It was an unseasonably snowy morning in Arlington, Va., one week before Thanksgiving and two days after the blockbuster announcement that Amazon was coming to the neighborhood. The development news had rocked the county, but those lining up in the slush outside of the Arlington Food Assistance Center had other things on their minds than the arrival of the tech giant’s new headquarters.
“I haven’t heard much about Amazon,” said Phyllis Oriel, 81, a retired medical researcher whose fixed income doesn’t allow for a newspaper subscription, a home computer or cable. Her crappy rabbit-ear reception hasn’t kept her very up to date on the tech giant’s soon-to-be second home less than five miles from her subsidized apartment.
She was aware Amazon was likely to bring a lot of jobs and it would mean even more new buildings in a county were new buildings were already springing up on every corner. “Everywhere you look on Columbia Pike, there’s another big hole they’re digging,” she said, shaking her head.
But she wasn’t in the market for a job and didn’t have a car and so hadn’t thought much about what the coming of thousands of new commuters might mean for her quiet life of library books and simple meals in the one-bedroom home that costs her $640 a month.
No, this was a morning to think about a not-so-simple meal. In a bag at her feet, as she waited inside the foggy front door for the cab she would pay for with a county-supplemented voucher, sat a frozen 12-pound turkey. All around her, the poorest residents of one of the country’s richest counties lugged bags stuffed with stuffing, bursting with Brussels sprouts, laden with bread, milk and one of the 2,500 turkeys the food pantry would give away during its busiest week of the year.
It was festive labor, with many a delighted “Thank you!” as volunteers, including four uniformed Arlington police officers, loaded the cornucopia into sacks, backpacks and rolling carts. There were navel oranges given by the Washington-Lee High School band and stacks of wholesale eggs (some of the 125,000 dozen AFAC gives away each year). A driver wheeled through a dolly groaning with more than 500 pounds of groceries donated by a nearby Trader Joe’s.
For many of the clients, the full bags will mean not just adequate food but a rare serving of plenty on a holiday meant to celebrate just that. The center, which feeds an average of 2,300 families a week, serves a thousand more in the days leading up to Thanksgiving, according to Client Services Manager Lily Duran.
“People are always surprised to learn that we have people in need like this in Arlington County,” Duran said as she handed out turkeys at the end of the line, each one packed in a donated “Cardinal Bank” tote bag with a sheet of cooking instructions in English and Spanish. “I can tell you that many of them are worried about being able to stay here.”
Arlington boasts a median household income of $115,000 — nearly double the national figure of $61,000, U.S. Census Bureau figures show. More than a quarter of the county’s single-family homes sell for more than $1 million, making it one of the Washington region’s most expensive real estate markets. And while the marginalized communities may not feel Amazon’s impact immediately, they will almost certainly experience the squeeze as already steep rents rocket upward with the expected tech boom.
“Amazon is just going to speed up the gentrification that is already happening in Arlington,” said food pantry chief executive Charles Meng, watching as workers split cases of bananas into smaller mesh bags. “A whole socioeconomic class is going to be forced out of the county.”
Meng’s group serves a population with an average income of $14,000. Half are Hispanic, a quarter are African American, and 15 percent are white. Some are retirees living on Social Security, some are on disability, most are working at one job or more. They are not homeless by definition (clients have to prove an Arlington address to qualify), but they may be barely making it in subsidized apartments or overcrowded houses, a few rent hikes away from a forced move further from the jobs, services and schools they depend on.
The center distributes food weekly at churches and apartment buildings throughout the county and at its recently refurbished central warehouse behind the Weenie Beenie off Shirlington Road. Even here, the forces of change are obvious. As people carried their turkeys out into the snow, a young couple at the climate-controlled self-storage facility next door was loading skis onto the roof rack of a hybrid Volvo.
A brewery has opened up around the block, as well as a theater and a high-end pet supply store. As its clients are pushed farther out into the suburbs, their food supply may have to follow.
“We are looking at setting up distribution points outside the county,” Meng said of an organization that gets about 7 percent of its $7.5 million budget from the Arlington government. “We’ll have to change our name.”
Of course, Meng knows having one of the largest retailers in the world set up shop nearby could also represent a fundraising boon. He would like Amazon to help the food pantry raise the $3.5 million in cash it needs each year, collect its half-million pounds of donated food and contribute to its army of 2,500 volunteers.
“I expect them to be good neighbors,” he said.
Some of his clients feel the same.
“As long as they got jobs for people, I say welcome to Arlington,” said Alicestine McDougal, 59, who had her turkey in one bag and her oxygen tank, connected to a nose tube, in the other.
“I heard the rents are going to go up but they are going to employ a lot of people,” said retiree Kamil Alamin. After losing his rental home in North Carolina in September, he returned to Arlington and moved in with his sister. He has enough pension to help with her rent but not enough to afford a place of his own.
Charles H. Jones pulled up just before noon in a Ford van with every inch covered in the hand-painted names of Redskins players. He came only for a turkey but filled his bags with carrots, eggs, a Trader Joe’s veggie-stuffed potato, a can of cream-of-bacon soup for his dressing and then . . .
“Pecan pie!” Jones cried when he got to the dessert shelf. “Did I win the lottery?”
Jones is a 60-year-old Army veteran on disability because of mental health problems. (He has suffered anxiety since finding his father dead by suicide when he was 5 years old.) A life of hard times alleviated by lucky strokes has made him a believer in lotteries.
A former addict who said he has been sober since 2009, Jones was homeless five years ago and living in his burgundy-and-gold van — the subject of a Washington Post story — when Redskins owner Daniel Snyder gave him $20,000 for the van (and let him keep the vehicle to boot). Jones paid his debts and got an apartment.
But last spring, a friend he had let crash on his couch cleaned him out in a robbery, including his TV, military citations and the food in his pantry.
A winning lotto ticket allowed him to buy a new TV, and a recent bump in his Social Security benefits let him send more child support to the wife he has been separated from for nine years. But the same benefits windfall made him ineligible for the federal housing supplement, and now he may have to find a cheaper place.
Two days after picking up his turkey, Jones roasted it in his meticulously clean kitchen. “That’s the military for you,” he said. “My bed is made two minutes after I wake up.”
He opened the oven and inhaled deeply of browning bird. Reaching up, he fetched down a can from the cabinet stuffed with soups and vegetables from the food pantry, his winter stock, he called it. In the fridge were packs of cheese he had been saving for a month to make a pan of macaroni.
“It’s not such a good time for me now,” he said. “There aren’t affordable places in Arlington, and I don’t think Amazon is going to help.”
He would have his Thanksgiving bounty this year at least, eaten alone in front of a Redskins game a few days early, as is his tradition.
But after, who knew how his odds would change.