Local Commentary

Our Man in Arlington

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Once a month, my downtown day-job colleagues bag lunches for the homeless.

To help the Arlington Street People’s Assistance Network, I occasionally drive the readied food for distribution at the park behind St. George’s Episcopal Church.

It hit me only lately what a tiny thread that is, given the larger fabric of Arlington’s collective effort to alleviate local hunger.

The county’s Economic Independence Division of the Human Services Department offers emergency food assistance to qualified applicants who apply in person or online.

The nonprofit Arlington Food Assistance Center for 27 years has provided supplemental groceries at nearly 50 drop-off points from its South Nelson Street warehouse for what has grown to 2,000 families a week. It operations are staffed by volunteers from churches and affinity groups like the Kiwanis Club of Arlington and the Independent Electrical Contractors. AFAC also cultivates fun around donation solicitations, staging a young professionals night in April in Clarendon and a carnival in May at Artisphere.

A volunteer group that has been rolling here since 1971 is the familiarly named Meals on Wheels. It offers home delivery to “homebound individuals who, due to age, illness, or other distress, are confined and unable or willing to secure sustenance themselves.”

My neighbor Lex Schembri, a Meals on Wheels board member now in her twelth year as a volunteer, says it’s a “misnomer” to characterize the service as only for the poor. “I delivered to one four-star general dressed in a tie,” she says. “But many have cupboards as bare as old Mother Hubbard’s.” Clients come in all ages and ethnicities.

Meals on Wheels is run out of the First Presbyterian Church in Ballston, though many other churches take their turn organizing deliveries that arrive midday, Mondays through Fridays. Some beneficiaries begin the service on their own, others are signed up by a social worker or relative.

The cost for a hot lunch and a sandwich supper, plus milk or juice, is $28 a week, with need-based subsidies available from the country and from Meals on Wheels. The food is prepared and baked at the Arlington County Detention Center by inmates, under supervision from Aramark food company, the idea being to “give inmates some skills,” Schembri says.

Having divided the county into 15 routes north and south, volunteers pick up their supplies and client manifest to serve 10-12 households in a shift that may take an hour, including returning the coolers and thermal bags to First Presbyterian.

Drivers and runners travel in pairs so that one can knock on the door, greet the client and arrange the “wholesome, tasty meals” while the other sorts the next package, says Schembri, who got involved originally through her church, the Cathedral of St. Thomas More.

“These people are waiting, so if you’re ever a few minutes late, they get panic-stricken,” she says. ”In many cases, the volunteer is the only person they see all day. You befriend these people, which is the biggest reason to be a volunteer.”

To participate, you have to have some flextime during the day hours (Schembri runs a title company). “It’s such a worthwhile project,” she says. During summers she takes high school kids along so they can appreciate its value.

Food insecurity is a chronic, often invisible economic and social problem. Arlington’s generous part-timers tackle it via a safety net with multiple strands.