“There is hunger for ordinary bread, and there is hunger for love, for kindness, for thoughtfulness.” – Mother Teresa
All of those hungers are eased at the Rappahannock Food Pantry. The little “grocery” on Mt. Salem Avenue, next door to the old Washington School, is the first stop for those who need help in keeping food on the table in difficult times.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture shelves are stacked with staples – canned vegetables, bags of rice, pasta and beans, bottles of juice. The freezers hold donated meats. One week, it might be chicken tenders and hamburger. Other weeks, the contributions from the area food banks and supermarkets could be packages of chicken breasts and thighs, ground beef, luncheon meats or hot dogs. Venison comes courtesy of Hunters for the Hungry, with the county paying for the processing. The Food Bank, Catholic charities, local schools and churches and scores of generous supporters give non-perishables from coffee to cat food. Supermarkets and bakeries donate bread, milk, eggs, cheese, yogurt, sandwiches and salads. And in season, growers from Plant a Row for the Hungry, which was the start of it all, fill the produce baskets with homegrown fruits and vegetables.
But the Pantry does more than provide physical sustenance. In the two and a half years since its opening, director Mimi Forbes has become information central on support services, official and unofficial, for those in need. Mimi knows the names, needs and circumstances of the Pantry’s customers, and to them, she’s “an angel,” the top answer when random regulars were asked for a one word description of the Pantry’s director. She matches the have-nots with the haves and she’s always on watch for the telltale signs of tear tracks. “Honey, what’s wrong?” is often the first question after a welcoming smile and her standard hug of hello.
If it’s a broken refrigerator and spoiled food discovered on return home after a weekend visit down country with family, Mimi’s on the phone, calling someone who offered a refrigerator-freezer to the Pantry just the week before. “I have someone here who really needs it, and it would be just wonderful if you could deliver it today,” she adds.
If it’s a beloved pet goat taken ill and no money for a vet visit, Mimi’s on the computer, researching goat ailments and finding a simple remedy of baking soda for the suspected problem.
She directs people to Social Services, the Benevolent Fund, Legal Aid, Fuel Assistance, a congressman’s office, thrift shops in Washington and Warrenton and other sources of assistance. She keeps track of birthdays and sets aside cakes for the birthday people. She knows the children of customers by name and always has a special treat for the little ones, plus crayons and paper to keep them happily engaged in artful creation as Mama or Grandma shops.
While a compassionate and caring community ensures that the Pantry is staffed with volunteers and stocked for neighbors in need, Mimi’s infectious friendliness and good cheer set the tone, making it a happy place of help. When she recently escaped unscathed from a potentially serious accident that totaled her PT Cruiser, one elderly customer declared: “God knew it wasn’t Mimi’s time because we need her too much here.”
The Pantry’s success will be celebrated on Saturday, May 12, declared Food Pantry Day by the Rappahannock County Board of Supervisors and Washington Town Council. Activities are still being lined up, but already scheduled are food drives and a pet parade, gardening workshop and open house at the Pantry. That evening, the Pantry’s annual fundraiser of country casual dinner and wine auction, cosponsored by Flavor magazine and hosted by John and Beverly Sullivan, will be held at the Sullivans’ home in Washington.
The spotlight comes at a milestone time for the Pantry. After being under the Piedmont Community Action Partnership’s umbrella since its inception, the Rappahannock Food Pantry goes independent on July 1, no longer a subsidiary, and now solely responsible for its own budget, programs and planning.
It’s a big step, but the mood on the Pantry’s board of directors is excitement at the opportunities rather than worry over any risk. “The community support for the pantry is phenomenal,” reported Kathy Egger from Sperryville, a retired accountant who is a pantry volunteer, board member and treasurer. “We have an amazing number of donors and volunteers. Everybody wants to make sure that people eat.”
“Volunteer work is the rent you pay for your time on the planet,” says Laurel Malik, explaining why she’s there every Thursday. She’s one of about 25 volunteers a week who stock shelves, take customers down the aisles to shop, deliver food baskets to shut-ins and clean up at closing time. “The Pantry is a wonderful example of community action. And it keeps me off the street!” she joked.
Kaye Johnson says she always wanted to work in a grocery store. Missing that opportunity, she and her husband, Tom, both give time to the Pantry. “We just like this place, and we really enjoy the people. Now we feel like we belong.”
“If people don’t eat right, they can’t do anything. It’s a basic need,” answered Thornton to the question of why she’s a regular volunteer.
Ken and Mary Thompson, owners of Sperryville’s Thornton River Grill, lend their refrigerated truck to collect donations from Wegman’s in Gainesville and other sources. Sometimes they do the driving; sometimes it’s another volunteer behind the wheel. Mary also helps with stocking and shopping. “Miss Saucy Bossy Pants (as Mimi is known to her volunteer corps) beats me over the head if I don’t come,” she added, with a grin and a wink.
Betty Price, a former Rappahannock resident who now lives in Reston, returns every other Thursday to deliver bread donated by the Reston Panera bakery and to put in a volunteer shift with shoppers. “I just can’t stay away,” she said. “It’s such a fun and friendly place.”
The Food Pantry’s beginning came in 2008 when Hal Hunter, community activist and one of the forces of nature in Rappahannock County, learned of Volunteer Farm in Woodstock, which serves the hungry in 25 counties and nine cities – a third of the state. That year, the farm harvested more than 35 tons of produce with the help of 3,161 volunteers, most of them 18 or younger. A mite ambitious for Rappahannock, so Hal scaled down the idea to Plant-A-Row, encouraging gardeners to plant one row in their gardens to donate to the hungry. A place was needed to gather and distribute the produce, hence the Food Pantry. The idea took root, and last season growers gave more than 11,000 pounds of tomatoes, potatoes, onions, lettuce, apples, peaches, beans, cabbage, carrots, squash, corn, peppers and more to the Pantry.
David Morrow of Sperryville is a typical Pantry grower in terms of motivation and commitment, but atypical in production volume. Last season, he donated more than 1,400 pounds from his backyard gardens. “And I still had enough for me, my kids and the people at my church,” he noted.
Here’s the Food Pantry’s harvest for 2011:
11,407 pounds of fresh vegetables
3,062 pounds of fruit and nuts
35,465 pounds of dairy products
6,590 pounds of meat and fish
36,286 pounds of store-bought non-perishables in cans and boxes
5,385 pounds of pet food
641 pounds of miscellaneous
646 pounds of children’s books, backpacks and school supplies
He’s the Pantry’s champion grower for two reasons. “First, I love to garden. My mother was a gardener and flower arranger. She grew mostly flowers, and I did the vegetables, all of my life. And second is, I like to help. It feels good.”
“Thank goodness for the Food Pantry ,” added his wife Julie, who volunteered David as a producer. “He would still have gardens of this size, and without the Food Pantry, I don’t know what we’d do with it all!”
Certainly, there’s a need. “We have people coming to us who’ve never been on assistance in their lives,” said Cathy Lawson of Rappahannock County Social Services. In her six years with the office, she’s seen the caseload for assistance more than double, going from 3 percent of the county’s population in 2004 to 7 percent in 2010. Also in 2010, 505 people in Rappahannock qualified for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly food stamps), up more than 70 percent from 2008. The average monthly SNAP benefit is $120 per person. Try buying food for the month with that amount; it doesn’t stretch far.
“So come to the Food Pantry first,” Mimi preaches. “Save your money to fill in around what we don’t have.” She also coaches clients on the timing for their two monthly shopping for staples and urges them to stop in for bread and produce on the off weeks.
The Rappahannock Food Pantry serves an average of 200 families a month. There’s no such thing as a typical client. Some are lifelong residents of the county, some are newcomers. They are underemployed, unemployed and retired, renters and homeowners, disabled and able-bodied, old, young and in between. And a significant number give back as volunteers at their pantry.
They come in smiling, sure of a friendly welcome, and they leave smiling, helped through a time of need by a generous and caring community. It’s so Rappahannock.