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Loudoun Hunger Relief takes national food deliveries through the Blue Ridge Food Bank

Featured Article

Giving Grace with the Groceries:

How Loudoun Hunger Relief is Coping with COVID

Article by Melinda Gipson

Photography by Melinda Gipson

Originally published in Leesburg Lifestyle

Oscar’s day starts around 7 a.m. driving to a score of local grocery stores in search of donations for Loudoun’s hungry. When his van is full, he drives it to the back lot of Loudoun Hunger Relief where volunteers whisk it off to grocery carts for waiting families.

When COVID hit in mid-March, there wasn’t much to glean from groceries, as store shelves often stood empty. The typical bounty of large packaged baked goods nearing expiration from the generosity of Wegman’s, Costco and others is on its way back, but in the meantime Loudoun Hunger Relief has had to fashion some work-arounds and upended its methods of keeping Loudoun’s needy fed.

Before COVID, Loudoun grocery stores provided between 60% and 70% of food that was donated and available to hungry Loudoun County residents, according to Trish McNeal, Loudoun Hunger Relief’s Deputy Director for supporter engagement. Now, that ratio has shifted to  30% donated by grocers, and the rest either purchased from food service companies, donated from Feeding America’s Blue Ridge Food Bank, shipped in three times weekly from USDA’s Farmers to Families Program, or brought in from local farms.

Round Hill’s J.K. Community Farm, one of the largest community farms in the country, has been a major supplier of farm fresh fruit and vegetables, as has The Farm at Roundabout Meadows, and the Piedmont Environmental Council’s Donation Only Farm. Donations also come from the Farmer’s Market run by the Loudoun Valley Growers’ Cooperative, though it’s harder to credit any individual farms.

Families’ eyes light up when they see fresh plums and watermelons, says Executive Director Jennifer Montgomery. “We believe in not just giving out calories but nutrition and healthy fresh food. That’s really our mission.” That includes frozen meat for three meals, fresh milk, eggs, yogurt, butter and even cream cheese, which is typically stored in a refrigerated container truck behind the building. “We try to be culturally sensitive too, and have stocked halal food, staples for Latino families, including cooking oil, cabbages and potatoes, and things that are staple to their diets. We accommodate people who are diabetic or hypertensive and need low salt. We’ve always been that way,” she adds but it’s become more of a challenge recently.

“We believe in not just giving out calories but nutrition and healthy fresh food. That’s really our mission."

Being all about choice – “because there’s dignity in choice and you know what your family wants to eat more than I do” – used to mean that families could come into the organization’s offices and “shop” for what they needed. In a COVID environment, Jennifer says they pivoted to serving families in the parking lot, much as some grocery stores are now doing with curbside service. “You make an appointment online or on the phone, and then we take some pertinent information, like how many in your family and whether you need diapers or wipes or feminine hygiene products, and even masks and gloves and cleaning supplies.”

“We pack their orders inside and then we take them out to their car in the parking lot, they load their groceries, we bring back the carts and sanitize and refill them.” Wash, rinse, and repeat 500 times a week. Like a well-oiled machine, volunteers serve 80 families every 2.5-3 hours, six days a week. Deliveries to Sugarland Run in Sterling feed more than 200 families in 2 hours, and bags of food are delivered along with the Loudoun County Public School busses Monday through Friday.

At the height of the COVID crisis, there was one week in April when the organization spent the equivalent of its annual budget. Numbers are still fluid, but whereas the numbers of families fed had quadrupled, now it’s only around double. The county and the group’s supporters always have been generous, so for Jennifer, it’s not really a numbers game – partly because no one knows what will happen when the weather turns cold and seasonal workers may need assistance.

"...think about the communion around a meal, what a good meal means to you – food is love, food is comfort, food is family."

But just as Jennifer was forced to pivot to buying flats of canned beans from Sysco in the Spring, she’s already looking into acquiring pre-packaged food boxes. Even the food service industry, which before was stocking giant cans of tomato sauce and applesauce, is reworking its supply chain to accommodate fewer university and hotel customers and more of a mass market.

Whatever change is coming, Jennifer is confident in the compassion and creativity of the county to cope. 

“This isn’t just 1 million pounds of food, this is dinner for a senior who needs it,” Jennifer says. “You think about the communion around a meal, what a good meal means to you – food is love, food is comfort, food is family. When you talk about the best meal you ever had, it might not have been the meal you had at a fancy restaurant, it could have been you sitting down having a bowl of cereal with your kid yesterday and you guys were able to communicate, or perhaps something your grandmother made you. It’s more than calories, it’s also hope. Now more than ever, we feel like that’s what’s important.”

See for ways to donate including how you can use the organization's Amazon Wish List to send food directly to their office!

  • Volunteers prepare a shopping cart full of groceries for families to take home.
  • Carla Fortenberry, Trish McNeal and Executive Dir. Jennifer Montgomery hold the fort
  • Working with local farms ensures families have fresh produce.
  • Drivers visit local grocery stores daily for soon-to-expire food donations
  • Loudoun Hunger Relief takes national food deliveries through the Blue Ridge Food Bank
  • Conveyor belts from Habitat for Humanity help volunteers pack staple food into boxes
  • COVID 14-day care boxes
  • COVID 14-day care boxes
  • Volunteers are grateful for a donated conveyor belt to help them load staple food into boxes