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Opinion In Alexandria, a safety net seemingly came out of thin air — and then disappeared

A food pick-up site arranged by Casa Chirilagua in Alexandria.
A food pick-up site arranged by Casa Chirilagua in Alexandria. (Courtesy of Allison Silberberg)
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Allison Silberberg, a Democrat, was mayor of Alexandria from 2016 through 2018.

Imagine it is hot and humid, and you and your spouse and children and your parents are all under one roof with very little or nothing in your fridge and cupboard. You went to bed hungry, and in the morning, it’s worse. You and your loved ones are now standing outside in a long line for many hours to receive a box of food that will help feed your family for a few days. This is what hunger looks and feels like for many in our communities.

In late August, on a scorching hot and humid Friday morning, I arrived to volunteer for an outstanding nonprofit called Casa Chirilagua in the heart of Arlandria. This area is also called Chirilagua and is predominantly Latino and has had Alexandria’s highest rate of the novel coronavirus.

When I arrived, the heat was intense and there was already a massive line of people. My eye followed the line as it went through the parking lot and all the way around an empty soccer field and disappeared into the distance of Four Mile Run Park. My heart sank, knowing the enormity of this growing need here and across our country. Since March, 8 million Americans have been plunged into poverty.

As many of us knew before the virus hit, hunger is real and our city has many outreach programs. Now, after months of an economic downturn, hunger is far more evident. The virus has ravaged this particular neighborhood. It is unfair that those who can least afford an illness or the loss of a job should be facing such hardship. The stress is palpable.

In a community like Alexandria, you might assume that the need for food is not significant. Yet, for many years and long before the pandemic, about 60 percent of our schoolchildren have been receiving free or reduced-price lunches, an indication of need. The 2016 blizzard, which hit in the first month of my mayoral term, exposed a serious issue. When school is shut down, kids miss the two meals a day they receive at school. After the blizzard, we created a citywide plan to provide meals when schools were unable to open. Alexandria City Public Schools is using that framework to distribute food to ensure our schoolchildren are fed throughout this crisis.

Even with this safety net, families are struggling. “In late March, many families called us, desperate for help,” Adriana Gomez Schellhaas, Casa Chirilagua’s executive director, told me. I worried about how these families could cope with this level of stress.

Every Friday since the pandemic began, Casa Chirilagua has distributed food to anyone in need. The day I was there, many volunteers, including Sheriff Dana Lawhorne, members of his staff and officers from the Alexandria Police Department, were unloading the pallets of food that had been trucked in earlier that morning. Tents were set up to protect the food from the intense sun.

We finished the preparations. Tables were covered with gallons of milk, large cartons of eggs, fresh vegetables and fruit, yogurt packages and other items.

The staff and volunteers gathered for a minute so Schellhaas could provide some last-minute pointers to volunteers. She noted that the line had never been this long, and I wondered if we would have enough food. We had a brief moment of prayer. A staffer added upbeat music to the scene, and the distribution began.

I was asked to pass out bags of four protective masks to each person as they came through the food line. The masks were generously provided by Volunteer Alexandria. Men and women, children and the elderly all stood patiently for their turn to receive food and masks. Everyone was gracious and grateful.

Thankfully, all the families received food and masks. But how had Casa Chirilagua managed to create this safety net out of thin air for some of our most vulnerable residents? This had not been its mission. Schellhaas said that early that morning, the food was trucked in by Blessings of Hope from Pennsylvania. Starting in late March, Pastor Jay Baylor of Baltimore’s Church of the Apostles in the City connected Blessings of Hope with various organizations helping those in need in our region. Since late March, on every Friday, Casa Chirilagua has paid $2,000 for a truckload of 36,000 pounds of food.

The U.S. Agriculture Department, which has been providing the food to Blessings of Hope, is now focusing its food on rural areas.

Schellhaas knows the need also is huge in rural areas. “We want the people in need helped there, too,” she said. For Casa Chirilagua and others in our region, it is heartbreaking because Blessings of Hope cannot distribute the food without the USDA’s help.

The day after this food distribution and on the last Saturday of each month, ALIVE!, another great local nonprofit, would have its own long line of residents waiting patiently for food to keep them and their families fed. Other Alexandria nonprofits, such as ACT for Alexandria and Volunteer Alexandria, numerous houses of worship and the city staff are also working tirelessly to meet the growing need for food and volunteers.

Now, as winter closes in, we are entering an even more dangerous situation with the virus and flu season converging and spreading. Fortunately, a moratorium on evictions has been extended — but for how long? As of June 30, Virginians owed more than $184 million to the utilities. Will they lose their heat in the winter?

What will these residents do for food now that Casa Chirilagua cannot provide weekly food? These are the questions facing those same families who waited so patiently in line in August. Because of the USDA’s plan to shift to rural communities, will ALIVE! and other nonprofits be able to provide enough weekly food until the virus is brought under control and the economy recovers?

Now is our time to pull together. We who are able need to volunteer more, give what we can to others and support the programs that work to fight hunger. Our can-do spirit will be in ever greater demand.

Unthinkable things happen, and we must stay strong. “Tikkun olam” means to help repair the world. That is our shared sense of purpose. Right now, we need more tikkun olam; we need to be repairers to make the world a better place for all.

Read more:

Catherine Rampell: The next threat in hunger in America

José Andrés: Our people are hungry. We need a leader who will feed them.

David M. Beasley: Covid-19 could detonate a ‘hunger pandemic.’ With millions at risk, the world must act.

The Post’s View: The virus has triggered a surge in food insecurity. But there are ways to combat it.