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Feeding Northern Virginia's Hungry

Attorney General's Hunger Tour of Northern Virginia highlights need for donations of food year-round.

With the holidays over, Thomas Carroll has to determine a way to provide enough food for the 700 agencies that rely on the Capital Area Food Bank to feed the hungry in Northern Virginia.

"This part of the year, donations get slow," said Carroll, warehouse operations manager for the organization's Northern Virginia branch in Lorton. "We're trying to make it so we get drives and donations year round, we need food all the time."

As one of the first stops on State Attorney General Bob McDonnell's (R) Hunger Tour of Northern Virginia last week, Carroll said McDonnell stopped by the warehouse on Newington Road to get a better look at the operation and a better sense of how it works.

"He came to see what we do, who we serve and how much food is here," Carroll said. The time between the holidays and school-sponsored drives in the late spring are hard for organizations that distribute food, as donations run low but needs stay the same.

Each year, the Capital Food Bank delivers 20 million pounds of food to the 700 agencies it partners with, Carroll said.

While the Capital Food Bank does give some donations directly out of their Lorton location, much of the donations it receives go out to homeless shelters and other groups that help the less fortunate, Carroll said. The Food Bank also provides food to an after-school program at Community Lodgings in Alexandria, called the Kid's Café, each day.

McDonnell was scheduled to visit the Kids Café but was unable to, said Emily Barnes, project coordinator for the Family Learning Center which runs the Kid's Café through Community Lodgings.

"Kid's Café is a branch of the Food Bank, we provide children with after-school meals twice a week," said Barnes. "We also provide nutritional education and give them tips on healthy eating."

BETWEEN SEVEN and 15 children go to the Café after school each day for 90 minutes, Barnes said. While there, the children receive a snack, play games and obtain help with their homework. Many of the children live within walking distance of the center, which serves 50 children each week in the area between Alexandria and Arlington.

Community Lodgings began in 1987 as a homeless shelter and transitional housing program, said executive director Bonnie Baxley.

"We get about 20 people each week looking for help with housing of some kind," she said. "If we have apartments available, we'll take the person through the application process. Otherwise, we put them on a waiting list."

During the two-year program, clients are helped through the process of securing a job and becoming self-sufficient, Baxley said. Two clients last year left the program early because they were able to purchase their own homes.

Because the program focuses on helping families get off the street, the Kid's Café seemed a natural addition to Community Lodging's services, Baxley said.

"The Café is offered to the whole community as well as children in the transitional housing program," she said. "We work with the kids on academics, but we also provide workshops for the parents."

The academic help has proved to be helpful, she said, as students who entered the program in September were tested in January on math and reading. Their test scores showed an 81 percent increase in comprehension, Baxley said.

GIVING THE CHILDREN a healthy snack after school helps provide nutrition that might be supplemented by the free and reduced breakfast and lunch programs at schools before the children return home for dinner, she said.

"The Food Bank brings us food every week which allows us to provide the snack," Baxley said. "The staff is able to pick from a menu, so we can provide something the kids will like, but it's also healthy."

Moving to the other side of the county, McDonnell's tour included a stop at Food For Others, a Fairfax City-based food pantry.

"A rather large group of people came in to see what we do," said Roxanne Rice, executive director for Food For Others. "They saw our USDA Commodities room and the emergency boxes we provide to families in need."

For the past 11 years, Food For Others has provided assistance to families in Northern Virginia who find themselves making the choice between buying groceries and paying rent.

"We saw a huge increase in clients after 9/11," Rice said, echoing what Carroll stated at the Food Bank. "Given the high cost of living in this area, there's a number of people who are working but have trouble making ends meet."

Despite its reputation for being an affluent region, Northern Virginia does have the same problems with poverty, homelessness and people going hungry as can be found across the country, Rice said. The need for help isn't just felt at the holidays, but throughout the year, and the supplies at Food For Others are becoming sparse.

"I really hope [McDonnell] goes back to Richmond with a better awareness for social services in Northern Virginia," Rice said. "We are well-known as an economically-fortunate area, but that works against people of low income who rely on us."

MCDONNELL ALSO stopped at New Hope Housing, a transitional housing shelter in Alexandria that provides food for families in need.

The attorney general and his entourage were given a "Homelessness 101 presentation," said New Hope Executive Director Pam Michell.

"The real issue in homelessness is housing and with rent so high here, people are living on the margin," she said. "We see so many people come in with health issues that can be improved just by changing their diet. That's why the Food Bank is so helpful."

Michell said McDonnell was impressed with the variety of services New Hope provides in addition to being a shelter.

"We have a whole range of programs, including case management, an after-school center, an employment center," Michell said. "He said we're more of a whole service program than any shelter he'd seen before."

By opening their doors to McDonnell, Michell said she's hoping he'll return to Richmond with a new idea of homelessness, who it affects and how it can be abated.

"People have this image of shelters as being a discouraging place," she said. "They don't see them as the beginning of a new life, and I think that's what he saw when he was here. There is a way to get out."

A native of the Mount Vernon area, McDonnell said he was surprised to find pockets of poverty in Northern Virginia.

"I wouldn't have thought, as strong as the economy is in Fairfax County and as low as the unemployment rate is, that there would be an increased need and demand for homeless shelter lodging and food," McDonnell said.

To help stock the shelves of food pantries across Virginia, he is sponsoring a food drive called the Legal Food Frenzy. For two weeks in April, McDonnell's office is challenging legal firms to raise half a million pounds of food to donate to regional food banks. The firm that collects the most food or contributes the most money will receive the Attorney General's Cup.

During his visit, McDonnell said he was impressed with the support the organizations receive from their communities. "They give their lives to make sure other people's quality of life is improved," he said. "We've got to do things to encourage the private sector to continue their good work."

McDonnell said he hopes to make the food drive and tour annual events.

"It's a matter of focus and attention, making sure all state-wide leaders bring attention to the plight of those less fortunate," he said. "I don't think we need to start new programs, we just have to find ways to promote the organizations already doing an outstanding job."