AFAC Fills Up the Empty Bowls

AFAC Fills Up the Empty Bowls

One-hundred-and-two-year-old Betty Ochenrider chooses a colorful pottery bowl for her soup. “I like it because it’s different. It’s happy.”

One-hundred-and-two-year-old Betty Ochenrider chooses a colorful pottery bowl for her soup. “I like it because it’s different. It’s happy.”

Betty Ochenrider is first in line again this year with her daughter and a friend at the annual Arlington Food Assistance (AFAC) fundraiser on Feb. 11. Ochenrider is 102-years-old and says she has been coming to the fundraiser for years. She hasn’t yet decided which soup to try this year.

Each of the sittings at St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church sells out early, and the regulars at this event have learned to show up early. For the price of a ticket Empty Bowls offers a selection of an original bowl from a table full of pottery produced by local artists. Each bowl can be filled with a soup donated by local businesses such as Brunswick stew from Sloppy Mama’s BBQ, lobster bisque from Carlisle and lentil from Lebanese Taverna. 

Each round table for eight is stocked well with a basket of breads, and a choice of many desserts follows including vanilla cupcakes, raisin filled oatmeal cookies, cream cheese frosted bites, vegan pecan bars and vegan gluten-free almond flour cookies. 

Several violin majors from George Mason provide entertainment on a stage in the front of the room. Paige Sharkey says, “We’ll be playing a mix of classical and popular songs today.”

Volunteers dot the room in their green AFAC Volunteer T-shirts. Ryan Nargadon is a high school student who is there from Maryland with his job to make sure the tables are taken care of. “My dad works for TD bank, one of the donors for the event. He said ‘get ready at 9:30 tomorrow; you’re coming with me.’” Bethany Panza is there from HB Woodlawn manning two tables for water, extra cups or whatever they need. She says she already has plenty of community service points, and this is her “carefree time.” 

Carol Burnett stands inside the front door waiting for whatever task is assigned. She comments that she used to be a reporter on a weekly newspaper in Sacramento. “I was a news reporter, editor, layout—you know you do everything on a small weekly.”

Charles Meng, CEO of AFAC, provides the context for today’s event. “During our last fiscal year that ended in June 2023, a total of 140,635 families came to one of our distribution sites, 6,586 unique families —16,003 individuals — 30 percent more families than the prior year. As a result we overspent our food purchase budget of $1.3 million by $600,000.

He says halfway through this year they have already served 88,000 families, 40 percent more than at the same time last year. “At this rate, we will once again overspend our nearly $1.5 million food purchase budget by another $1.2 million to serve nearly 180,000 families.”

He explains that what is driving the 50-100 new families a month coming to AFAC’s doors is inflation resulting in an increase in food prices of 25 percent in two years and the expiration of the supplemental benefits which families relied on that were given during the pandemic. “Many are further behind than before the pandemic. Unfortunately it will be years before they can claw their way back.”

Meng thanked the generous community in Arlington that helps support the AFAC mission and the 2,200 volunteers who last year gave 44,000 hours of service as well as the AFAC staff who receive and purchase the 5 million pounds of food—store, inventory, package and distribute it. 

AFAC is a non-profit organization distributing free nutritious supplemental groceries to people in need weekly in Arlington. Currently they serve over 3,700 families a week including one-third children and 12 percent elderly. 

AFAC distributed 5 million pounds of food to their families last year with the purchase of 3.5 million pounds of food and donated food of 1.5 million pounds from around the country. AFAC receives no Federal or state funding, and 92.7 percent of the budget is raised from donations and contributions; food drives held by faith groups, businesses, families, Scouts; and fundraisers such as Empty Bowls held throughout the year. 

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