Going Where the Hunger Is

Mar 23, 2023 | Stories from the Diocese

Packed, loaded, delivered, wiped out!

“It’s hard to teach hungry kids,” remarked the principal as we toured a local elementary school in the church’s neighborhood. 

St. Peter’s in the Woods had partnered with the school the prior year, supporting their families with gift cards at Christmas and weekend meal kits for food-insecure students. The relationship deepened during Covid, when we bought books to support young readers, served as virtual (and then in-person) Reading Buddies, and funded an Uber account to enable parents without cars to attend school meetings. 

But it was that comment, about teaching hungry kids, that Outreach Leader Mark DeVoll couldn’t shake. It brought home the searing reality of food insecurity for families and young children in our church’s neighborhood, in Fairfax County, one of the most affluent counties in America. Here nearly 75,000 residents are food insecure and just under 60,000 children qualify for free and reduced meals in the public schools. Mark wondered what God was up to in planting that seed, and how one person – one church – could make a difference? 

“I have an idea,” he would later tell me. “It might be crazy, but what if we could bring food into the neighborhood where some of the school’s most needy families live? Box it up, drive in with a truck and deliver it?” 

Mark worked with the school social worker and English as a Second Language (ESOL) teachers to identify at least 20 families who faced chronic food insecurity and might benefit from such a ministry. 

He called a team together to discern how to bring this idea for a monthly, mobile food pantry to life. They wanted it to be a “no questions asked” ministry, trusting that the families identified (and eventually contacted by the school) would come, and others would follow. There were obstacles and logistical challenges along the way as they figured out how much food per family, how to shop for and transport the food, and how to build trust with the families they hoped to serve. 

Initial hopes to partner with big non-profit food distributors were dashed as those organizations required proof that a pantry was up and running before they’d agree to donate food supplies. So the church set about funding and establishing a 6-month track record for this new ministry venture. 

Initial funding came from the church and a generous grant from a family charitable trust. Team members bargain shopped for green beans, potatoes, rice, cereal, and many other non-perishables along with eggs, milk and frozen ground beef. The church nursery, which had been unused since COVID, was transformed into the pantry storage space – a reminder of the Holy Spirit’s great creativity. A space that was used to care for children had become a space to feed children, caring for them in a different way. 

In September of 2022, the team made its first delivery. They shopped, sorted and packed up 500 pounds of food at a cost of $75 per box for 20 families. It was a sunny Saturday morning as we pulled our rented U-Haul into that new neighborhood, but one filled with anxious anticipation, and questions. “Are they wondering who we are? Will anyone show up? Will they know why we are here?” we wondered.  Despite all the questions, there was a sense of calm that filled the truck, that of God saying, “All will be fine, you are doing the work you were called to do.” 

One of our Spanish-speaking team members was on hand to offer words of welcome and friendship to the families.  “We didn’t know what to expect,” Mark recalled. “The school had distributed flyers to those 20 families, letting them know we’d be there. But the families didn’t know us and had questions about new people coming into their neighborhood.  Many of the families were sitting in their homes texting the school ESOL teacher with questions.  After a short bit of time and trusting the ESOL teacher, families began approaching the U-Haul truck to see what was being offered.  With the help of our Spanish speaking parishioner, and smiles from the three other non-Spanish speaking parishioners, trust began to be established.”

Since that first delivery, the Mobile Food Pantry has attracted many more families in need. The team has expanded, with more parishioner support to shop, pack, and deliver. We quickly scaled up to 30 families per month, and then found ourselves re-packaging our groceries on the spot to serve 40 waiting families – and now 50.

We have heard from the ESOL teachers about the positive impact the mobile pantry is having in the community. The need is real and heartbreaking. One mom told the team that the groceries provided literally saved her family that month. One of the hardest things is when we run out of food and have to turn people away. We are hopeful that our brand new partnership with the Capital Area Food Bank will mean that more people can be served each month and we can continue growing this important ministry. 

The Very Rev. Susan Hartzell is Rector of St. Peter’s in the Woods, Fairfax Station and Dean of the South Fairfax Region.