In Arlington, Combating Hunger An All-Hands Effort
Food insecurity has increased dramatically during the pandemic. Local volunteers and nonprofits are meeting the moment.
It’s a cold Monday afternoon and dozens of masked people are lined up outside Claremont Elementary School. Each has an empty, reusable bag in hand, waiting for their turn.
The woman next in line approaches the first fold-out table, lined with grocery staples. “Today we have one of these two, one rice and one bean,” volunteer Melissa Schwaber-Hawkins says, gesturing toward the array. The woman picks up a Ziploc bag’s worth each of dried beans and rice, along with a sack of sugar.
She moves along past several more tables, each stacked with provisions and staffed by a masked volunteer. By the end, she has a full bag of groceries to take home. This process, organized by Claremont PTA volunteers with food donated by the school community, has occurred every week since March 2020, when the Covid-19 pandemic first hit.
“We do it grocery-store-style,” Schwaber-Hawkins explains. “Instead of just handing a family a bag of groceries, we set up tables that have different selections that allow families to decide what they need for the week. It really just depends on what your food preferences are.”
Nearly a year has gone by since the arrival of Covid-19. As many Arlingtonians grapple with unprecedented hardship, others have stepped up to help their neighbors in crisis. Schwaber-Hawkins is one of the many pouring her time and energy into the community around Claremont—her kids’ school.
“Before September, we were packing bags and delivering [food] to families’ houses,” she says, and serving about 50 families.
Moving the distribution to school grounds has allowed the group to widen its reach. Some 85 families now come weekly to pick up food. “We still deliver to about eight families who don’t have transportation,” she qualifies.
It was a little chaotic in the beginning, but now it’s a well-oiled operation. During the week, food donations roll in and are stored in volunteers’ houses, garages and porches. Volunteers make store runs to fill in the gaps. Mondays are distribution days at the school. Anything leftover is meticulously recorded in an inventory log and returned to storage until the following week.
Arlington is the eighth wealthiest county in the nation, yet one-third of its residents are currently experiencing food insecurity. The number has increased significantly in recent months, exacerbated by rising unemployment rates and financial stress.
Many food-insecure families now rely on a combination of resources—from grassroots operations like the one at Claremont Elementary, to established, mission-driven nonprofits—for food, rental assistance and more.
Over at the Arlington Food Assistance Center (AFAC), refrigerators and freezers are packed with eggs, milk, meat, produce and other staples. Housed in a large warehouse near Four Mile Run, the county’s largest food pantry stays open six days a week, serving healthy, nutritious groceries to local residents who’ve been referred by a social worker.
Masked volunteers sort through large donations from grocery stores and distributors, as well as smaller hauls from local scout troops, faith-based groups and individual families. “Volunteers are at the heart of everything we do here at AFAC,” says executive director Charles Meng.
“We try to provide a wide selection that is important to a healthy, nutritious diet,” he says, including high-cost items like fresh fruits and vegetables.
AFAC is currently serving about 2,700 Arlington families per week, using a “choice” model that reduces food waste.
“If you’re just going to give somebody a bag of pre-sorted food, then they’re not going to eat some of those things,” Meng says. “They might not like some of those things, so the food goes to waste. We believe really in respecting the dignity of the individuals who come to us. We do that by allowing them to choose the foods that they will like and that their families will eat.”
Since the pandemic began, Meng says AFAC has seen a 45% increase in demand, compounded by a decline in volunteers. Many of the organization’s most loyal longtime helpers are older and concerned about exposure to the virus.
But halting distribution is not an option.
People are struggling, and AFAC provides both short- and long-term support. Some recipients come through every day. Some have been coming for decades—only now they stand six feet apart and wear masks.
“When people come to us, even in a situation like this, in an emergency or in a pandemic,” the effects can be long-lasting, Meng says. “In the past, once those families have come to us, we rarely see them leaving us. I expect we will be serving these families well into the future.”
Long after the virus subsides, its financial pain will endure, Meng says. He’s seen enough hardship to know that there are no easy fixes.
Some area nonprofits have shifted their focus in response to new realities posed by the public health crisis. That includes Real Food for Kids, a nonprofit that promotes healthy school lunches. During Covid, that mission has dovetailed with the problem of food insecurity.
“It is a health pandemic, and unfortunately the stats around children’s health, particularly the ones that are food insecure, have gotten much, much worse,” says the group’s director, Bonnie Moore. “Obesity has skyrocketed and Type 2 diabetes among children has also skyrocketed.”
Non-nutritious foods are often the cheapest grocery options, Moore says, but while they fill bellies and satiate immediate hunger, they create other long-term health problems. During quarantine, kids’ consumption of sugary drinks and junk foods has increased, while physical activity has decreased—a trend that disproportionately affects kids in low-income households.
Real Food for Kids is a partner in Chefs Feeding Families, an effort launched last spring by Bayou Bakery owner David Guas. The partnership has restaurants such as Bayou Bakery, Silver Diner and Pizzeria Paradiso using their supply chains and kitchen staff to prepare healthy, low-cost grab-and-go meals. Since March, the joint initiative has handed out nearly 115,000 plant-based meals to students and their families in the DMV. No questions asked.
“I think we’re small and I think we’ve always had a reputation for punching way above our weight,” Moore says. “Being small makes you really nimble. Within 48 hours of school shutting down [last spring], we had a meal site up and running.”
In a crisis, every contribution helps.
Amy Maclosky, director of Arlington Public Schools (APS) Office of Food and Nutrition Services, remembers having to turn on a dime when Covid arrived. Normally, the federally-funded program she runs provides free or reduced-price breakfast and lunch to kids at school. The sudden closure of schools necessitated a wholesale change in logistics.
“It was like a completely different job,” Maclosky says. “It was challenging trying to figure out who would come? How would we package the food? What kind of food should we select so that it’s good to travel if you don’t have refrigeration? If you don’t have freezer space? How can we be safe during the pandemic? There are all kinds of things we had to transition and there were a lot of lessons learned.”
Prior to Covid, Maclosky says APS was serving around 500 free or reduced-price student meals daily. Now that number has increased to 6,000.
She estimates that APS has distributed nearly 1.3 million free meals in Arlington since the start of the 2020-2021 school year.
“Feeding kids healthy meals, breakfast and lunch, it was important to us before the pandemic,” Maclosky says. “That’s why I do this job. Now it’s even more important.”
“The kids are wonderful,” she adds. “They have their masks on, and they get so excited when they can pick up stuff that they liked when they were in school.”