March 9, 2011

Bread for the City to Maryland: pass the bag bill, but do so responsibly.

Bread for the City's food pantry coordinator and reusable bag-fiend Jeffrey Wankel took a trip to Annapolis, Maryland yesterday to deliver testimony at the state legislature's hearings on the proposed bag bill. The text of his testimony is pasted below. Note: If you'd like to participate in our reusable bag drive (more than 25,000 donated so far!), contact Jeffrey at jwankel [at] breadforthecity [dot] org.

Bread for the City is one of Washington DC's primary front-line organizations providing comprehensive assistance to the District's low-income residents. Our food pantry is the city's largest (serving nearly 5,000 families each month), and our food assistance is provided hand in hand with medical care, legal assistance, case management and more. Last year, we saw more than 55,000 people walk through our doors for help.

In 2009, we were paid a visit by Councilmember Tommy Wells, who gave a presentation about his proposed legislation to place a fee on single-use bags. Councilmember Wells explained the environmental benefits of the bill, and also pledged that, if the bill passed, the city would ensure the provision of a large supply of reusable bags to agencies such as Bread for the City, since we serve as major access points for both resources and education to our low income neighbors.

Bread for the City supported the legislation despite a certain amount of ambivalence about the regressive nature of the bag fee. Our clients are struggling so much to sustain themselves day to day that many actually would feel the pinch of 5 cents per bag. But we believe that the principles of environmentalism and conservation should not (indeed, must not) be at odds with a progressive commitment to supporting the underprivileged of our society.

So we gave our support under the condition of the city’s commitment to provide the community with reusable bags. And in the end, we had to work for that commitment to be upheld. Certain grocery stores initially pledged tens of thousands of bags but did not follow through until the media picked up on the fact their pledges had been unfulfilled. Indeed, we are still appealing to the community to follow through on the promises made by the city.

Still, Bread for the City's move towards reusable bags has been very successful. The outpouring of support from our community (and even across the country, as we blogged about our efforts) has enabled us to receive and distribute more than 25,000 reusable bags in the past year. Clients are returning to re-use the bags (we offer additional items of produce as incentive for clients who actually bring back their reusable bags for re-use). This has reduced our single-use bag supply by almost 100,000 bags -- saving us thousands of dollars in the process. And our surveys suggest that clients are increasingly conscious of (and positive about) the environmental impact on their community and the Anacostia River.

So we encourage our neighbors in Maryland to follow our path. Legislators should make this policy smart, and blunt its regressive impact through a concerted effort to supply relief agencies with reusable bag supplies. Advocates, too, should campaign responsibly: work together with the community to ensure that this legislation an opportunity for education and sustainable benefit that can be shared by all. Thank you for your time.

Readers: We need your help to make sure that reusable bags get into the hands of each of our clients. Please contact me at Jwankel [at] breadforthecity [dot] org to learn how to get involved.

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