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Food Drives in High Gear

Collecting food to match growing needs of underemployed.

Volunteers organize the food shelves at the Arlington Food Assistance Center.

Volunteers organize the food shelves at the Arlington Food Assistance Center. Photo Contributed

— The Arlington Food Assistance Center (AFAC) is entering its major holiday drive time, during which it will run more than 350 food drives between now and the end of the year, as the number of families needing food assistance in Arlington is on the rise.

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John Heyer, Arlington Food Assistance Center volunteer.

“We hit a record high of 1,655 families in January of last year. The numbers have moderated slightly but they are now going up again,” Charles Meng, executive director of AFAC, said.

Meng says that, while unemployment is one of the reasons that brings families to AFAC, a growing number of clientele have jobs but are underemployed, and are only working 20 hours a week or they have minimum wage jobs.

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Charles Meng, executive director of Arlington Food Assistance Center.

“Minimum is $7.25/hour. The average apartment in Arlington county rents for $1,200/month, so at $7.25/hour you have to work 44 hours a week four weeks a month just to pay the rent, so there is nothing left for other expenses, especially if you have a kid,” Meng said.

Another growing population in need of food assistance is the elderly, who are living on a fixed income. These are people who have lived in the Arlington, paid the mortgage on their house but are now living on a small social security payment or a private retirement fund and they can’t make ends meet any longer.

“What we say to those people is get your food here instead of going to some place like McDonalds and eating off the dollar menu, which is really cheap, but particularly for the elderly it provides them things that they should not be eating,” Meng said.

AFAC, which was founded more than 20 years ago, works on a full choice model that allows families to choose the foods that their families like and they will eat.

All families get a half gallon of milk, a dozen eggs, 2-4lbs of chicken and a selection of vegetables and fruit. There is always cereal and staples like pasta, rice, dried beans and canned vegetables in addition to a variety of miscellaneous items.

“It’s like a miniature grocery store, where they get to select what they want to take home,” say Calvin Bayliff, who has worked at AFAC for the past year helping organize all the food that is donated and making sure it gets distributed to all the clients.

The Arlington County Fire Department, in partnership with the Arlington Firefighters and Paramedics Association, is sponsoring a food drive that started on Dec. 1 and will run through Dec. 21 to benefit AFAC.

“We realize that there are people in Arlington County that definitely need our assistance. There are people that rely on AFAC for food every day. We thought we would team up with them and keep everything local and assist the people in our own area,” said Capt. Gregg Karl, public information officer for the Arlington County Fire department.

The fire department is collecting non-perishable items during the drive cereal, flour, oil, pasta and tuna are some of the things that are most needed.

“We have a duty to feed those who are less fortunate than will are,” said AFAC volunteer, John Heyer. “It is definitely a very needed service here in the community.”

Meng says that 65 percent of the food AFAC distributes comes from food drives and food donation and that the other 35 percent is purchased. The organization does not receive any federal or state funds but it does received $400,000 from Arlington County.

“We have to raise over $2.5 million in cash and find 2.5 million pounds of food each year to keep AFAC afloat and we rely on the dedicated service of over 1,000 volunteers,” Meng said.

“We do the standard fundraising stuff throughout this community. I have found over the past five years that the residents of this county are extremely generous. Donations from local grocery stores and all the food drives that individuals and schools run for us play an important role,” Meng said.

One of the drives AFAC is sponsoring is a “Gimme Some Sugar” drive in which it hopes to collect sugar, flour and cooking oil which they plan to distribute, the week of Dec. 17, just before the holidays.