WASHINGTON - In soup kitchens, food pantries and universities across the country, activists are planting the seeds for an overhaul of the way America feeds its more than 35 million hungry people, the first major challenge to a system largely developed in the 1960s.
They have begun providing food where people live and work, reconsidering the need for big, urban facilities and pushing for larger government food subsidies.
The goal is to make food more easily available to working poor women, children and others who, research shows, are a larger portion of the hungry than the urban homeless. They also hope to lessen the stigma associated with standing in line for a hot meal or groceries.
"The first generation of soup kitchens are getting to the point of outgrowing their kitchens and thinking they have to build new multimillion-dollar facilities," said Robert Egger, president of D.C. Central Kitchen and a nationally recognized anti-hunger activist. "And we're saying, 'We need to be adapting to future needs, not building the same things but bigger.' "
Soup kitchens, which provide hot meals, and food pantries, which offer groceries mostly to families, are the backbone of the current nonprofit food system. Most are in the hearts of cities and rely primarily on individual donations of food or bulk supplies from large food banks. They also need money for overhead, all of which leaves them vulnerable during economic downturns such as the current one, nonprofit leaders say.
Operating soup kitchens during traditional business hours shuts out a large group of hungry people. About 30 percent of households headed by single mothers reported going without food at least occasionally in 2007, almost four times the rate for single people, according to Feeding America, an umbrella group for 200 food banks nationwide.
Concerns about the nutritional value of food provided to the hungry have also plagued food banks. And several studies have indicated that many people avoid food pantries or soup kitchens out of embarrassment, leading activists to explore new ways of distributing food.
In response, Washington high school students are taking leftovers from corporate cafeterias to homebound seniors. In Austin, a local food pantry has gone mobile, traveling to rural parts of the region where people have no source of emergency food. A Harvard University professor suggests the money currently spent on food pantries would make more of a difference if it were put toward expanding food stamp programs.
"One weakness in the food pantry system is that it works through physical partner agencies, and so many of those agencies just open their doors and wait for people to walk through them," said David Davenport, a Baltimore native who took the helm of the Austin food bank in March. "That's not sufficient. We need to go to where the people are."
To be sure, the traditional system still reigns. Washington's Capital Area Food Bank broke ground last year on a $36 million warehouse that will double its capacity. The food bank serves about 700 food pantries and soup kitchens across the region, which helped feed about 383,000 people in 2006.
Leaders of the current system say that they value experimentation but that none of the newer projects could currently provide food to the millions who need it.
"There's certainly a place for new ideas and innovation, but when resources are limited, we need to focus on feeding people right now, and that's where food banks come in," said Kasandra Gunter Robinson, spokeswoman for the Capital Area Food Bank.
The food bank's expansion was sharply criticized by Egger and other activists, who said it does not address the root causes of hunger and does not take advantage of existing resources.
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"There are school cafeterias that sit empty most of the day and food there being wasted, and so why can't we use those instead of building new facilities?" asked Maureen Roche, director of the Washington-based Campus Kitchens programs. The organization operates on high school and college campuses across the country, including at Gonzaga College High School in the District and at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.
Like Campus Kitchens, which began in 2001, several newer efforts focus on bringing meals to people in their schools or homes. At the Capital Area Food Bank of Texas, based in Austin, a mobile pantry travels the region, offering people a week's worth of groceries from a refrigerated truck. The vehicle visits housing projects as well as rural communities of migrant workers who have no access to traditional food pantries.
The mobile food bank was Davenport's brainchild. The first vehicle hit the streets last spring, and Davenport plans to add one more each year. The program is similar to Meals on Wheels, which made its U.S. debut in 1954 and has lengthy waiting lists in many cities today. But the mobile food bank is not limited to seniors and focuses on providing groceries rather than pre-made meals.
Davenport's work is not done when families are holding bags of groceries, a sharp contrast to traditional soup kitchens. The food bank also helps clients enroll in food stamp or Medicare programs and attempts to address other needs. In Travis County, where Austin is located, just 29 percent of people eligible for food stamps are signed up for the program, he said.
Davenport is one of a growing number of food activists putting an increased emphasis on food stamps as an answer to hunger. The program, initially developed in the late 1930s, was cut back in the mid-1990s amid concerns about fraud and a growing government focus on personal responsibility. Today, people receive their food assistance money through debit cards, which has decreased reports of fraud, but many activists argue that the average per-person food stamp check - about $21 a week - is insufficient.
Federal responsibility 'not being met'
Last year, a study led by Harvard professor J. Larry Brown concluded that the United States could end hunger as a serious national problem by spending $12 billion more on federal nutrition programs, primarily food stamps. That is less than the $14.5 billion nonprofit groups spend to feed the hungry.
"There has never been a nation that I know of that has ensured the nutritional well-being of its population through charity," Brown said. "There is a federal responsibility here that is not being met."
But there is no significant increase in food stamp funding on the horizon. Instead, food bank leaders are seeking ways to operate more efficiently.
Campus Kitchens, which grew out of D.C. Central Kitchen, might be an important part of the future of feeding the hungry, according to several activists. Each of the 15 participating campuses has tailored its program specifically for the community it serves. Gonzaga College High students walk their Ward 6 neighborhood, and Northwestern University students provide free lunches during the summer to children in Evanston, Ill., who receive those meals at school during the year.
At Gonzaga, an all-boys Catholic school on North Capitol Street, most students do not go hungry at home, but many residents of the surrounding neighborhood do. Every Friday, boys in letterman jackets take meals donated by local corporations to residents' doors in apartment buildings near the school. The students don't stay long, but their brief visits often elicit grins from the mostly elderly population they serve.
Ultimately, Roche and Egger said, the goal of Campus Kitchens is to build a system where parents can pick up meals for their family when they pick up their children from school. That would allow parents to feed their children in their own homes rather than in soup kitchens, Egger said.
"The fact that it worked yesterday does not mean it is going to work tomorrow," Roche said of the traditional system.