson of the National Press Club and Frank Morales of Zola.

“The timing is great, because we’ve outgrown our space,” Ms. Hair said.

In fact, she said the food bank had to turn away 1 million pounds of donated food last year because its 48,000-square-foot warehouse in Northeast and its 12,000-square-foot warehouse in Lorton can no longer accommodate deliveries and distributions. They process 20 million pounds of food a year, most of which would be thrown away by bakeries, grocery stores, distributors, retailers and farmers.

Even though individual donations increased 10 percent last year, corporate and foundation donations decreased by 30 percent. The Capital Area Food Bank had hoped to raise $5.2 million by the end of its fiscal year on June 30, but, Ms. Hair said, “We’re not going to make that number.”

“We can do a lot more with money,” said Ms. Hair, whose primary responsibility is to raise money for the nonprofit organization.

A second project this month, Harvest for the Hungry, is designed to collect nonperishable foods, mainly from Maryland residents. Starting this Saturday and running through March 20, the U.S. Postal Service Letter Carrier Week Food Drive will be held in conjunction with WUSA-TV (Channel 9), Safeway and Coldwell Banker Realtors.

Maryland donors can leave nonperishable food items out by their mailboxes for pickup by letter carriers, or they can take them to their nearest post office or Coldwell Banker office. Charity organizations and groups can arrange to have their goods picked up.

Families in the Maryland suburbs and the District will be the main recipients of this drive, which has a goal of collecting 800,000 pounds of food. The springtime project has helped 300 programs in 14 years.

The Capital Area Food Bank says it is “the largest public, nonprofit food and nutrition-education resource in the Metro area,” with a network of more than 750 feeding programs. In addition, it educates “thousands of residents on hunger, poverty and nutrition issues.” For example, its Food and Skills classes are aimed at teaching low-income recipients hands-on cooking experience, nutrition information, comparison shopping and basic money management. The food bank requests donation of basic recipe items, such as brown rice, flour, sugar, olive oil, rolled oats and spices such as basil, cinnamon and oregano.

In 2003, USA Today reported on a study by the U.S. Department of Agriculture that indicated the agency had seen an increase in the number of households about 12 million experiencing hunger and those worried about having enough to eat.

Not surprising, the report found the number of Americans living in poverty rose by 1.7 million in 2002 to 34.6 million, based on Census Bureau statistics. One expert blamed the 2001 recession and the minimum wage, at $5.15 an hour since 1997.

The Capital Area Food Bank estimates that in the Washington area, 335,000 people are at risk of hunger daily. One in three D.C. children, one in four Maryland children and one in five Northern Virginia children are estimated to go to bed hungry every night.

More than 800 area children, ages 5 to 18, are served at 18 Kids Cafe sites, where they get snacks and dinners through a national after-school and summer-meal program called America’s Second Harvest.

“Day in, day out, 24/7, the need continues,” Ms. Hair said.

Just like the mail, come rain or shine in winter, summer, spring or fall, empty bellies must be fed.

For more information, contact the Capital Area Food Bank at 202/526-5344 or go to www.capitalareafoodbank.org.

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