Saturday is Pantry’s day in the spotlight 

At the start of 2014 Pantry Day Pet Parade, pets — dogs, a horse, a couple of goats — participated in the annual Pantry Pet Parade co-sponsored by the Rappahannock Animal Welfare League at the Food Pantry on Mount Salem Avenue.Kathy Eggers
At the start of 2014 Pantry Day Pet Parade, pets — dogs, a horse, a couple of goats — participated in the annual Pantry Pet Parade co-sponsored by the Rappahannock Animal Welfare League at the Food Pantry on Mount Salem Avenue.

The Rappahannock Food Pantry is a treasure, a cornerstone of the county’s caring community, and May 9 is Food Pantry Day in Rappahannock County, an opportunity to raise awareness and money to keep the treasure shining — with a benefit dinner, food drives, flower and bake sales and the always-popular Pet Parade.

An independent nonprofit funded primarily by local donations, the pantry serves more than 9,000 shoppers a year. Families with children may come in three times a month for staples and days in between for bread and produce.

An out-of-work dad could be a regular shopper for a year and then, once a job is landed, return as a volunteer. A 75-year-old retired farm worker with a big garden might stop by only once every three or four months. “Some of our people just need help when an emergency puts an extra strain on finances or when the cupboard starts to run bare,” explained Mimi Forbes, the pantry’s director since its opening six years ago.

The pantry is open three days a week, and in addition, 200 holiday boxes are filled with all the fixings for Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners and distributed in a carefully choreographed two-day drive-through.

Mimi is the pantry’s only employee, and she leads a volunteer force, 175 strong, who gave 5,982 hours last year. They escort shoppers on their rounds, empty the weekly truck from the Blue Ridge Food Bank that brings USDA commodities, fill holiday boxes, deliver to shut-ins, stock shelves and make the weekly pick-ups at Trader Joe’s in Charlottesville, Wegman’s in Gainesville, Panera in Reston and the Food Lion stores in Warrenton and Marshall. They log in the donations from the high school’s Farm to Table, Mountain Laurel Montessori School, Sunnyside, Waterpenny and individual gardeners who “plant a row for the hungry.” Other volunteers work behind the scenes, organizing fundraisers and food drives, cooking for the annual benefit dinner, keeping the books, taking inventory and handling other administrative chores. “We couldn’t manage without them,” Mimi added. “Our volunteers do so much and they give so much that I could never list it all.”

Who are the beneficiaries of this team effort to help?

Belinda is a preschool teacher who’s lived in Rappahannock most of her life. Her husband has multiple sclerosis, and she’s survived two heart attacks. Ten years ago, when her daughter died, she took in three grandchildren to raise. “It’s hard to survive on my salary,” Belinda said. “We couldn’t manage without the pantry.

“Life is such a struggle,” said an Amissville woman who was born and raised in Culpeper. She’s employed part-time in retail; her husband was laid off from his job six months ago; they have two teenaged children. “I love this place. It should be declared the No. 1 food pantry in America,” the woman added. “It’s a pleasure to shop here. Everybody is happy; there are no attitudes.”

The Pantry Day menu

Registration for the Pet Parade, co-sponsored by RAWL, starts at 9:30 a.m. Saturday (May 10), with Dontez Harris, the “Pied Piper of Petdom,” ready to lead the dogs, goats, sheep and the occasional horse or cat around the big front yard of the old Washington School at 10 a.m. Registration is free for pantry customers; a donation of cat food or dog food is requested (but not required) for others. Every pet is a winner, presented with treats and a certificate recognizing their outstanding characteristics.

Volunteers from the Rappahannock Senior Center will be selling cut flowers at the parade (9 to 11), St. Peter’s bake sale (beginning at 9), and the Sperryville Corner Store and River District Arts (11 to 2) to benefit the pantry.

St. Peter’s benefit bake sale runs from 9 until everything is sold. The delectables disappeared quickly last year, so come early for the best choices.

The benefit dinner, held at the Washington home of John Fox and Beverly Sullivan, begins at 6. Local wineries, farms and restaurants are donating the potent potables, meats, side dishes and desserts, noted chef Sylvie Rowland is preparing the meats. The Rappahannock High School Jazz Band will entertain and prizes will be raffled off throughout the evening. Tickets are $100 per person, with all proceeds going to the pantry. For tickets or more information, call Mimi Forbes at 540-675-1177.

Steve is disabled, on supplemental security income (SSI). His wife cleans houses and they have one child. “The pantry helps us bridge the gap between paychecks,” he explained.

Bob is unemployed, working on getting a commercial driver’s license (CDL) so he can find a job with a warehouse. Bob’s household includes his wife, their child and his brother. He’s a new customer who learned about the pantry from a friend. “It helps a lot, when we’re running low on food. Now, after we pay rent and electricity, we don’t have to choose between eating and the rest of the bills.” He smiled and inclined his head towards the dry wall buckets of fresh flowers that come with the vegetables, fruit, cheeses and meats donated by Trader Joe’s. “I always grab some flowers for my wife. Two weeks ago, I put an orchid on her desk. It made her day!”

But there are extras to be found at the pantry besides pink orchids and red roses. Mimi is not only the director — she’s a one-person directory to all the sources of help in the county. She sends pantry clients to the thrift store with clothing vouchers; she knows the dates of the $5-a-bag specials there and the free rabies vaccination clinics at the Rappahannock Animal Welfare League (RAWL). She connects Rappahannock residents in dire straits with the Benevolent Fund. If one of her customers returns from a weekend away to find a busted refrigerator with everything inside spoiled, she not only sees that they have food, but she’ll track down a giveaway replacement appliance. And maybe most important of all, Mimi and her volunteers give comfort, encouragement, a shoulder to lean on and a friendly ear.

Elsie, a widow in her 70s, was wearing a stocking cap on a warm spring day, her hair lost to radiation treatment. Mimi and the volunteers greeted her with hugs, sympathy and expressions of hope. “I’ll make it,” Elsie declared, her eyes misting.

“Of course you will, darling,” Mimi replied.

“I so appreciate your offer to cut my hair,” Elsie continued. “You all are very nice people — very, very nice. I don’t know what I would do without you.”