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Article reprinted in its entirety from DCist, May 11, 2021
D.C. nonprofit Bread for the City’s massive new center on Good Hope Road is nearly complete and staffers are getting excited to hang up the sign out front: “The Michelle Obama Southeast Center of Bread for the City.”
It will be the first building named for the former first lady in the city she still calls home.
Obama and her family visited Bread for the City’s previous center in Anacostia, less than a block away from the new building, before Thanksgiving in 2014. The organization provides food, clothing, and services to low income residents.
Lynda Brown, director of the Southeast center and of social services, was there that day. “As the community members were coming through and actually getting their bags from the first family, they passed me on the way out and many of them were in tears,” she says. “If that level of impact can happen for them just seeing that, having Mrs. Obama’s name on this building hopefully will have that same level of impact for the community.”
But the name on the new building is just one part of what distinguishes it from its squat, peach-colored predecessor. The Michelle Obama Southeast Center of Bread for the City is intended as an embodiment of the nonprofit’s commitment to the residents in the area, and will significantly expand the services offered on Good Hope Road.
“We always had a vision of having a physical presence in this part of the city,” says George Jones, the longtime CEO of Bread for the City. “But once we got here, we realized our vision wasn’t big enough. And so this is the larger vision of being here and being an anchor organization for this community.”
The nearly 30,000 square foot building was designed with all of the lessons learned from the smaller outpost, and will serve 20,000 clients.
Most visible from the outside are the huge, plate-glass windows: unlike the previous space, there’s natural light all over, and the upper floors have stunning views of the city, including from an expansive rooftop garden. The new building has better facilities, including more restrooms. Rather than an open-office plan for social work services (known in the previous building as “the fishbowl”), there are private rooms to ensure clients feel comfortable.
But the biggest addition is the medical clinic, which will offer primary care, dental, and vision. Bread for the City has long wanted to bring more medical services east of the Anacostia River, where residents have fewer options for healthcare and have much worse health outcomes. The city has been debating building and financing a new hospital here for years; currently the only hospital east of the river is the financially troubled United Medical Center.
“We just can’t wait for the health clinic to be a part of the Southeast community in a much bigger way,” says Dr. Randi Abramson, the chief medical officer. “In pre-COVID times, there were many people passing through the doors at Bread for the City in Southeast, and now, being able to say, ‘Hey, if you have health concerns or you don’t have a primary care provider that you feel comfortable with and you’re already coming to Bread for the City for services, now you can also get your healthcare here.’” While some clients trek to the nonprofit’s Northwest location for healthcare, many more simply forgo care altogether.
She says that the pandemic, which has been more deadly in Ward 8 than any other ward in the city, has illustrated the nonprofit’s holistic view on health: “We’re really talking about their housing, their income, their safety network, who’s in their social support.”
The idea is that the new center is a one-stop shop for all of these needs — as well as people’s wants. That’s why Jones calls the fitness center one of his favorite places in the new building.
“It isn’t just about the problems you have,” says Jones. “It’s also about some of the other kinds of things that people, even people with low incomes, aspire to: fitness and working out, self care.”
The idea of valuing clients’ wants is why the food pantry looks like a supermarket, in an area of the city where grocery stores are few and far between.
“Clients come in and they actually go shopping, and they can look on the shelf and see, not just one can or one type of vegetable and that’s what they have to take, but they actually have a choice,” says Trazy Collins, the director of food and clothing. “It’s one thing to meet the need of our families, but it’s another to meet the wants and desires that give them the dignity and the respect that they deserve.”
Courtney Dowe says that the new center is a “love letter to the community, in the form of services that are very, very much needed.” Dowe’s relationship with Bread for the City began around 2015, when she went with a friend to wait in line for a Thanksgiving turkey.
“I realized how easy it was to become a client and also realized that I probably needed a turkey,” she says.
From there, she started using more services — she went to the clothes closet. She joined a women’s empowerment group. Bread for the City helped her win a D.C. arts grant for a women’s radio co-op. And now, she sits on the nonprofit’s board of directors.
Dowe’s journey mirrors what Bread for the City is hoping will be the story for many others: clients will come in for one thing, and then discover the other services at their fingertips.
But right now, the building has yet to ramp up its full suite of services due to coronavirus-related restrictions. During the pandemic, the nonprofit has seen a 400% increase in need for its services.
Bread for the City responded by building up a food delivery service. At the height of the pandemic, the nonprofit was delivering 1,000 bags of food each day. (Amazon provided delivery help.) Now, the nonprofit is still providing that amount of food daily, but a larger slice of people are picking it up from the center.
And Jones, the CEO, is looking forward to when the community can really enjoy the Michelle Obama Southeast Center of Bread for the City and the services within. “We’re really envisioning, particularly in the long run, community members who are coming here and accessing computers and hopefully feeling like this center is their center,” he says.
Barbara Clark, the area’s advisory neighborhood commissioner, says she refers her constituents to Bread for the City. The new building is “like a big hug,” she says. “I think the building stands out and people know that this is where to go.”
The medical clinic will open its doors on May 17 to provide its first on-site service: offering COVID vaccines.