Throat cancer forced Claudia Williams to leave her housekeeping job at the Greater Southeast Nursing Home. Her doctor told her the chemicals she used to clean rooms would exacerbate her condition.
Five years has elapsed and she still hasn't returned to work. While the paychecks have stopped, her bills haven't. Fortunately, Williams and countless others who find themselves in her predicament don't have to worry about food, thanks to McKinley Crudup and his church, that ensure thousands of area residents' refrigerators and pantries aren't bare even through the toughest of times.
"Hunger is real. I'm here every day, and I see it. We have grandparents who have to take care of their grandchildren and parents who have lost their jobs," said Crudup, 85, the McKinley Crudup Outreach Center's founder and executive director. "It's not only the ones who have been on food stamps for a long time, but the middle class are losing their jobs and struggling too. They are the ones who are coming to us for help as well."
The second and fourth Wednesday of the month, and every Friday, hundreds of people make their way to the McKinley Crudup Outreach Center – located a stone's throw away from Allen Chapel AME Church in Southeast – to stock up on an assortment of meats, vegetables and canned goods.
Fresh produce days are a crowd favorite. The first, third and fifth Wednesday of each month, the church's parking lot doubles as a farmers' market with tables brimming over with collard greens, succulent yellow squash, sweet potatoes, juicy cucumbers and containers of mixed salad. Long lines begin to form well before dawn as shoppers wait patiently to sign-in at the center before they can fill their baskets, boxes and carts with seasonal fruits and vegetables.
Crudup knows how it feels to go without. Raised in Wilson, N.C., by his grandmother, he vividly recalls the many nights he went to sleep with nothing on his stomach but a salt sandwich.
"I was raised by a poor family and I know what it's like to be hungry," he said. "I went hungry so many times that I said that if I ever get the opportunity, I would take care of as many people as I could."
Others have followed his lead.
Mary Close is a home healthcare aide and while she frequents the center, she shares most of her food with her patients.
"I love it. Everything is fresh," said the 65-year-old Southeast resident. "[My patients] always like the collard greens. I season them with turkey butts and onions."
Although Crudup provides those in need with food, the sad reality remains that the number of people in the region who suffer from hunger has become increasingly worse each year.
According to a 2011 U.S. Department of Agriculture [USDA] report, 12.6 percent of households in the District suffer from a shortage of food. Even worse, among the 12.6 percent of homes, individuals in 4.4 percent of those households frequently skip meals due to the lack of food.
"We have the highest poverty rate, probably, of any city, of any county, of any state in America," said Ward 8 Council member Marion Barry, 76. "That's what is causing all of these problems."
The center offers more than just food.
Monthly nutrition classes are taught by a certified nutritionist who imparts the benefits of healthy eating. For the holidays, a Thanksgiving basket filled with a fresh turkey, stuffing and sweet potatoes, is given to those who attend at least three classes.
While the McKinley Crudup Outreach Center – which partners with the Capital Area Food Bank in Northeast – is in its sixth year of operation, Crudup, a retired D.C. employee, has been a member of Allen Chapel AME for 48 years. Hunger cannot be completely eradicated, but Crudup, a charismatic fellow with an infectious laugh, continues to do his level best to make sure that people have food on their tables.
"I think that it's a blessing for everyone and we all should be thankful for all that they do," said Williams, 62, who lives in Southeast. "It's a big help to the young, middle aged and older people alike."
"Everyone there treats me so well. They help me whenever I run out of food and get me through the month," said Williams. "Mr. Crudup is a very nice man. He's kind and understanding and he does so many wonderful things," she said with a smile.
Joseph Young contributed to this report.