Loudoun, Prince William food pantries face a holiday season of even greater demand

November 27, 2013

Charities in Loudoun and Prince William counties are prepared for another year of high demand for food donations for needy families this holiday season.

Food pantries across the region have reported a steady increase in the number of families seeking assistance since 2007 and 2008, an onslaught propelled by the economic recession and widespread job loss. But even as some economic stability has returned in recent years, directors of nonprofit organizations in Northern Virginia say there is no shortage of people needing help, particularly around the holidays.

Many families still face unemployment or underemployment, said Bonnie Inman, executive director of Loudoun Interfaith Relief. Many people seeking help from the food pantry cited the federal government shutdown as an added financial stress, she said.

“The demand for our services has really not decreased at all,” Inman said.

Through the organization’s outreach in Loudoun public schools, “we’ve been able to identify a lot of new families that need our services,” Inman said. “It’s a great opportunity that we have through the school system to let people know that we’re here, and the response is significant.”

Last year, Loudoun Interfaith Relief served nearly 82,000 people from more than 20,000 households, Inman said. The number shows no sign of waning this year; an average of about 7,000 people seek assistance each month.

Loudoun Interfaith is planning to distribute Thanksgiving baskets to about 1,500 families. Each basket will include traditional Thanksgiving food: stuffing, potatoes, gravy and cranberries.

“We’ve also been able to raise enough to give all of our families a $10 gift card to help purchase a turkey,” Inman said.

Other organizations in the area are operating similar programs. At Action in Community Through Service, about 1,100 families signed up to receive a package of Thanksgiving side dishes and a $10 gift card, said Kelly Lindquist, who organizes the group’s food pantry. The organization serves eastern Prince William.

About 860 families are expected to receive a comparable holiday basket from SERVE, a primary provider of food assistance in Prince William. Director Andrea Zych said SERVE has seen an increase in the number of hungry families every year for decades.

Families can come in every 30 days for food. Halfway through November, the organization had served 73 new families.

“When you’re making a decision between paying rent and buying food . . . you’re going to pay your rent, because food might be an easier resource to find than a mortgage or a rental payment,” Zych said.

She said that the government shutdown had affected several families who had not sought help from a food pantry before this year.

Lindquist said ACTS regularly sees a spike in the number of people who ask for assistance in the colder months. During the summer, the organization receives about 1,000 requests per month for assistance from families. In the winter, that number usually climbs to about 1,500.

She said ACTS’s primary food drives, run by the Boy Scouts of America and Prince William schools, were “tremendously successful.”

But the supplies collected during the holidays are often needed to last through much of the year, charity officials said. It’s not an ideal scenario, Inman said, but it’s a reality that organizations must cope with.

“We want to change the yearly pattern,” she said. “We want to be able to count on donations all year-round. But right now, we are sticking to our plan, making sure that we’re controlling the resources and giving people not too much, but not too little.”

Inman said the rise in donations and volunteers throughout the holidays is welcomed.

“This is the time of year we live for,” she said. “Our supply has been really super low in recent months. But we’ve never had to turn anyone away due to a lack of food, even though we held our breath a lot.”

For information about donations and volunteering, visit Loudoun Interfaith Relief at www.interfaithrelief.org, SERVE at www.nvfs.org/serve and ACTS at www.actspwc.org.

Caitlin Gibson is a local news and features writer for The Washington Post.
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