Lisa Wiley spends her mornings and afternoons on a Fairfax County school bus, helping students on and off and maintaining order during the ride. She spends her nights in businesses all over Northern Virginia – car dealerships, Barnes & Noble, J.C. Penney, Sears – using a scanner gun to check every piece of inventory in the store as an employee of RGIS Inventory Specialists. Free time to spend with her nine-year-old daughter is a precious commodity. But not as precious as the ability to feed herself, her daughter and her mother, who also lives with them.
The story is a common one: three generations living under one roof, only one, a single mother, capable of earning money. And even working two jobs, Wiley struggles to cover even the most basic expenses. “Most people think that because I work two jobs I make a lot of money,” Wiley explained. “I make about $25 thousand dollars a year, and that’s for three people.” She said that although the new Medicare program has lowered her mother’s payments on prescription drugs, expensive rent and electricity bills still mean she is playing catch-up with every paycheck.
Two years ago, Wiley’s daughter had outgrown her shoes. There was no place in Wiley’s budget for new ones, so she visited the clothes closet at Rising Hope Methodist Church on Richmond Highway. She happened to come on a Thursday, when the church distributes food from their food pantry, “They asked me did I need food and I said “yes.” And I’ve been coming every Thursday since,” explained Wiley, who was browsing the shelves of Rising Hope’s pantry on a recent Thursday afternoon.
The shelves were divided into different categories, and Wiley was able to choose two items from each and put them in a plastic shopping bag. Wiley says she chooses canned goods, beans, peanut butter, chicken and turkey, yogurt, eggs, bread, milk and fresh fruit and vegetables when they are available. Many of these items are things she would struggle to pay for. “Canned goods are expensive,” she said. “Peanut butter is expensive.”
“You can make a meal at least for three days with what you get if you know how to conserve.” She described one of her staple, food-stretching meals: a pack of ground beef mixed with some canned vegetables.
ACCORDING to Laura Derby, Church Administrator at Rising Hope, the mission church distributes about twelve tons of food a year to people like Lisa Wiley. About one third of this comes from area churches, particularly other Methodist churches. Another third comes from a variety of sources, including donations from businesses like Pizza Hut and Krispy Kreme and collections by Boy Scouts and Cub Scouts.
The final third, approximately 8,000 pounds, arrives on one day. This food is delivered by mail carriers, but there are no return addresses and no stamps. The food has been left out on doorsteps and beside mailboxes all over Northern Virginia. It is collection every year in an act of charity by the National Association of Letter Carriers, which delivers postcards in advance, urging every “occupant” in the area to leave something on the stoop.
The drive “does make a huge difference,” Derby said. Rising Hope is one of five area non-profits that receive food from local zip codes in the drive. The others are the Capitol Area Food Bank in DC, the Koinonia Foundation in Franconia, ALIVE in Alexandria, and United Community Ministries in Mount Vernon (UCM).
“We always are in need of food,” said Richard Dobber, an employee at UCM, “We are giving service to more or less 250 families per week. Every day [five days a week] we are giving away about 1,500 pounds of food.” But last year UCM received only 1,840 pounds of food from the drive. This is a significant decline from previous years. In 1999, UCM received 24,750 pounds of food, but by 2001 this total was down to 6,125. A realignment of donation recipients has contributed to some of this decline, but a less strenuous promotion of the drive may also have affected donations.
Mid-May is one of the worst possible times for donations to disappoint, according to Cheri Zeman, executive director of UCM. “As summer approaches it’s our lowest point in terms of donations. Our shelves get very bare and the need increases because the kids are at home … The food is a basic need. It’s a lifeline to the people that come and seek our services.”
“Our food is distributed according to USDA standards,” added Zeman, “which means that each bag contains the proper amount of grains, proteins, dairy [and] fresh vegetables when we can get them.” The twenty-pound bags are meant to feed three people for up to five days. In order to make sure each bag contains a balanced meal, UCM often has to buy food with general funds. “This kind of a food drive allows us to target funding dollars to other programs,” said Zeman.
BRIAN McCormick is a letter carrier at the Park Fairfax Post Office in Alexandria. This will be the 14th year the National Association of Letter Carriers has carried out the food drive, and it will be McCormick’s second year coordinating it in the Alexandria area. “Three years ago nobody volunteered to do and it just kind of slipped through the cracks,” McCormick explained. Post cards did not go out in advance, “and the amount of food collected was dismal, was horrible … I was very embarrassed.” So McCormick offered to take responsibility for making sure the drive ran smoothly.
“Communication is always a big deal. I’ve been calling people and talking to people and emailing people for the last two months.” McCormick organized the effort through local coordinators in every post office. “It’s been a very positive because people are very willing to help out,” he said. “I don’t try to ask one person to do too much.”
McCormick encourages everyone in the area to leave non-perishable food items for their postman on Saturday, May 13. The postman will collect from condos and apartments as well as single family homes . Donors should leave the food by their mailboxes and add a note.
He said that it is okay to leave food out any day before the 13th as well. “You lay it out there,” he said, “And if someone steals it, it’s because they need it.”