Feeding Our Neighbors

Feeding Our Neighbors

Manna Food Center’s Jackie DeCarlo is fighting hunger and teaching children from low-income families the basics of healthy eating

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Jackie DeCarlo in the school bus dubbed “Manny,” which serves as a mobile kitchen, classroom and “pop-up pantry.” Photo by Deb Lindsey.

 

Jackie DeCarlo walks me through a large warehouse in Gaithersburg run by the Manna Food Center. A handwritten sign says the center will distribute 170 boxes of food that day to needy county residents, and since it is high summer, volunteers are filling those boxes with fresh produce donated by local farms and markets, from corn and tomatoes to squash and peppers. Clients can also request special items—baby formula for new mothers, low-sodium foods for those with high blood pressure.

“We’re trying to offer people the healthiest items that we can,” says DeCarlo, who has run Manna for the last five years and directs a staff of 30. “We don’t want to be fighting the hunger epidemic but contributing to the obesity or the diabetes epidemic.”

Montgomery County is one of the wealthiest areas in the country, but it is not immune to a national trend that’s been called “the suburbanization of poverty.” Manna estimates that about 70,000 people in the county, including 33,000 children, are “food insecure,” meaning they often don’t know “where their next meal is coming from.”

DeCarlo worries that people will think of these needy families as “the other,” strangers that inhabit a different world and “are not our neighbors.” Not so, she insists: “They are our neighbors. They turn to us when they need us, and we should be there for them.”

Now 52, DeCarlo knows firsthand about neediness. She was born in New Jersey, but after her father’s job took the family to Atlanta her parents divorced and her “Norman Rockwell” life collapsed. “Mom became a single mom and I became a latchkey kid,” DeCarlo recalls. “Throughout high school we were trying to make ends meet.”

Her mother “struggled with depression” and was hospitalized after a suicide attempt. “We were always behind in our bills, and so in the evening our mom wouldn’t let us answer the phone because she knew it was bill collectors,” DeCarlo says. “There was a real big shift from middle class to not middle class.”

At Agnes Scott College in Atlanta, DeCarlo went through another change, dating women and identifying as a lesbian. But during her first job as a teacher, in a conservative Georgia school district, she had to “remain in the closet” if she wanted to remain employed. Tired of the stress and “burned out” on teaching, DeCarlo moved to this area in 1990 and earned a graduate degree in leading nonprofit institutions at the University of Maryland. She had been raised a strict Catholic—once even asking an archbishop if she could become a priest—but “the church, its stance on women and women’s rights, as well as [on] gay people, got less and less tenable,” she says. “So I left.”

DeCarlo and her partner, Renee, sought out a church “where our relationship was honored,” and they found a spiritual home at the Friends Meeting House in downtown Washington. “We were the first gay couple who was married at the Friends Meeting, and we were also the first one who was divorced,” she says with a laugh.

A series of jobs in the nonprofit world followed, mainly dealing with refugees and fair trade. DeCarlo’s new partner, Kristen Moe, a captain in the U.S. Public Health Service, was stationed in Montgomery County, and the couple bought a house together in Kensington Heights in 2010. With the move, DeCarlo says, she shifted her focus from global issues to “give back more locally.”

Her years in the county have taught her how badly critics misunderstand the food crisis. Manna doesn’t want to create “a climate of dependency,” and its clients don’t want that either. “People don’t want to rely on us, the average person comes to us only five times a year,” she explains. And they only come when they have to.

One-quarter of Manna’s clients are senior citizens who are “aging into poverty,” outliving their savings and struggling on fixed incomes. Two out of five clients hold a job, sometimes more than one, but it takes an annual income of about $86,000 for a family of three to be “self-sufficient” in Montgomery County, and a sudden financial strain—a medical emergency, a family breakup—can force folks to seek help.

One of DeCarlo’s goals is to make that help more accessible. Manna has opened distribution centers in 20 locations, from church basements to housing complexes for the elderly. A program called “Smart Sacks” delivers food directly to public schools every Friday for kids who get subsidized meals during the week to take home for the weekends. Another innovation, “Choice Pantry,” enables clients using two Silver Spring churches to select their own groceries instead of receiving a pre-stocked box.

Manna tries to address the “root causes” of hunger by educating families on how to buy and prepare healthy meals on a limited budget. Last year the program refitted an old school bus, nicknamed “Manny,” as a mobile kitchen, classroom and “pop-up pantry.” One of its main uses: showing up at an elementary school with a lot of low-income students and teaching fourth- and fifth-graders the basics of healthy eating.

Youngsters that age, especially in immigrant families, often act as emissaries for their elders, bringing home language and cultural skills, and the hope is that they will educate their parents about the benefits of squash casseroles instead of Big Macs. Sodexo, the international food service company whose U.S. headquarters is in Gaithersburg, was so impressed with Manna’s efforts that the company’s Stop Hunger Foundation gave DeCarlo their global “Women Stop Hunger” award in Paris last spring.

She tells the story of a recent visit Manny made to Germantown Elementary School. After one youngster tried roasted cauliflower for the first time, he decided that it tasted like “popcorn” and asked for more. The next day, his mother reported, the boy suggested they go to the grocery store and buy the vegetable so he could show her how to prepare it.

DeCarlo shows me a “hunger heat map” of Montgomery County with areas of  “critical need” highlighted in red. They show up in Damascus and Germantown, Gaithersburg and Silver Spring, and increasingly along the county’s eastern border in towns like Fairland and White Oak. She points at the red spots and outlines her future goals: “We want those to change color.”

Steve Roberts teaches journalism and politics at George Washington University. Send suggestions to sroberts@gwu.edu.

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