Local Commentary

Our Man in Arlington

Hunger has long gnawed at a slice of our community. But the virus crisis may mark the first time that hundreds of neighbors have been seen lining up on the street for compassionately donated food.

On the morning of July 1, I watched from out in front of South Arlington’s Our Lady Queen of Peace Catholic Church as nearly 200 — masked and standing six feet apart — calmly waited their turn on the sidewalk and parking lot. Some carried wheeled carts, recyclable bags and/or small children.

They were drawn to the regular food pantry by a special event: The downtown-based World Central Kitchen run by global star chef Jose Andres had prepared, packed and donated 3,580 meals to the Arlington church at S. 19th and Edgewood Sts. As a local NBC news crew filmed, the recipients, once it was their turn at the front of the line, came forward to the sanitized plastic chairs stationed in front of the church’s Father T. Ray Hall to collect a grocery bag (also donated).

In the bags were six refrigerated meals — one sample plastic container I was shown contained a tastefully arranged pasta, vegetables and a biscuit. “We got rid of every meal” to the day’s 600 households, I was told by Sally Diaz-Wells, the church’s social justice and outreach minister, who is a proud Arlingtonian of 11 years. She estimates the recipients as 75 percent Latino and the remaining 25 percent Black, Asian-American and white, “a little bit of everybody.”

I asked if they had to prove Arlington residency to receive food. “We don’t believe in borders,” she said. “Our rule is if you need food, we will give you food.”

During the pandemic, the Our Lady Queen of Peace pantry has scaled up from serving 235 families weekly to between 550 and 675 families, according to Amber Roseboom, the Arlington-based media relations director for the 70 parishes in the regional Catholic Diocese of Arlington.

“Our commitment to the community is that we are in this for the long haul and will continue to do our best to help these families put food on their kitchen tables,” said the church pastor, Father Tim Hickey.

Many other churches have stepped up efforts to ease food insecurity. Saint George’s Episcopal is the county’s longest-running food pantry, going back to 1989. At the task full-time, of course, is the secular Arlington Food Assistance Center, to which several of my neighbors are funneling donations. And the Safeway Foundation this month announced that it had awarded $570,500 in a second round of grants to area nonprofits from its Help Feed Families During the Crisis fundraiser.

Our hometown, I saw in person, has now joined the list of other American communities with normally stable middle-class residents now forced by the pandemic’s economic freeze-out to get over any stigma and approach others for their next meal. It’s also a sign that Congress’s work on spreading relief dollars is not done.

When I arrived at Our Lady Queen of Peace, I handed a few token cans of food to the staff working the sorting operation in the back of the Father Ray multipurpose room. I felt embarrassed that it seemed only a drop in the bucket. But they thanked me profusely.

Another indicator of damage from the virus crisis: canceled high school reunions.

Yorktown’s classes of ‘70 and ’75 both announced on Facebook in recent weeks that their events lovingly planned for this autumn are a no-go.
Washington-Liberty’s classes of ’60 and ’70 made a similar concession to the grim reality, posting on the W-L alumni association’s “reunion scorecard.” Wakefield’s classes of ‘60, ‘70 and ‘80 postponed. O’Connell ‘70’s original plan was teased on the school website last October, but has not been updated.

Most organizers have selected the odd next year’s anniversary for the rescheduled, even-year gathering.