A Cornucopia In Fairfax to Sate Suburban Hunger

(Kevin Clark - The Washington Post)
By Chris L. Jenkins
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 14, 2007

The boxes and cans and bags of food stretch down several long aisles and up 24 feet. Cranberry sauce. Canned spinach and tuna. Snack packs and cases of fresh corn.

The separate refrigerator and freezer, each large enough to fit a Mack truck with room to spare, hold fresh vegetables and fruit, cartons of dairy products, and other perishables.

To move the crates of food in and out of the warehouse, a forklift sits ready.

This is the Northern Virginia branch of the Capital Area Food Bank, the top of the distribution food chain for churches and organizations that help feed the poor in the Washington suburbs.

The warehouse -- 12,000 square feet of hulking cinder block and corrugated metal -- sits in one of the few industrial areas of the county. It receives millions of pounds of food each year and distributes it to more than 200 service organizations and churches across Northern Virginia-- a part of the overwhelming effort to feed suburban hunger.

Census estimates for last year indicate that Fairfax County's affluence continues to grow. The median household income was $94,610, second in the nation only to Loudoun County. Just 3.6 percent of Fairfax's 257,000 families had incomes below the $20,000 poverty line -- well short of the national average, 12.6 percent.

But as the size and output of the warehouse in Lorton illustrates, hardship has its own statistics. There are 21,000 households in the county in which a woman is the primary breadwinner for one or more children. Among those families, the poverty rate is about 21 percent.

A recent study by Wider Opportunities for Women, a Washington-based advocacy group, estimates that a family of four in Fairfax must earn $62,000 to meet basic needs without any assistance. More than 100,000 residents are living near or below that cutoff. Staff members at the food bank said that its yearly distribution in Northern Virginia, 2.5 million pounds, feeds a growing mix of people, reaching 70,000 in the suburbs last year.

"We see people who own houses, who have mortgages, come to the agencies we serve to get food," said Reuben Gist, director of advocacy and outreach for the food bank.

The food bank is part of a broad network of giving throughout Northern Virginia that often goes unnoticed. There are many individual efforts every day: churches that provide the homeless food donated by congregants, soup kitchens and homeless shelters that keep their pantries filled so families can drop by when they get into a pinch.

Food for Others, a nonprofit organization, is the largest distributor of free food directly to Northern Virginia's needy, distributing about 2 million pounds of food through 40 distribution centers across the region. About a third of that comes from the food bank.

Then there's Macedonia Pentecostal in Alexandria, with a congregation of 70. Its congregants provide food to about 15 families, and they get the food they need from the food bank.

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