By Missy Schrott | [email protected]
As Alexandrians struggle with financial difficulties, health concerns, job security and other anxieties during the coronavirus pandemic, several local organizations are ensuring that food remains off that list of worries.
From Alexandria City Public Schools to ALIVE!, organizations throughout the city are hosting food drives and distribution events to make sure all Alexandrians have enough to eat during this financially uncertain time.
The speed with which the COVID-19 situation has been escalating, both locally and worldwide, required several organizations to develop their food distribution plans in a matter of days.
“We hit the ground running. That pretty much was initially the process,” Cynthia Hormel, director of school nutrition services at ACPS, said.
Hormel had just a few days’ notice that ACPS might cancel classes before the official announcement on March 13. Because the school system includes some of the city’s most vulnerable populations – 56 percent of students are eligible for free or reduced-price meals – ACPS made it a priority to ensure that students continued to have access to food.
The division began distributing free meals on March 16, the first day classes were cancelled, and continues to provide food to ACPS students and families. The week before spring break, ACPS distributed 28,322 meals, a 37 percent increase over the previous week, ACPS Communications Specialist Julie Moult said. Food distribution efforts continued during spring break.
While all food is being funded by the ACPS school nutrition fund, Volunteer Alexandria has been supplying volunteers to help at the various distribution sites.
“I got an email from the school system asking if we could help if the school system would open up take-out meals and I said, ‘Absolutely yes,’” Marion Brunken, executive director of Volunteer Alexandria, said. “We responded pretty fast I have to admit, but … it’s our role. We can’t just say, ‘No, I don’t think so.’ The school needed our help with mobilizing people, and this is the typical case in an emergency.”
The demand for volunteers has been met by an equal, if not greater, number of community members willing to help. In the past six weeks, more than 500 registered volunteers have performed more than 1,700 hours of service through Volunteer Alexandria, Brunken said. Typically, about 150 new members sign up to volunteer through Volunteer Alexandria per month. In March alone, at least 340 people created new accounts, Brunken said.
“The increase in people that are still willing to help out is amazing,” Brunken said. “We are living in a community that is just really giving, and this pandemic shows it.”
While the ACPS food distribution operation is reserved for students and their families, other drives throughout the city are open to all residents.
Throughout the metropolitan region, the YMCA is offering produce and meal distributions. At the Alexandria YMCA in Del Ray, produce is available for anyone who needs it Mondays 4 to 6 p.m. and Tuesdays 9 a.m. to noon, and meal boxes are available for children 18 and younger Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.
“All of our branches shut down [on March 16], so once that happened, we were trying to, as an association, identify services that we can provide … based on the different needs that we’ve heard from our members and local community, and it became very apparent that food was going to be the first thing that we needed to do,” Kristy McCarron, association director of community health for YMCA of Metropolitan Washington, said.
Within a week, the YMCA had established produce and meal distribution sites throughout the DMV that are open to anyone, regardless of affiliation with the Y.
“Most of our sites sold out within 30 minutes to an hour,” McCarron said. “I’ve been working in food distribution for 12 years and that was shocking to be honest, so we are just trying to pivot and bring as much food as possible to our sites and increase the amounts that we had before.”
Some organizations that regularly supply food to the city have also been overwhelmed by the increased need.
ALIVE!, a 50-year-old local nonprofit known for its monthly food pantries, has ramped up its inventory and shifted its procedures to respond to the pandemic. It added additional food pantries last month and established drive-through pick-up sites to minimize social interaction.
The organization has done four Truck-to-Trunk food distribution events, reaching a total of about 2,000 families and distributing the equivalent of about 40,000 meals, according to Executive Director Jennifer Ayers.
Ayers hopes to continue with more events in May if ALIVE! is able to continue acquiring food.
“I think our biggest challenge right now is the same thing grocery stores are experiencing and that’s the supply chain. There’s just a limited amount of supplies available to purchase,” Ayres said. “As long as we can get food into the city, we feel like we will. So that’s our plan, just to keep going.”
ACPS responded to the high demand for food by expanding the number of pickup sites just one week after beginning. Now, students and families can pick up meals at William Ramsay Elementary School, Francis C. Hammond Middle School, Cora Kelly School for Math, Science and Technology, Jefferson-Houston PreK-8 IB School and T.C. Williams High School. There are also grab-and-go pop-up sites located at various apartment complexes and community centers.
“Adding the additional sites has been very helpful,” Hormel said. “[We’re] targeting areas where we really felt like we wanted to be able to get the food to our kids with the greatest needs. … We wound up working with our transportation, and we developed what we called ‘pop-up sites.’ They’re just specific targeted areas where we could run food out of T.C. and run them on a school bus into those neighborhoods.”
One challenge that the various food distribution operations are experiencing is safety, for both the people distributing food and the people receiving it.
“[These are] unprecedented times,” Hormel said. “Trying to come up with a plan by which we can serve our community, to limit the amount of people out and about, to respect that self-quarantining and staying at home, how do we proceed?”
Volunteer Alexandria vets its volunteers before they can begin working, which is particularly important now with the influx of newcomers. Volunteers are only eligible to sign up if they have not been exposed to the coronavirus, are not experiencing any symptoms and are under 65 years old. At different sites, volunteer coordinators make sure all volunteers meet those criteria and wear cloth face coverings.
“The people managing the volunteers on site … might be in a role where you actually have to tell somebody, ‘I’m sorry, but I need to tell you to leave because you’re coughing,’” Brunken said.
At most sites, the people distributing food are staying six feet apart from each other and wearing face coverings.
“We’re operating with the least amount of volunteers possible just to try to keep social distance,” Ayers said. “Right now, our food is being stored at … the old DASH bus barn because the city’s lending us that space, so there’s people packing food there for the next distribution, but they’re like 10 feet apart, so we can only take 20 volunteers at a time.”
In addition to the new food distribution operations around the city, various established food drives are continuing to serve those in need. ALIVE! encourages people who need food to visit local pantries. For a list of emergency food access points in the city, go to www.hungerfreealexandria.com.
People who wish to volunteer are encouraged to visit Volunteer Alexandria’s website for a list of opportunities. To donate to the various local organizations that are on the front lines of fighting the coronavirus outbreak, visit www.spring2action.org.
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