Local nonprofit ALIVE! plays key role in pandemic food distribution

Local nonprofit ALIVE! plays key role in pandemic food distribution

By Cody Mello-Klein | cmelloklein@alextimes.com

City Council extended a license agreement with local nonprofit ALIVE! to allow the organization to continue using a portion of the city’s archives and records office at 801 S. Payne St. for its operations.

Although the decision, taken during council’s public hearing on Saturday, is a renewal of a five-year agreement with the city, is in itself not all that significant in the grand scheme of council approvals, this agreement represents the larger role ALIVE! has come to play in the city during the COVID-19 pandemic.

ALIVE! provides food and financial assistance for Alexandria families, specifically women and children, in need of a helping hand. During any other year, ALIVE! serves an important role in the community, but in 2020, the nonprofit’s work has proven vital for many Alexandrians.

Working with the city, ALIVE! has been able to feed 12,000 to 16,000 people per month during the pandemic through its large-scale food distribution events.

When COVID-19 hit the region in March, most businesses and organizations had to scale down their operations. ALIVE! Executive Director Jennifer Ayers did the opposite.

“We were [providing] about 30,000 pounds of food [per month] prior to the pandemic and at my last tally at the end of November, we had distributed 1.1 million pounds of food between March and November,” Ayers said. “I think last month was about 175,000, 180,000 pounds of food …”

At each distribution, ALIVE! provides enough food to last a family of four for five days. These meal packages include chicken, eggs, produce and canned and shelved goods. (Photo/ALIVE!)

The number of events and the diversity of distribution methods expanded as well with the onset of the pandemic. ALIVE! started providing truck-to-trunk delivery for those that did not want to leave their cars as well as standard walk-up pickup. ALIVE! also provides home deliveries for residents who are quarantining.

“Instead of just doing two distribution events each month and some home delivery, we were doing basically some sort of mass distribution every week with two truck-to-trunk contactless drive through events the last Saturday of most months,” Ayers said.

The organization scaled up more than its food distribution program too.

More families than normal have reached out to the ALIVE! financial assistance program, as increased numbers of Alexandrians found themselves without income or the ability to pay for rent and food. The non-profit also started the Alexandria Eviction Prevention Partnership in collaboration with Legal Services of Northern Virginia, the Northern Virginia Affordable Housing Alliance and The Lazarus Ministry.

“Our goal there is to link people to appropriate housing resources or financial assistance or, in the worst case, help them transition through the eviction process,” Ayers said. “We can help them get a hotel room for a couple of nights, put their things in storage or connect them to a relative so they can find another place to live in case they are being evicted.”

ALIVE! now receives 200 calls per week from residents seeking assistance in navigating the eviction process, Ayers said.

As a result of increased demand in some areas – and public health guidelines – ALIVE! has had to reduce operations in other programs. The organization’s preschool program closed in June and the modest-sized transitional shelter that normally houses four families can now only house two, Ayers said.

Increasing food distribution operations has not been without its share of challenges.

Early during the pandemic, the food supply chain experienced unprecedented disruptions, which impacted not only farmers and grocery stores but food pantries and distributors such as ALIVE!

Deliveries slowed down and occurred less regularly. In one case, a delivery of food took four weeks to get to ALIVE! because it got stuck en route after the driver got sick, Ayers said.

ALIVE! worked with three other local organizations to start the Alexandria Eviction Prevention Partnership during the pandemic in order to assist those facing eviction. (Photo/ALIVE!)

There was also a general reluctance from retailers and suppliers to sell food in the quantity that ALIVE! required due to supply shortages.

“We’ve certainly experienced on our end difficulty purchasing meat wholesale,” Ayers said. “We have to pay retail for it. Because of the packing issues, fresh produce is a challenge, trying to store fresh produce in a way and on a scale where we can use it effectively.”

Supply shortages are no longer as big of an issue, and, as a result, ALIVE! has been able to increase the quantity and quality of food it provides to residents on a weekly basis. At the beginning of the pandemic, ALIVE! was only able to provide “subsistence food,” two bags of basic food, Ayers said.

Now, ALIVE! provides enough food to last a family of four five days and the bags include chicken, eggs, produce and canned and shelved goods, including rice and beans.

With a higher demand for its services, ALIVE! has had to rely on its hardworking staff of 12 full-time employees and a dedicated, ever-expanding base of volunteers. Since all the food has to be pre-bagged, ALIVE! volunteers have been collectively dedicating about 110 volunteer hours per week to bag the sheer volume of food the nonprofit is providing.

The city has also been key to the success of ALIVE! over the past 10 months. Of the city’s initial $27.8 million tranche of federal funding received through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act, $3.9 million went toward addressing food insecurity. Much of that money went toward helping ALIVE! scale up its food distribution operations.

City Council recently doubled down on its collaboration with ALIVE!. At the Dec. 8 legislative meeting, council unanimously approved allocating an additional $375,000 to ensure food distribution efforts continue through April 2021.

Due to the volume of food ALIVE! is handling, volunteers have been collectively committing about 110 hours per week to help package the pre-bagged for distribution. (Photo/ALIVE!)

The pandemic has led to unexpected but welcome collaborations across the city, and ALIVE!’s success is a testament to that, Ayers said. The Alexandria Police Department and Alexandria Fire Department have managed logistics and traffic at distribution sites and DASH buses have helped carry food across the city.

The extension of the agreement between ALIVE! and the city means the non-profit has a stable headquarters for the next five years. The city also gave ALIVE! access to the unused former WMATA-owned “bus barn,” which ALIVE! now uses to bag and distribute its food.

“Being able to have a place to scale our operations and put things doesn’t sound like a big deal, but it’s huge,” Ayers said.

Meanwhile, the Department of Community and Human Resources has become a dedicated partner for ALIVE!

“We meet weekly with staff that report to DCHS and really work through where the most need is,” Ayers said. “We look at maps. We really get into the weeds, and they’re doing what we’re doing, which is trying to fill the gaps.”

The level of support ALIVE! has received from the city and community was overwhelming at first, according to Ayers. Residents are volunteering in droves, money is flowing in from the city and other organizations in the city have started reaching out to ALIVE! to learn about how it has achieved such success.

Ayers said she just hopes that level of support continues now that the first dose of COVID-19 vaccine has arrived in Virginia.

“My biggest fear is that we’re going to get complacent, because the situation isn’t going away, even with the vaccine,” Ayers said. “People are really struggling.”

For more information on how to donate to ALIVE!, visit www.alive-inc.org/financial-donation/

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