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The myth of no hunger in Northern Virginia

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Seeing the mansions that grace the rolling hills of Loudoun County, it’s not a stretch to think the area is one of the richest in the country. It is, in fact, the wealthiest county in the United States based on median household income. Four other counties in the Arlington Diocese top Forbes’ list of 10: Falls Church City, Fairfax County, Arlington County and Prince William County. Yet in this land of plenty, hunger is still prevalent. 

Take for example, Fairfax County, where less than 6 percent of the population is food insecure. Yet that percentage represents more than 60,000 people. Rural areas have greater widespread hunger. In the Northern Neck, Westmoreland County has a more than 13 percent rate of food insecurity according to Feeding America, a national hunger-relief organization. 

In her work as the food pantry director at Congregational Community Action Project in Winchester, Frances Salmon sees hunger on a daily basis. “Children go to bed hungry every single night, adults don’t eat for days, and that’s the reality of it,” she said. “It is one of the sad things we deal with and it is heart-wrenching.” 

Fortunately, there are dozens of food pantries in the diocese, including 22 run by Catholic churches. The progress of Catholic, interfaith and community pantries alike help curb the complex plight.  

The logistics of stopping hunger

Handing a sandwich to a homeless man or donating a bag of groceries to a needy family is perhaps the first thing that comes to mind when people think of charity. There’s a reason “feeding the hungry” is the first of the corporal works of mercy. But getting food to those who need it is simple in theory but more difficult in execution. 

Salmon, who works for Action Project, describes her work as “managing chaos,” with food donations for the pantry coming from a variety of sources. The organization has partnerships with local grocery stores and restaurants who donate food, “a whole slew of churches,” such as Sacred Heart Church in Winchester, and individual people and charities, such as Hunters for the Hungry, who donate venison.


Hearts on this map represent food pantries supported by St. Lucy's Project while crosses represent parishes.  

The pantry buys discounted bulk food from Blue Ridge Area Food Bank and also receives food from the diocesan Catholic Charities St. Lucy’s Project. The quality, often name-brand “yummy” products St. Lucy donates are a great blessing, said Salmon. “Our clients were so excited to see it.” When the pantry run low on perishable essentials such as butter or eggs, Salmon will go herself to purchase the items. 

The Action Project is the largest food bank in the Winchester area, but the smaller parish pantries around the diocese cobble together food in similar ways. Working with a larger organization such as St. Lucy’s Project is often an important way to keep the pantry stocked during shortages in the summer and after the winter holidays. Right now, St. Lucy’s Project is in the midst of visiting parish pantries to see what role they can play in forming a food strategy for the area, said Vince Cannava, program director. 

Finding space in a church to store the food is another difficulty, especially for items that require refrigeration. Our Lady, Queen of Peace Church in Arlington is undergoing renovations that will expand the size of the pantry, said Michelle Knight, social justice and outreach minster. When complete, it will be the first time in the pantry’s decades-long history that they will have storage space solely for food. 

A growing ministry

The food pantry at St. Paul Mission in Hague began in the old church rectory, but over the years, the ministry has grown in many ways. Now, the basement of the new rectory has a large, well-stocked food pantry and a commercial size refrigerator, said Father Andrew J. Heintz, pastor.

With the help of Catholic Charities and Bishop Paul S. Loverde, the community received grants to help. But much of their donations come from parishioners, said Father Heintz. “I always say we’re a small parish with a big heart.” 

In part because of the work of the parish, people have a greater awareness of the needs of the poor in their rural area. Besides the food pantry, the community has responded by giving meals to several families on Thanksgiving and Christmas, donating generously to the nearby free health clinic and hosting a coat drive, among other things.

Oftentimes, Father Heinz will call the more wealthy parishioners. Once, a Hispanic couple could not afford medication needed to help the woman during her pregnancy. A parishioner immediately covered the cost. Another time, a mother of five was in the hospital for Christmas, and parishioners brought her children gifts. “She said her faith in humanity was restored,” said Father Heintz. 

The parish enjoys the personal contact with clients that comes from having its own food pantry. “They feel like they're making a difference,” said Father Heintz. “They’re definitely living out the Gospel’s preferential option for the poor.”

jimmy pantry

Peter Jimenez hands out packaged food to the needy at Our Lady, Queen of Peace Church in Arlington Dec. 21. Though the church is in an affluent county, more than 180 people come each week to receive bags of food.

At Our Lady, Queen of Peace, parishioners are the number one source of food for the pantry. “At this parish we emphasize there is poverty out there,” said Knight. “Part of the problem is, it is so expensive to live in Arlington.” Yet the people who work in the county’s restaurants or clean its homes still need a place in the community, said Knight. The pantry helps them make ends meet.  

‘A field hospital’

Eliminating hunger matters to Tammy Simpson because she was once on the receiving end of that help. Now, she is president of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul food pantry at St. Leo the Great Church in Fairfax. 

The pantry began in October 1989 and Simpson joined in 2003. They have two food distribution days a month, where they serve 159 individuals. Yet Simpson’s passion is home visits.

“It starts with building a relationship with them, having them trust us,” she said. “Our (St. Vincent de Paul) conference is big on (providing) education, coaching and mentoring.”

In her visits, she has seen many people, especially seniors, living in terrible poverty. One client had only one light bulb, which he moved from room to room. An old woman was living off a can of beans, judiciously counting out a small allotment each day. 

Simpson’s work has taught her not to judge another’s situation, but to help them. “The biggest thing is patience, (because change happens) on God’s timing, not our own,” she said.

As with St. Leo, many pantries feed the hungry while looking for ways to alleviate the underlying problems the needy face.  On the days the Our Lady, Queen of Peace pantry is open, a host of ministries are waiting to aid the clients. An hour before the doors open, they set out pastries and coffee for the visitors. The parish thrift store, Matthew 25, is open and representatives from Project Gabriel offer diapers, wipes and baby clothes.

“From our perspective, food is a bridge,” said Cannava. Though people come to eat, the connection with a parish or charity can give them connections to mental health services, job training, financial assistance or a host of other resources. Quoting Pope Francis, Cannava said, “We’re the field hospital. Our ultimate goal is to transform (lives).”


© Arlington Catholic Herald 2017