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Nonprofit partners with county schools to provide food assistance to students in need

A non-profit is teaming up with the county and schools to provide food assistance to students when classes start up again next week.

Food for Neighbors (FFN), the Department of Human Services (DHS), and Arlington Public Schools (APS) have announced a partnership where food, toiletries, and grocery gift cards will be collected and distributed to students in need on a weekly basis.

The Herndon-based Food for Neighbors has been partnering with Fairfax County and Loudoun County schools for the last five years, but the 2022-2023 school year will be the first working with APS.

FFN will work with students at three high schools initially — Wakefield High School, Arlington Community High School, and the Arlington Career Center — when classes start for the year this coming Monday (Aug. 29).

Renee Maxwell, Community Liaison for FFN, told ARLnow that a “rough estimate is that we’ll be providing consistent, regular support to 200-300 students” to start out. FFN works with the schools and staff to identify the students who are most in need.

The hope, though, is to expand to help more students at more schools soon.

“We’re thrilled to be working with the Arlington County Department of Human Services to bring our programming to Arlington Public Schools,” FFN founder and executive director Karen Joseph said in a press release. “Arlington is a highly diverse, vibrant area, and the expansion provides the opportunity for us to learn about and respond to the needs in the community, so that we may help even more students facing food insecurity.”

The main way FFN collects and distributes items is through its “Red Bag Program.”

That’s where volunteers shop for shelf-stable items, leave them in an FFN-supplied red bag on their doorstep, and other volunteers come pick it up, sort the food, and distribute it to local schools that same day.

The day-long collection event happens five times a school year. The first one to include Arlington is set to happen on October 29. Those who would like to volunteer to donate items are being asked to sign up “well ahead of time.”

Over 1,700 food donors and about 1,200 volunteers have signed up to help across Northern Virginia so far, per a press release.

FFN also provides shelving and cabinets to schools to store the extra food, as well as grocery gift cards and holiday meals.

During the 2021-2022 school year, FFN provided more than 88,000 pounds of food and toiletries to Fairfax and Loudoun County schools. Additionally, more than $105,000 in grocery gift cards were also donated so that students could have access to fresh fruits, vegetables, meats, and other perishables.

Food insecurity continues to be a major challenge in Arlington and across the region. Nearly 8% of Arlingtonians experienced food security recently, according to a report that was released earlier this year.

The rates were particularly high in certain neighborhoods including Glencarlyn, Buckingham, Ashton Heights, Pentagon City, Crystal City, Forest Glen, and Arlington Mill. All three of these high schools that will be served by FFN this coming year have students from these neighborhoods.

What’s more, the federal government ended the free meal program for all students earlier this summer. While students at several county elementary schools will still be able to receive free meals under the Community Eligibility Provision, the sunsetting of free meals nationally could leave some students wondering where their next meal might come from.

The hope is that Food for Neighbors could help fill some of those gaps.

“Through my previous work in Fairfax County, I have seen how influential a partnership with Food For Neighbors can be to address food security for middle and high school students,” DHS Food Security Coordinator Stephanie Hopkins said in a press release. “I know that Arlington community members have a very giving spirit, and I’m confident that they will come through to support the Red Bag Program by donating food and hands-on support.”

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