Correction: An earlier version of this story referred to Loudoun Interfaith Relief’s food pantry as a food bank. Food banks distribute food to food pantries. This version has been corrected.
As Loudoun County students count the days until summer break, and families plan vacation getaways, officials at Loudoun Interfaith Relief prepare for one of the busiest seasons at the county’s largest food pantry.
For many residents of one of the wealthiest counties in the nation, summer means time off, no homework, maybe a trip to the beach. For others, it means rising child care costs, expensive air conditioning and the ever-present threat of hunger.
More than 12,500 children in Loudoun public schools depend on free or reduced-price lunches through their schools, county education officials said. When the school year ends, the missing breakfasts and lunches place considerable pressure on economically vulnerable families, said Jennifer Montgomery, executive director of Loudoun Interfaith Relief.
“In the summer, you have this confluence of events — you have kids getting out of school, and now these parents are scrambling to pay for child care, and they’re also having to find food,” she said.
Summer is always particularly challenging for food pantries, Montgomery said, because donations tend to drop off just as the need for assistance rises sharply.
“People go on vacation, and they forget that other people aren’t going on vacation — that others are going to be struggling. They have to find child care; they have to run the air conditioner,” she said. “People think about the expense of staying warm in the winter, and the holidays make people think of giving. But in the summer, people just generally don’t think of these things.”
Although the percentage of people living below the poverty line in Loudoun is fairly low — about 4 to 5 percent, Montgomery said — about 30 percent of the county’s residents are underemployed and scraping by on less than a living wage. Nearly 70 percent of Loudoun Interfaith Relief’s clients are employed at least part time, and 18 percent are actively searching for work, Montgomery said.
“Those families are right on the cusp. They’re one medical emergency or one car repair away from needing to come get food,” she said. “Even if they’re cruising along and doing okay, if they’re in that population that’s living right on the edge, then summer throws everybody off for 12 weeks.”
Loudoun Interfaith Relief recorded 6,000 visits from school-age children in June, July and August last year, although some of the children were repeat clients, Montgomery said. They’re braced for even more children this summer, she said. In the first three months of this year, the organization has seen a 12 percent increase in the number of clients over the same period last year.
That spike is partly because of a continually growing county population, she said, as well as stagnant wages and the rising cost of living.
Faced with greater need, the organization increased the amount of food it provided to families with young children last summer, Montgomery said, and will do so again this year. Families are generally given three days’ worth of food per visit, with two visits per month permitted. Over the summer, they’ll be supplied with food for four days.
“We gave each family with school-age children additional food for the entire family,” she said. “That’s a better way to do it, so you’re not competing for resources. You’re not choosing to feed a school-age child over a baby or a toddler. Everybody got extra food.”
The pantry is also increasingly offering a wider range of services at its Leesburg location, she said. This summer, local faith groups will have volunteers on site to offer snacks and activities to children of families that are waiting for food. Loudoun Interfaith also hosts summer literacy classes and offers employment assistance through Crossroads Jobs, a nonprofit employment center. A recent partnership with the Loudoun Workforce Development Center will also benefit clients, Montgomery said.
Because public transportation is a challenge in Loudoun, she said, it’s helpful to offer as many services as possible at one place.
“We have this captive audience at the pantry. We’re serving about 70 to 80 families every day, six days a week,” she said. “It’s great to be able to try to connect them to what they need while they’re there.”
As summer approaches, the pantry has benefited from heightened fundraising and donation drives, Montgomery said. This month, an anonymous donor offered to match all contributions made to the organization May 5. Montgomery initially set a goal of raising $5,000. But after word got out through e-mail lists and Facebook, “we blew that goal out of the water by 9 a.m.,” she said.
In the end, the organization raised more than $34,000 in 24 hours, she said. It couldn’t have come at a better time.
“The norm is that when we get to this time of year, our supplies are very low, and we are anticipating an increase in families and kids, and we really need assistance,” Montgomery said. “But this was amazing and unexpected, and it’s so helpful to get things going for the summer.”
Information about Loudoun Interfaith Relief, including how to donate or receive services, is at www.interfaithrelief.org and available by phone at 703-777-5911.