The holidays may be the time that most people think of making charitable contributions, what with countless coat drives, food collections and Salvation Army bells chiming in the background. But for Loudoun Interfaith Relief, it's just another month in the year-long effort to feed Loudoun's hungry families.
As the county's largest food pantry, Interfaith Relief provides nutritional meals to about 40 families a day. The pantry keeps track of food by weighing, and since each person usually get about 10 pounds of food each, the pantry sends about 1,300 pounds of food out the door on a normal day.
Dealing with so much food everyday has at least one effect on director Bonnie Inman Ñ she no longer cooks.
"I used to," she said, smiling. "Not anymore."
An army of volunteers helps stock the shelves every morning in the pantry's current location in downtown Leesburg. Loudoun citizens, residency is the only requirement to get food, sign up a "wish list" in the front room. A volunteer will gather the food, based on family size and certain needs, for example, if the family includes a baby.
The supply doled out in one visit to Interfaith Relief will feed a family for three days. Most families are allowed to visit twice a month, but exceptions are possible.
One of the pantry's points of pride is that each meal is healthy and balanced.
"You want to make sure they're not only getting food, they're getting quality food," said Duffy Sanchez, who began volunteering for Interfaith Relief not long after it opened in 1991. She is now director of operations and outreach.
THE HOLIDAYS create a bounty for Interfaith Relief, with donations increasing thanks to the spirit of the season. While that's great for the pantry in the short run, the demand on Interfaith Relief is year round. Donations do not always follow suit. The summer months are the leanest at the pantry, Inman reports.
Donations comes from churches, which gathered to found the pantry originally as a hot-meal program, private individuals and corporations. With the pantry, a storage site and five and a half paid staff, Interfaith Relief's budget runs about $200,000 a year.
The plans for the future are big: Inman hopes to reinstate a hot-meal program as well as find a new location. The red, barn-like building behind the Battery Warehouse in downtown Leesburg and the neighboring storage facility run at about 2,000 square feet each; Inman would like to find something with at least 6,000 square feet.
While Interfaith Relief is part of Loudoun Cares, a coalition looking to build a location to house many of the county's nonprofits, it's also looking for a space independently.
For Sanchez, an important goal for the future is simply educating people about hunger. In an affluent county like Loudoun, it's easy to forget the need that exists.
"They don't realize it's their next door neighbor," Sanchez said. "They don't realize how quickly they can fall into need."
Sanchez has started a program called Kids' Kanteen that provides 240 snacks a week to after-school programs. Many of the snacks come from Girl or Boy Scout groups that bring Sanchez in to speak to the children about hunger.
"There's nothing sadder than a child being hungry," Sanchez said.
INTERFAITH RELIEF does make an extra effort around the holidays, and that's to help out the Community Holiday Coalition. Visitors to the pantry can register to participate in the Holiday Coalition's Christmas store.
"They share the food that we may need," said Karen Velez, Holiday Coalition coordinator. "They volunteer and help as much as they can, refer people with holiday donations to the program."
Like the Holiday Coalition, many clients who use Interfaith Relief become donors or volunteers in the future. Just last Friday morning, a man installing a bulkhead in an Interfaith Relief van donated his time, telling Inman that when he first moved to the county, the pantry had helped him in his time of need.
"It makes you feel good to know you've been a stepping stone for them," Sanchez said.