Housing Complex

D.C. Actually Doing Pretty Well on Food Access

Fifteen percent of Washingtonians couldn't afford to buy enough food at some point last year. That's the figure reported in a study released today by the Food Research and Action Center, using data from a Gallup survey. FRAC's press release highlights the unacceptably high number of people who are unable to buy the food they need. That's undoubtedly a problem in need of solutions—but what strikes me is how well D.C.'s doing in this area relative to other cities and states.

Much as the District might push for statehood, we don't generally like to be compared to states on things like crime and school performance, since we are, after all, a city with the problems cities tend to have. When it comes to unemployment, for example, D.C. ranks worse than all but 10 states as of December, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

And yet on food hardship—the percentage of people who reported not being able to buy the food they needed at some point in 2012—we don't look so bad. Here's the full list:

D.C.'s all the way down at a tie for 41st. Among the 436 congressional Districts, D.C. comes in tied for 373rd. And when you add the suburbs into the mix, we look even better: Among the 100 listed metropolitan areas, the D.C. region is number 98.

So what accounts for D.C.'s disproportionately strong (or less weak) performance in food access? According to Alexandra Ashbrook, director of D.C. Hunger Solutions, it's all about strong government-backed programs.

"The safety net when it comes to nutrition programs is performing fairly well in D.C.," she says. "We have a food stamp program that serves over 135,000 residents." She notes that 87 percent of eligible D.C. residents participate in the food stamp, or SNAP, program according to 2010 data, compared to 75 percent nationwide. She credits legislation from the D.C. Council, in partnership with advocacy groups, that makes it easier for people to sign up for SNAP.

Ashbrook says other programs are to thank, too: FRAC ranked the District's school breakfast program second in the country for the 2011-2012  school year. (It was number one the year prior but slipped behind New Mexico.)

But on the negative side, Ashbrook says, D.C. doesn't stack up well when it comes to food hardship in households with children. According to a 2011 report using data from 2009 and 2010, D.C. households with children had a 37.4 percent food hardship rate, the worst among states. D.C.'s economy has recovered considerably from those years, so the figure has presumably dropped. But the disparity between households with and without children points to the District's demographic quirks: Many high-earning young residents leave the city when they have kids, so the concentration of children is higher in the poorer eastern parts of the city.

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