Food Pantry Day celebrates, supports a county treasure

‘Oh, food! Magical food! Wonderful food! Marvelous food!’

That anthem from “Oliver” could be the theme song for May 7, Food Pantry Day in Rappahannock County. It’s a day to celebrate the success of a community commitment to ensuring no one goes hungry on the morning side of the Blue Ridge.

An independent non-profit funded primarily by local donations, the Rappahannock food pantry is open three days a week at its location on Mt. Salem Avenue in the Town of Washington. And while the pantry has outgrown its space there and is looking for a new home by the end of June next year, it doesn’t deter the enthusiasm and commitment of those involved in the day-to-day running of the place. The pantry may be moving, they say, but it is not going away – it will always be here for folks in need.  

By Daphne Hutchinson
Mimi Forbes with her inseparable companions Gaby (front) and Daisy in the Food Pantry’s front yard. By Daphne Hutchinson

And the need is great. In a year, customers will make over 9,000 shopping circuits for fresh vegetables and fruit, milk, eggs, bread, canned goods, meat and other staples. Clients may shop twice a month for basics – three times a month for families with children – and they are welcome to stop by between those visits to pick up bread and produce. In addition, more than 200 holiday boxes are filled with all the fixings for Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners and distributed in a carefully choreographed two-day drive-through for both holidays.

The pantry also fills 100 backpacks with weekend meals – dinner Friday night, breakfast, lunch and dinner for Saturday and Sunday – that go home with school children. This latest expansion began in 2013 with 30 backpacks and it’s a team effort. Pantry president Noel Laing manages the newest program, high school students from teacher Beth Gall’s class fill the backpacks, Ray Gooch handles the Friday afternoon delivery to the elementary school and teachers distribute the packs privately to the children.  

Everything about the pantry is a team effort. Mimi Forbes, “the saucy, bossy pants” who is the pantry’s heart, soul and director, leads some 150 volunteers who do it all. They escort shoppers on their rounds and empty the weekly truck from the Blue Ridge Food Bank that brings USDA commodities. They fill holiday boxes, deliver to shut-ins, stock shelves, vacuum, catch invading stink bugs and make the weekly pick-ups at Trader Joe’s in Charlottesville, Wegman’s in Gainesville, Great Harvest in Warrenton and the Food Lions in Warrenton and Marshall. They log in the donations from the high school’s Farm-to-Table program, Mountainside Montessori School, The Farm at Sunnyside, Waterpenny Farm and individual gardeners who “plant a row for the hungry.” Other volunteers work behind the scenes, organizing fundraisers and food drives, planning and managing the annual benefit dinner, keeping the books, taking inventory and handling other administrative chores. “We couldn’t manage without them,” Mimi said.

Customers would add that Mimi and her volunteers give away much more than glorious food from the little building next door to the Washington School on Mt. Salem Avenue in the town of Washington.

It’s become a de facto resource center and comfort station that also dispenses sustenance for the spirit. Patrons may leave with clothing vouchers from the Thrift Shop, the phone number for a give-away refrigerator or a loaner car, a contact for a part-time job or simply a hug and good wishes to get through a tough stretch. There are always empty arms ready to cuddle a baby while Mama shops and give-away books, toys and stuffed animals to keep toddlers and preschoolers happily occupied. On days when supporting grocery stores donate about-to-wilt flowers along with meat, produce and dairy, shoppers can take home a heart-lifting bouquet of blooms. The joy bestowed with that little extra is grand: A retired 80-something farm worker, a life-long Rappahannock resident, veered on the path to the car to pick out a bunch of long-stemmed red roses. “These’ll look nice on the kitchen table!” the widower beamed, encouraging his elderly shopping buddy and driver to take one, too.

Little pantry scores big on numbers

“We serve an average of 200 families at any given point,” Mimi said, “and over the seven years since we opened, more than 700 families have relied on the pantry during difficult times.” That works out to about nine percent of the county’s population, roughly equal to the U.S. Census estimate on residents at or below the poverty level. Some clients just need help when an emergency puts an extra strain on finances or when the cupboard starts to run bare.

Mimi knows customers by name and circumstances, and when she’s missed a familiar face for weeks and weeks, she’ll note the absence. Usually, the response is, “Oh, I was doing okay. You need to save the help for those who really need it.”

Every month, the pantry’s supporting markets contribute 500-600 pounds of food. That’s matched and raised by donations from local individuals and groups, who gave a total of 111,644 pounds of food last year. Then there’s 29,457 pounds of Pepperidge Farm bread that Steve Welch from Flint Hill has added since July 1, 2012. (He’s given more – he’s been a supporter since the doors first opened. That’s just his tally since the pantry gained its independence.)  

Little pantry scores bigger on impact on lives

Lily grew up in Rappahannock. “It took moving to the West Coast to truly appreciate what a wonderful place the county is, and I feel so blessed to be able to call it home again now that I’ve returned to raise a family.” She put her career plans on hold and her husband gave up a higher paying job with erratic hours on nights and weekends for a classroom teacher’s post with predictable family time.

Lily is a 20-something full-time mom with a toddler and she’s pregnant with the couple’s second child. “Until our children start school, we’re a one-salary family, and for us, the pantry has truly been a lifesaver! I nearly dissolved into tears the first afternoon I sorted through organic veggies, local eggs and other wonderful donations to feed my family in the week to come.

“And they are all so friendly!” Lily continued. “I enjoy my trips to the pantry as much as my one-year-old does, and sometimes I learn a new way to use something ordinary, like cream of mushroom soup. I was never good at planning a weekly menu,” she acknowledged. “I used to waste a lot, but now, as soon as I get home, I go through my goodie box and get creative! I keep a well-stocked, organized kitchen, and it makes me feel like I’m so much more productive.”

For example, with items near the end of shelf life, Lily joins forces with her husband. They create a huge casserole from everything that needs to be cooked, divide it into smaller portions and freeze it. “That way we don’t get sick of leftovers and can enjoy a meal at our leisure. It’s great when we aren’t in the mood to cook. That’s my favorite surprise: ‘Look, honey, there’s a casserole in the freezer!’

“Everyone leaves the pantry smiling,” Lily said of her experience there.

And that applies to volunteers as well as customers. Fulfilling. Gratifying. Heartwarming. Those are the adjectives they choose to describe service at the Food Pantry as one of Mimi’s minions. They are all believers that volunteerism helps pay their rent for living on the planet. Certainly, they’re do-gooders, but they’d be the first to admit that camaraderie, shared laughter and the sure knowledge that they are helping to make a difference turn the work into fun.

Joanne Tepper, a retired nurse who volunteers at the Food Pantry and the Free Clinic, puts it best. She wants every legislator in Richmond to work a shift at both the clinic and the pantry. “Then maybe they’d understand the needs. I’m astounded at how our people keep plugging away with the burdens they have,” she said. “We are awed and humbled by their strength and fortitude.”

The Big Day

The Food Pantry Benefit at Jessamine Hill is THE place to wine and dine in the Virginia Piedmont on Saturday, May 7. The highlight of Food Pantry Day in Rappahannock, the gala dinner will be held at Jessamine Hill, the elegantly-restored Tiger Valley home of John Anderson.

The theme is Mediterranean, the ingredients are locally sourced, food is prepared by top local chefs, spirits are donated by local wineries and breweries and all proceeds go to the pantry. Chairperson is Lindsay Sonnett, with support from Gwen Bates, Barbara Black and Terry Lehman. Tickets are $100. For reservations, call Betty Mahoney, 675-3446, or Mimi Forbes at the Food Pantry, 675-1177.

The day-long celebration begins at 9:30 a.m., at the Food Pantry with the ever popular Pet Parade, led by pantry volunteer Dontez Harris, the Pied Piper of Petdom. Entry is free for pantry customers; for others, a donation of cat food or dog food is appreciated. Every pet is a winner; every entry gets an individualized certificate recognizing the pet’s special awesomeness.

Watch for additional attractions as May 7 approaches.

The Pantry Needs . . .

  •   A new home. The pantry has outgrown its space. The non-profit’s wonderful landlord is allowing plenty of time to find a new location, and the search has started. Anyone with space – reasonably priced or better  yet, donated! – should contact Mimi or pantry president Noel Laing, 937-3511.
  •   Volunteers who are willing to shop, stock, drive or organize. Call Mimi Forbes, 675-1177, for more information or stop by the pantry.
  •   Plant-A-Row-For-The-Hungry participants who will donate extra produce during the growing and harvest season. Fresh vegetables and fruit are always welcome and may be dropped off on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays when the pantry is open.
  •   Shopping boxes returned by customers.