In Sperryville last week, the good times were rolling again at the old Blue Moon Cafe, as volunteers spiffed up the Rappahannock Food Pantry’s new home with fresh paint, readying for opening day on Nov. 1.
Director Mimi Forbes billed the morning as a “painting party,” and the gathering of a dozen or so pantry supporters lived up to that promise, thanks to her light-hearted leadership plus steaming coffee, breakfast sweets and treats, and a boombox pumping out classic rock. Four hours later, the inside gleamed cleaner, brighter and bigger looking, in a perfect spring green with white accents. (It helps when the pantry director is an interior designer in her other life.)
The week before, a crew of landscaping volunteers made a similar difference around the property’s overgrown and in-need-of-attention yard, deck and parking area.
More than a year ago, the owner of the building that had been the pantry’s home for seven years in the town of Washington advised that the lease would not be renewed, due to other needs for the space. “That gave us plenty of time to look, and we were ready — we knew we had outgrown things just as we are, and we want to do more,” Forbes explained.
The searching and asking began in the centrally located town, but the buildings in or on the outskirts of Washington were unsuitable or in disrepair or too small or the owner wasn’t interested in renting. When the quest for pantry space was broadened to county-wide, up popped the Blue Moon, formerly a restaurant and music scene, with a softball diamond and a history as a center of community, where Rappahannock people gathered to dance, celebrate and play ball.
Not only is the atmosphere right, but the pantry’s new home solves space and logistics issues. When the line backs up, there’s room for clients to sit inside comfortably instead of waiting outdoors at picnic tables or in their cars for their turn to shop. There’s plenty of parking. The pantry’s backpack program that provides weekend and vacation meals for school children is now in the same building as the pantry, making that operation easier and more efficient. Volunteers no longer have to play draft horses, pulling carts loaded with cans and boxes uphill from storage sheds to stock shelves every morning and then hauling through the shopping afternoons to restock. Everything can be stored near at hand.
Best of all, there’s a kitchen.
The pantry is the grateful recipient of a bounty of donated food. Fruit and vegetables come from local sources, like Waterpenny and Sunnyside farms’ CSAs. From individuals in the pantry’s Plant a Row for the Hungry campaign. From chain stores like Trader Joe’s, Wegmans and Food Lion. And often, the produce is unfamiliar to some of the pantry’s customers. “What is it and what can you do with it?” is a repeated question, asked about unusual greens, unknown squash, oddly colored potatoes, rainbow hued peppers and strange South American fruits. And surprisingly for a rural county where so many folks have gardens, the same question sometimes greets beets, turnips, kale and snow peas.
Recipe hand-outs have been tried, but that’s met with limited success. For the most part, clients have not been inspired to experiment.
“With a kitchen, that can all change!” Forbes reported, obviously thrilled at the prospect. For years, she’s been bringing in treats for pantry volunteers, exploring and testing recipes using vegetable or fruit over-supplies that were not moving well and about to turn. With no kitchen facilities at the pantry’s original home in Washington, regulations precluded sharing the culinary experiments with clients, but now, customers can be persuaded with a taste. The director is an accomplished cook able to persuade with flavor, and she has plenty of cooks and a few chefs ready to help. And the follow-up to tastes will be cooking classes.
“Teaching our clients how best to use the foods the pantry offers has long been on our short list of worthy initiatives,” added Bette Mahoney, formerly the pantry president and now the chief grant writer seeking funds to finance the pantry’s program expansion.
Last year, the pantry served 900 “shoppers” a month, never turning anyone away. More than 100 backpacks went home with elementary school children every Friday to help them through the weekend. At Thanksgiving and again at Christmas more than 200 holiday feast boxes, with turkey and ham, were handed out.
Based on the reactions from customers (surveyed at random on a busy Tuesday), the move to a little-bit-out-of-the-way spot won’t diminish the pantry’s role as a community resource.
“I hate to see it leave Little Washington because it’s so close, but I’ll be able to get to Sperryville, and I’m looking forward to seeing the new place. I’m just thankful the pantry is here,” said Laurie, a Rappahannock native who recently returned to the county.
“I’m grateful wherever you are!” added Marcia, who dashes in to shop between her day job and the after-school care of her grandchildren.
“Whatever is best for you all,” concluded Kathrine from Amissville. “I’ll get to watch the leaves change, I’ll see the snow-capped mountains and I can admire the lovely clouds on my drive. Now, how’s that for optimism?”
The move to Sperryville
The Rappahannock Food Pantry’s last day of operation in Washington is Thursday, Oct. 27. Professional movers are transporting the large items Oct. 28-29, and volunteers are already busy, painting, hammering, cleaning, organizing and hauling, and will keep at it on Oct. 30-31, with doors opening in Sperryville on Tuesday, November 1.
Hours remain the same, with the food pantry open for shopping from noon to 4 Tuesday and Thursday, 10 to 2 Saturday.
Volunteers are always needed and welcome, for the big move and for regular business. Call 540-675-1177 until Oct. 31, then the pantry’s new number in Sperryville, 540-987-5090.
And the pantry’s new quarters could use more counters and cabinets and a few comfortable benches and chairs. If anyone has furnishings to donate, please call Mimi Forbes at the numbers above.