Upon entering the Giant Food store at Fox Mill Shopping Center in Herndon on Jan. 19, patrons received a shopping list from volunteers to supplement the one they already had on paper, on their phone, or in their head.
The requested items were modest, ranging from snacks like apple sauce and granola bars to nonperishable pasta, including instant ramen noodles. Most of them cost no more than a few bucks.
However, to the children who will ultimately receive the food, that list could mean the difference between eating an adequate meal and going hungry for a day.
The Fox Mill Giant was one of three grocery stores in Fairfax County that hosted the first round of Stuff the Bus, an annual charity drive run by the county to assist local food pantries looking to restock their shelves after the holiday season.
Stuff the Bus has benefitted more than 32 community nonprofits by collecting enough food to provide 170,000 meals along with close to $50,000 in monetary donations, according to Fairfax County Neighborhood and Community Services, which first started organizing the philanthropic event nine years ago.
By the time this year’s Stuff the Bus concludes on Feb. 18, the county expects to surpass 250,000 pounds of collected food.
“We’re very fortunate in Fairfax County to live in a community where people come together to help people in need,” Neighborhood and Community Services communications director Ben Boxer said. “…We’re just happy to be able to support an event that’s been so well-received by the community in supporting these great organizations that offer assistance to families and individuals who need food.”
While Stuff the Bus is operated by Fairfax County, the drive relies heavily on volunteers with more than 5,000 people from the community contributing about 15,000 hours of service over the past nine years.
Each event takes place at a different grocery store. Interested customers pick up a list of the food that is needed, and they can purchase any items they want while doing their usual shopping in order to drop it off in carts set up by the volunteers.
In addition to the Fox Mill Giant, the Giant at Chain Bridge Corner in McLean and the Shoppers in Mount Vernon Plaza on Richmond Highway in Alexandria participated in Stuff the Bus on Jan. 19.
The Fox Mill Giant collection specifically supported Helping Hungry Kids of Northern Virginia, a nonprofit founded in July 2009 to provide food packages to elementary school students who do not have food at home to eat on weekends or other days when school is closed.
Since 2013, Helping Hungry Kids has also provided snacks to school staff for them to distribute to children while school is in session.
The nonprofit says it donated 17,349 weekend packs and more than 44,000 snacks to 12 schools in the Northern Virginia area during the 2016 to 2017 school year.
Food collected at the McLean Giant Stuff the Bus went to Share, Inc., a nonprofit that runs a food pantry out of McLean Baptist Church every Wednesday and Saturday, while the Shoppers Stuff the Bus in Alexandria supported United Community Ministries.
Collection events are currently scheduled to take place this Saturday at the Tysons Walmart in Vienna and the Giant in Village Center at Dulles in Herndon.
A full list of eight remaining collection locations and the nonprofits that each of them will benefit can be found on the Fairfax County Neighborhood and Community Services website.
While Fairfax County ranks among the wealthiest counties in the U.S., that reputation for affluence can sometimes overshadow the financial and health challenges that many people in the community still face.
A family with two adults and two children needs an annual income of $78,979 before taxes in order to earn a living wage in Fairfax County, according to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Living Wage Calculator.
Fairfax County’s 2018 annual demographic report released in November found that7.6 percent of households and almost 6 percent of families in the county live in poverty with an income under $25,000.
According to the Live Healthy Fairfax Community Health Dashboard, Fairfax County also has a 5 percent food insecurity rate, meaning that 5 percent of the population experiences limited or uncertain availability of or access to nutritionally adequate food.
Stuff the Bus aims to help nonprofits dedicated to addressing issues of poverty and hunger in Fairfax County.
“It’s an opportunity to help nonprofits replenish food pantries after the holidays,” Fairfax County Board of Supervisors Chairman Sharon Bulova said. “Sometimes, people don’t think about giving, so this is a chance to put groceries back on the shelves for people in need.”
While food pantries and nonprofits like Helping Hungry Kids are always in need of support, Stuff the Bus has an added sense of urgency this year as many federal workers and their families in Northern Virginia have gone more than a month without a paycheck due to an ongoing government shutdown.
Since Congress failed to pass appropriations bills funding critical departments and agencies by a Dec. 22 deadline, more than 800,000 federal employees have been either on furlough or working without pay. The longest federal government shutdown in U.S. history entered its 35th day on Friday.
Local nonprofits like the Northern Virginia Family Service, which runs a hunger resource center in Manassas, have reported increases in requests for services or assistance as workers scramble to pay their bills and cover basic needs like food, rent or mortgage, and healthcare costs.
Bulova says Fairfax County has seen a noticeable, albeit not dramatic uptick in people looking to use county services.
“That probably will increase if the shutdown goes on much longer,” Bulova said. “People are experiencing the loss of their first paycheck. If that continues, it really puts people in a very, very difficult position.”
Fairfax County has instructed residents to contact its coordinated services planning staff by calling 703-222-0880 if they are facing financial challenges and would like to learn what resources are available.
A regularly updated list of resources that people affected by the federal government shutdown can utilize, including free Fairfax Connector rides and childcare assistance, has been posted to the Fairfax County government website.
Bulova suggests that people who want to help their fellow community members who are struggling due to the shutdown or for any other reason should reach out to local nonprofits like the ones supported by Stuff the Bus.
“When we do human services in Fairfax County, we really do so largely with our nonprofits,” the county chairman said. “We have great nonprofits, and they’re able to augment county dollars. Volunteers are fantastic, and our county residents are very, very generous, and especially you see that with Stuff the Bus.”