Alexandria: Faces of Hunger

Alexandria: Faces of Hunger

Stories from a church’s “pop-up” grocery.


Akuah Yang and 3-year-old Shay Johnson


Pedro Salas


Raymond Ellis


Sheila Frazier


Evangeline Jones, volunteer


Melanie Gray, director of outreach and mission, Historic Christ Church on Washington Street

Third in a series on childhood hunger in Alexandria.

Christ Church operates a weekly "pop-up" grocery on Thursday mornings for those in need of food assistance. The church also offers financial assistance as well as free flu shots and nurses from Marymount who give health screenings.

"There are more first timers here than usual," said Melanie Gray, director of outreach at Historic Christ Church on Washington Street.

Gray looks around the elegant church library where clients wait for their turn to choose their groceries accompanied by a volunteer. Young and old, Black, White, Hispanic, wheelchair-bound and mobile. “I only see one homeless person here. Everyone else has housing. There are so many different stories," she said.

Akuah Yang, with her 3-year-old daughter Shay Johnson, said, "My story is short and I want to tell it. I am a new student so I'm not working full-time anymore. That's why I reached out for resources in Alexandria." Yang says that she lived in a homeless shelter until her daughter was six months old. The shelter helped her get an apartment. "I've been on my own for two years. There was a time when I was hungry before the shelter. I was really skinny. So, I haven't been hungry in a while. But it was really, really hard." Yang adds that this is her first time at the Episcopal "pop-up" grocery. "I used to go to Cora Kelly Elementary School but they cut me off because my income got too high. I got cut off Medicaid, too. But now I'll reapply." The line to choose groceries hasn't started to move yet, and she has to leave to take her daughter to daycare. "But I'll be back another time," she said.

Pedro Salas said, "This is my third or fourth time here at the food pantry. I have family here but they don't help. I don't have enough money to buy groceries — don't get a lot from Social Security."

He says that before this he would buy whatever he could for himself and his wife. "But I never was hungry; God always provided." He says he doesn't look for anything special here, just whatever they can give him. "I'm grateful."

Raymond Ellis will head for dialysis after he has picked up his groceries. "I've been coming here on and off for the last two years since I got sick,” he said. “I'm on a fixed income now."

He says he was in Army intelligence for 23 years and then became a long-haul truck driver. But he had his first heart attack in 1997, closely followed by another and then arthritis set in. Ellis says he has lived off savings for many years since he was put on disability but the savings recently ran out and now he comes to get food assistance.

Ellis has a family of four to feed and he has to be careful what he eats due to his dialysis. "I have to wash the syrup off the canned fruit. I like to find turkey or fish if they have it. They had a lot of chicken and I got tired of that." But he says it helps with the grocery bill. He adds that he gets a military retirement check and it paid for his daughter's college education. But now is quite a switch for him from his long career where he could provide and live on his savings.

Sheila Frazier came to pick up her groceries after her substance abuse counseling. "I go every day and also to AA meetings." Frazier feeds six children including one of her sister's and helps out an elderly neighbor. She says she has been coming to the "pop-up" grocery since "oh, about 2013." She will walk home to Braddock Station where she says the police walk through her area every day and every night. "I watch out for the kids who are outside even if they aren't my own."

She said there was a time when she was out there “druggin'.” She was raped three times. She went to churches to get food. "Yeah I was hungry."

Frazier said, "When I was little, me and my brothers were in foster homes and my father was homeless. I got my own place now."

Frazier says she loves the greens and the other vegetables at the "pop-up grocery" and the children like them, too. But when she gets home with the sacks of groceries, the children rush over and spread everything out looking for oatmeal. "Do they rush me? Yeah they do."

Carter Land, a 25-year volunteer at Christ Church said, "You know it's kind of constant. We have between 30-50 people." He says they have 44 today so people may not get to choose as much as some other days. "A lot of people come every week but there are new faces today."

Land is a lawyer on King Street who takes one-and-a-half hours to volunteer helping people choose food and then he returns to work. Land observes that chicken and produce are very popular as well as butter, eggs and cheese. "But people don't go in for bread."

He says he knows how many people are in each family and can help them choose what is allowed for their number from each table. Land used to help with the financial assistance. "I got to know people better there where we sat down and talked."

Evangeline Jones has been a volunteer " for 'bout two years." Chunks of gouda, packages of shredded cheddar and a box of feta sit beside cubes of butter and half cartons of fresh eggs on her table. She says on most days people can choose two of the items but today due to the crowd they can only choose one. She is also in charge of the bread table stacked with bagels, rounds of cornbread, and loaves of wheat bread. Occasionally Jones entertains the clients with an improvised solo from her wheelchair. Gray said, "She makes up a lot of her songs on the spot."