By Alex Russell
With Thanksgiving over, the first of a number of major wintertime holidays has once again come and gone. Starting in early December, holidays like Hanukkah, Christmas, Kwanzaa, and New Year’s will undoubtedly bring a sense of joy and ease to many in the Falls Church community following what has been a predominately difficult year.
However, the winter holiday season does not signify the same thing for all households, especially following the widespread and detrimental economic difficulties following the recently receding peak of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Even though Fairfax is one of the wealthiest counties in the state of Virginia, the unfortunate reality is that many families in Fairfax County — and in fact across the country — have been burdened with food insecurity and many others will continue to face this serious problem as time goes on.
Specifically, food insecurity does not mean that a certain household is always battling this issue; it can be temporary or it can come up on a slightly recurring basis. However, the lack of access to nutritious food, as well as a household’s need to make trade-offs between basic needs like paying rent and medical bills and purchasing nutritionally adequate food only exacerbates related stress and can lead to the development of severe mental and physical health problems.
For all the societal strides made in 21st century America, immutable factors like one’s race and/or ethnic background are still overwhelmingly large factors in terms of food insecurity. Age is another immutable characteristic that greatly affects this problem.
The American Academy of Pediatrics reports that lack of access to high-quality and nutritionally abundant food can lead to increased early-childhood hospitalizations, poor bone density, increased risk of obesity and diabetes, and increased risk of depression and anxiety, among other illnesses. Seniors are another demographic that is at higher risk for food insecurity, with the high cost of medication as well as mobility issues being some of the major factors attributed to seniors not having proper access to healthy food options.
Feeding America, a nonprofit organization and nationwide network of approximately 200 food banks feeding more than 46 million people through food pantries, soup kitchens, shelters, and other community-based services, found that 60 percent of seniors have to choose between buying food or paying their utility bills — a decision that becomes even harder during the colder holiday months.
In terms of physical health, when a household opts for cheaper but unhealthier food options, this can lead to life-long battles with diseases like obesity, diabetes, and a variety of cardiac problems. In terms of mental health, stress related to not being able to afford necessary, nutritious food can intensify to such a degree that both immediate and long-term mental and physical health become jeopardized. In fact, anxiety and depression are two of the mental health conditions that have been linked to food insecurity.
In the Little City, Falls Church Presbyterian Church, off of East Broad Street, has been pitching in to help fight food insecurity in their local community.
“In the heart of the city since 1848,” F.C. Presbyterian Church is the result of a long history of local Presbyterians assembling to worship in the area. The Welcome Table program, a twice-a-month dinner program for those who suffer from hunger and food insecurity, is one of their largest and longest-running community outreach and support efforts.
Beginning in 2011, Welcome Table took place once-a-month, providing visitors with freshly-prepared, nutritious food served up in-person at the church on ceramic dishes — organized and operated completely by volunteers.
Gail Robarge, chair of the Welcome Table Planning Team, offered up some insight into the program and shared how during the beginning, F.C. Presbyterian Church “had an interim pastor” who “had been involved in meal programs previously. Since we had space and a good kitchen facility, he and his wife encouraged us in launching a regular free meal for anyone in the community.”
Robarge continued, “Over the years, we have gotten to know many of our guests…the fact that they make the effort to come for a meal and a small gift card shows how great the need is.”
“The initial dinners we offered…started out very small but grew steadily. We had perhaps 12 – 15 guests at our first dinner. We served food from 6 – 7 p.m. on the 3rd Wednesday of each month. We focused on providing healthy, interesting recipes, and each meal was a different menu. We worked to get the word out through various local service organizations, and within a short time, we were regularly serving 50 – 60 people.”
Robarge shares how the church surveyed their Welcome Table guests “about what other things might be useful to them, and based on the responses” began offering toiletry items to those in need. Over time, the church was able to “add a $10 Giant gift card” to their monthly services.
“As word spread about the gift card, our regular attendance quickly grew to about 300 a meal. At some point, we added a second dinner per month.”
This was back in 2013, when the program expanded its services and ever since, F.C. Presbyterian Church has been serving dinners on the first and third Wednesday of every month, from 4 – 6 p.m.
When asked about how the holidays affect the Welcome Table program, Robarge shared that “the number of guests doesn’t change all that much over the holidays.” She added how the church has been “fortunate in the dedicated, ongoing volunteer support from FCPC members.”
The church has been welcoming of “volunteers from throughout Falls Church to participate — signing up is easy through the FCPC website. Volunteers are always needed and welcome, no experience necessary.”
As December approaches, Robarge says that their biggest concern during the colder months is “the weather.”
“We do our best to have the food ready and packaged so that our guests won’t have to wait in the cold for long. We try hard to stick to our regular schedule, and we hardly ever cancel due to bad weather.”
As a result of the Covid pandemic, F.C. Presbyterian has been serving to-go meals to visitors (in an effort to maintain social distancing and curb infection rates). The meals are handed out outside the church building; the church suggests guests wear a face mask and practice social distancing of at least 6 feet.
Regarding their work during the pandemic, Robarge shares that early on, when “little was known about how the virus was spreading, we gave out small bags with snacks, toiletries, and the $10 gift card, and all distributions were done outside. After some months, we decided we could cook again — as long as we limited the indoor staff to 10 or less (due to restrictions on gatherings of groups) and we served the to-go meals outside.”
“We made many adaptations over time, as we learned more about what works for to-go meals. Our recipes tend to be simpler, so that prep and cooking time is reduced and packaging is not too complicated. We start packing up food by 3:30 p.m. This is because we changed our hours to start serving earlier, hoping that would avoid people gathering and then waiting in line for food. It helped, but there is always a line at the door when we start serving at 4 p.m.”
“For over a year,” Robarge continues, “we provided the meal and $10 gift card twice a month, as we recognized that many of our guests were in dire circumstances. This resulted in the number of guests at each meal climbing to 600 – 700.” She also highlights how “the generosity of FCPC members and others in the Falls Church community enabled us to sustain the extra gift cards through June of 2021.”
At the first Wednesday dinner, volunteers offer each adult guest a full-size toiletry item; at the third Wednesday dinner, each adult guest is offered a $10 grocery store gift card.
Those wishing to volunteer their time and help out those in their community who struggle with food insecurity and lack of access to nutritional food can sign up online at https://signup.com/client/invitation2/secure/109376/false#/invitation.
In addition to the lead roles of head chef and grocery shopper, potential volunteers can sign up for setup, utensil wrapping, meal prep, meal packaging, food distribution, cleanup, and organic waste transporter. These roles run from 10 a.m. – 7:30 p.m.
For those who are unable to volunteer but still wish to help, the church accepts donations of full-size toiletry items as well as money for Giant Food gift cards. Toiletry items can be dropped off at the church virtually any time; monetary donations can be mailed to the church (Falls Church Presbyterian, 225 East Broad St., Falls Church, VA 22046) or made online at https://www.fallschurchpresby.org/giving/.
December’s Welcome Table meals are as scheduled: first Wednesday’s to-go meals were distributed outside in front of the church on Wednesday, Dec 1 from 4 – 6 p.m. and third Wednesday’s to-go meals will be distributed Dec 15, same time and place.
More information on the Falls Church Presbyterian Church Welcome Table program can be found online at fallschurchpresby.org.
The Falls Church Presbyterian Church Drop & Dash Food Drive supports the Knox Presbyterian Food Pantry through Falls Church Community Service Council, Inc. by collecting food and household items the third Sunday of each month from 10:30 a.m. – 2:30 p.m.
Those wishing to donate items can make their drop-offs at the aforementioned time at the front of F.C. Presbyterian Church. Donations are sorted and delivered to Knox the next day. For more information, visit https://www.signupgenius.com/go/5080448afad283-drop.
The following is a list of food providers in the Falls Church area that are currently accepting fresh produce:
Columbia Baptist Church (3245 Glen Carlyn Road, Falls Church, VA 22041), which can be contacted at [email protected] and accepts food Fridays from 9 a.m. – 2 p.m. and Saturdays from 8 a.m. – 10:30 a.m.
Falls Church Community Service Council, Knox Presbyterian Church (7416 Arlington Blvd., Falls Church, VA 22042), which can be contacted by phone at 703-237-2562 or through email at [email protected] and accepts items Monday – Friday, 9:30 a.m. – 1 p.m.
Wexford Manor Community Resource Center (2802 Hollywood Road, Falls Church, VA 22043). The Community Resource Center accepts donations Monday – Thursday. Contact Abby Gurara at 571-253-3399 to coordinate donation drop-off.