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For Jeff Grass, CEO and Chairman of Ballston-based startup HUNGRY, a food distribution event in Arlington yesterday (Wednesday) had a bittersweet flavor to it.

While the company was able to prepare 6,000 hot meals for people in need at a drive-thru food distribution event at Central United Methodist Church (4201 Fairfax Drive) near its headquarters, it’s also a painful reminder that nearly one year after a global pandemic began, many Americans face a food accessibility crisis.

“On the one hand, it makes you feel good to be able to do something and it was nice to see how appreciative people are,” Grass said, “but seeing so many people coming by and needing a free meal highlights just how big and prevalent the challenge is. We’re Arlington, one of the richest counties in the country, and yet so many people are in need of food assistance.”

The company was able to distribute most of the 6,000 prepared meals in an event that ran from 1:30-3 p.m., and the remaining couple hundred that were left over were given to a local shelter.

Grass said he didn’t have an estimate on how many people attended the food drive, saying “it was car after car,” but that the company mostly limited the meals to ten per vehicle. HUNGRY had no protocols set up to screen for income levels, saying that anyone who showed up the the event was considered in sufficient need of a meal.

The handful of nicer vehicles, Grass said, were also a reminder of how much the pandemic had turned some lives upside down.

“I didn’t feel like it was up to us to challenge people,” Grass said. “Some people did drive up in nice vehicles, but everybody’s got their own challenges and stories, and everybody seemed to really appreciate it.”

The food distribution events had the added benefit of supporting the local chefs using the platform, particularly catering chefs who were some of the earliest victims of local business impacts.

“We’re in late January, past the holidays, it felt like the right time to do it,” Grass said.

It was the second major food donation initiative in January for the company. The first was a food delivery operation last week to National Guard troops posted in D.C. for presidential inauguration security following the riot at the Capitol earlier this month.

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As coronavirus cases rise in Arlington County, the number of residents in need of fresh, free food for their families is also increasing.

Executive Director and CEO Charles Meng said the Arlington Food Assistance Center is seeing record-high numbers of visitors each week and month.   

“Between October and November, we saw a 9.4% increase, serving 3,440 families at some point during the month,” Meng said in an email. “(We) responded to 11,255 visits for food during the month, with many families having to visit multiple weeks during the month.”

This morning (Monday), families lined up at AFAC to receive a Christmas special — a whole frozen chicken — as well as fresh veggies, desserts, milk and eggs. Volunteers split time de-stalking Brussels sprouts and briskly moving families through the line. 

AFAC has seen people coming more frequently for food during the pandemic, likely because personal budgets that could pay for part of a family’s food needs are now slimmer or non-existent, according to Meng. He added that there has also been an uptick in people coming to AFAC for the first time.

“Many of our families are service workers at hotels, restaurants and airports — the hardest hit during the pandemic,” Meng said. “We are seeing the families who would normally access our services come more often and the new families are more regularly coming for needed food.”

The number of clients served by AFAC last peaked in August, with the organization serving 3,364 over the course of the month. When the pandemic started, the number of families being referred to AFAC jumped by 45%, Meng told MSNBC earlier this month. 

The demand for food at AFAC has attracted both national and international media attention, with a BBC reporter visiting the organization’s distribution center near Shirlington last week.

The rise in demand locally tracks with trends seen nationwide.

An Associated Press analysis of Feeding America data from 181 food banks in its network found the organization has distributed nearly 57 percent more food in the third quarter of the year, compared with the same period in 2019. 

Food and financial donations are enough to keep up with demand, but as numbers continue to increase, Meng told ARLnow more help will be needed. 

“We have sufficient supplies to address our needs for the foreseeable future,” he said. “Financial donations have also been good, but with increasing numbers we need all (the money) that people can spare.”

The annual Boy Scout food drive, which usually brings in 50,000 pounds, was cancelled, but several scout groups still came through with smaller-scale drives, bringing in 36,000 pounds, he said. 

Donations from grocery stores are about level with last year, and individual donations have been “very strong,” he said. 

Nationwide, food banks are seeing fewer volunteers during the pandemic, NPR reports. In some cases, the usual group of volunteers includes older people, who are staying home due to protect themselves from the coronavirus.

AFAC also runs on the work of volunteers, who Meng commended for making sure the food bank handles the increase in visits despite the danger posed by the pandemic.

“Distributing food is one of the things we do well,” he told ARLnow. “We have a dedicated cadre of volunteers who have stepped up to help — they are the real heroes of AFAC.” 

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Kids who want to talk to Santa Claus can drop off letters at the Gulf Branch Nature Center through Dec. 14.

For the first time, the park is collecting letters to send to St. Nick, rather than facilitating a weekend of in-person visits with the jolly one himself. In non-pandemic years, Santa visits typically drew up to 300 kids and families, park manager Rachael Tolman said.

So far this year, about a dozen kids come each day to drop off letters, she said.

Collections will end on Dec. 14, a Monday, to allow the snail mail ample time to reach the North Pole before Santa gets too busy, she said. Kids are encouraged to include their return address so he can respond with a postcard, and to bring canned goods that will go to the Arlington Food Assistance Center.

“Due to the pandemic, Santa won’t be visiting, so he very kindly let us set up a mailbox,” she said. “We tried to come up with other ways to have Santa in person, but we figured that this would be the best option because everything is so up in the air from week to week.”

A mailbox is not the same as an in-person visit, but it feels vintage — “a little old school,” Tolman said.

The park manager said she “absolutely” remembers writing to Santa as a kid.

“I can’t remember what I asked for, but I remember asking about Mrs. Claus and the reindeer, and I would leave carrots out for reindeer — along with the milk and cookies — because they were doing all the work,” she said.

Tolman said she has received many emails thanking her for the mailbox from people who had always brought their kids to see Santa, and this year, were not sure what to tell them.

“They were so relieved that we put the mailbox out, so that their kids could keep the tradition of coming,” she said.

Visitors can also check out the cabin, decorated for the holidays.

“We’re glad to keep the magic of the season as best we can,” she said.

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Morning Notes

County Launching Race Conversations — “Today, Arlington County launched a new effort to address racial equity and disparities in our community. Called Dialogues on Race and Equity (DRE), the effort is part of the County’s broader commitment to racial equity… DRE will include a series of virtual community conversations with individuals, nonprofit organizations, civic associations, faith organizations, and businesses.” [Arlington County]

Local Nurses Hold Food Drive — “Nurses at the Virginia [Hospital] Center are going above and beyond to give back to the local community… Nurses launched the ‘Together We Can’ campaign where they collected canned goods. All together, they collected 10,000 cans and donated them directly to the food assistance center.” [WJLA]

Virtual 5K for Local Nonprofits — “A coalition of three homeless-outreach organizations – Community Lodgings, Bridges to Independence and Homestretch – will be hosting their third annual 5K “Home Run for the Homeless” in a different format this year. Rather than running as a group on the Washington & Old Dominion Regional Trail this year, participants will be able to run where they choose anytime from Oct. 10 (which is designated World Homeless Day) to Oct. 31.” [InsideNova]

Penthouse Sold in New Rosslyn Tower — “The sales team for Pierce announced strong early sales for The Highlands‘ luxury condominium tower… Strong early interest in Pierce has resulted in over $18.7 million in sales by The Mayhood Company since launching sales in August, including the sale of one of two top-of-the-market penthouse residences.” [Press Release]

Theater Holding Virtual Halloween Event — “Synetic Theater will hold its annual ‘Vampire Ball’ in a ‘virtual’ setting this year, with participants enjoying the festivities ‘from the comfort of your own crypt.’ The event will be held on Friday, Oct. 30 from 8 to 10 p.m.” [InsideNova]

Nearby: Trump Rallies at Eden Center — Vietnamese Americans held rallies for President Trump at the Eden Center in Falls Church over the weekend. [Twitter, YouTube, YouTube]

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Morning Notes

Crystal City Water Park to Get Big Upgrade — “JBG Smith Properties is pitching a major makeover for a small park at the heart of its Crystal City holdings, envisioning some new retail and even a bar atop a water feature. The developer filed plans with Arlington County earlier this month requesting an additional 6,100 square feet of density for the 1.6-acre park, located across the street from JBG Smith’s massive ‘Central District’ project at 1770 Crystal Drive.” [Washington Business Journal, Twitter]

Vote By Mail Facts — “The first round of vote-by-mail ballots have been sent to people who requested them, but it’s not too late to request yours. Ballot applications must be received by 5 p.m. on Oct. 23. To help you understand how voting by mail works — and feel confident in submitting your ballot — we’ve broken down the facts you need to know.” [Arlington County]

Deer Rescued from Country Club Fence — “On Tuesday night, a curious fawn tried to get through a metal fence in the Washington Golf and Country Club. Unfortunately her adventurous plan backfired, and the fawn ended up stuck and stranded. The country club called animal control, which is under the Animal Welfare League of Arlington, and that’s when Officer Shannon Rose sprung to action.” [Washingtonian]

Weekday Afternoon Robbery in Ballston — “At approximately 4:21 p.m. on September 23, police were dispatched to the report of a robbery just occurred. Upon arrival, it was determined that the suspect entered a business, approached the front counter, and passed the employee a note demanding money and threatening them if they didn’t comply. The victim complied, and the suspect stole an undisclosed amount of cash, then fled on foot prior to police arrival.” [Arlington County]

National Landing Food Program Extended — “Thanks to generous support from the Consumer Technology Association (CTA), Amazon, JBG SMITH, Equity Residential and individual Arlington residents, the National Landing Business Improvement District (BID) announced today that its Farm-to-Families food assistance program will be extended through the fall.” [Press Release]

Addiction Recovery Org Rebrands — “The name will change but the mission will remain the same – working to help those struggling with addiction turn their lives around. Phoenix House Mid-Atlantic announced Sept. 16 that it would change its name to National Capital Treatment and Recovery, following its split last year from the national Phoenix House organization.” [InsideNova]

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Morning Notes

B-52 Flyover Attracts Attention — A B-52 Stratofortress flew low and loud over Arlington Thursday morning, likely as part of an Arlington National Cemetery funeral, turning plenty of heads. [Twitter, Twitter]

Va. Coronavirus App Gets Positive Reviews — “I often use this column to warn about the dangers of apps that track you. This time, I’m going to recommend you actually install one. There’s a new kind of app that uses your smartphone’s Bluetooth wireless signals to figure out when you’ve been in contact with someone who has tested positive for the novel coronavirus… It’s called Covidwise, and works in the state of Virginia.” [Washington Post]

Pedestrian Committee Chair Slams County — “‘The response that we got back from the County Manager’s Office and senior County leadership was that pedestrians are not a priority,’ said Eric Goldstein, Chair of Arlington County’s Pedestrian Advisory Committee (PAC), during the group’s first virtual meeting last week.” [Street Justice]

New W&OD Trail Detour Monday — “Upcoming construction activity for the new W&OD Trail Bridge over Lee Highway (Route 29) in Arlington will require a trail detour for about two weeks beginning Monday, August 24.” [Press Release]

ACPD Food Drive Deemed Success — The Arlington County Police Department’s “Fill the Cruiser” food drive collected just over 6,500 pounds of food last week. [Arlington Connection]

D.C. Area Leads in Tech Leasing — “Among the 10 markets reporting the most tech leasing volume in Q2, the year-over-year change in tech leasing activity ranged from +71% (Atlanta) to -74% (San Francisco Bay Area). Washington, D.C., and San Diego were the only other markets with volume increases, while Manhattan also had a large decrease. The five markets with the most leasing volume in Q2 were Washington, D.C., San Francisco Bay Area, Atlanta, Manhattan and Dallas/Ft. Worth.” [CBRE via Potomac Tech Wire]

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After a successful food and toiletry drive last month, Clarendon Presbyterian Church plans to hold monthly food drives to help the Arlington community.

Last month, the church collected 105 boxes and bags of donations at its food and toiletry drive, exceeding expectations. In total, they raised more than $5,200 worth of products.

“Based on the demand, and the incredible community response, we’ve deciding to plan drive-thru collections each month,” said John Gunn. “So far, we’ve scheduled collections through October. “

The church will hold the next drive-through collection on Aug. 15 from 9 a.m. until 11 a.m. at 1305 N. Jackson Street.

The donations went to organizations that help the homeless in Arlington, according to the church. Food donations were directed to Bridges to Independence in Clarendon, which supports families with children. Toiletry donations were directed to the Residential Program Center at Columbia Pike, which supports single adults.

To ensure COVID-19 safety, masks are required and no social interaction is permitted at the donation site.

Those interested in donating can send questions to [email protected] or call 703-527-9613.

Photos courtesy of John Gunn

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Morning Notes

Civ Fed to Study County’s Form of Gov’t — “Herbert Hoover was residing – albeit somewhat tenuously – in the White House the last time Arlington had a major change in its governance structure. Nearly 90 years later, the Arlington County Civic Federation may get the ball rolling on bringing that structure into the 21st century.” [InsideNova]

Biden Signs Defaced, Stolen — “A big sign promoting Joe Biden’s Presidential campaign in Arlington’s Aurora Highlands neighborhood was defaced with pro-President Trump graffiti sometime between Sunday evening and Monday morning,” reports Washingtonian. Separately, a recent Nextdoor post shows video of an older man stealing a Biden sign in the Waycroft-Woodlawn neighborhood. [Washingtonian]

Alleged Courthouse Flasher Arrested — “The victim was walking in the area when she felt the suspect allegedly grab her arm from behind her. As she turned around, she observed the male naked. The suspect then fled on foot. Arriving officers, with the assistance of Metro Transit Police, located the suspect in the area and took him into custody without incident.” [Arlington County]

ACPD Conducting Food Drive — Arlington County police “will be collecting donations at drive-thru donation stations on Tuesday, August 11, 2020 from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m.  at three locations: Westover Baptist Church – 1125 Patrick Henry Drive, Police Headquarters – 1425 N. Courthouse Road, Giant Food – 2901 S. Glebe Road.” [Arlington County]

Crystal City Concert Series Goes Virtual — “With the health and safety of our residents and visitors in mind, Fridays at the Fountain is switching to an all virtual format. Tune in every Friday evening at 7pm, beginning August 7th, for an hour of live music streamed right to your home.” [National Landing BID]

High School Sports UpdateUpdated at 8:15 a.m. — “The Virginia High School League’s Executive Committee voted 34-1 Monday to delay the start of the 2020-21 high school sports season by implementing a compressed high school sports scheduling plan that would run as of now from Dec. 28-June 26. The schedule would begin with the winter sports season, starting in late December, followed by the traditional fall sports season and ending with the spring sports season.” [InsideNova]

Nearby: Break-ins at Eden Center “Multiple business were broken into at the Eden Center. Heavy police presence until further notice. Please avoid the area. No danger to public at this time. Any information to assist the investigation, please contact 703-241-5053. Thank you for your patience and understanding” [Twitter]

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Clarendon Presbyterian Church is holding its second drive-through food drive and toiletry collection Saturday to support Arlington homeless shelters.

The drive-through will run from 9 a.m. to noon at the church (1305 N. Jackson Street).

The church is asking for specific, top priority food items. These include rice, boxed cereal, applesauce, juice and packaged healthy kids’ snacks. They request that the kids’ snacks are unopened and not prepared.

The food drive supports residents of Bridges to Independence in Clarendon, according to a statement from the church.

The toiletry collection encourages donations such as toothpaste (regular and travel-sized), toothbrushes, men and women’s razors, deodorant (regular and travel-sized), new men’s underwear sizes XL through 3XL, new women’s underwear, new socks, combs/brushes and bar soaps.

The toiletry drive will support 35 individuals living at Residential Program Center on Columbia Pike, according to the statement.

The church is implementing COVID-19 safety protocols by requiring masks and discouraging physical interaction. They are offering a curbside drop-off location outside the church for donations.

Photo via Clarendon Presbyterian Church/Facebook

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(Updated at 8:35 a.m.) The line wrapped around the church, dozens of people deep. One woman waited 45 minutes and still hadn’t reached the front of the building while a volunteer lapped the church, passing out water to those waiting in the sticky heat.

On Wednesday morning in the Green Valley neighborhood, Our Lady Queen of Peace Catholic Church (2700 19th Street S.) again teamed up with D.C.-based celebrity chef Jose Andres’ World Central Kitchen to serve meals to those in need. Since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, the church has seen the number of families it helps grow.

In the past, families would gather inside Father Ray Hall for treats and coffee. There were around 200 families that would participate, and the gatherings created a close community feel. Since then the number of families has increased to an average of 630, and the indoor gatherings have moved outside in order to comply with social distancing guidelines.

On Wednesday, World Central Kitchen served more than 3,580 meals to those in need at the church.

This is the second time the nonprofit and the church has worked together. The first time was on May 22 when 3,200 meals were served.

“I heard that it was very good. They really enjoyed having something… it’s like having a restaurant come to them,” said Sally Diaz-Wells, the church’s social justice and outreach minister.

The church normally holds weekly food drives on Wednesdays, gathering groceries and commonly needed food items such as bread, meat, and cheese, as well as shelf-stable items like pasta, beans and mac and cheese for the kids.

“We try to have low-sugar foods and high-protein foods in each of our bags,” said Diaz-Wells.

To provide a safe experience on Wednesday, the church placed 6-foot markers on the sidewalk in front of the building to guide people with social distancing. Organizers also ensured contactless pickup by placing the bags on chairs 6 feet away from both the entrance to the building and the rest of the line, and calling recipients forward when it was their turn. They also offered masks and required 100 percent mask-wearing.

Those interested in donating food to the church find a list of items on its website. Financial donations are also accepted.

Diaz-Wells emphasized the importance of the staff’s health to keep the food drives running each week.

“We’ve been blessed. We’ve been healthy and safe since the beginning,” she said.

Photo by Jay Westcott

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This weekend, Calvary United Methodist Church in Aurora Highlands is holding a “Stuff the Truck” donation event to collect food for the Chirilagua neighborhood in Alexandria.

The community — also known as Arlandria — has faced disproportionately high numbers of COVID-19 positive patients, as have Latino and Hispanic communities in Arlington and throughout the region.

Local nonprofits have worked to get food and other emergency supplies to hard-hit Chirilagua.

“Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, many in the Chirilagua neighborhood are experiencing hardship from job loss, sickness, and food insecurity,” Calvary UMC said in a media advisory. “Recent data revealed that over 40% of Chirilagua residents are unemployed and, in mid-May, over 55% of COVID tests taken by community members living in Chirilagua were positive.”

This Saturday, June 6, Calvalry UMC is hosting a donation event at the church (2315 S. Grant Street) from 11 a.m.-1 p.m. to fill a 20-foot truck with items most needed by Chirilagua residents and families.

“To participate, donors can come to Calvary UMC and bring donated food and supplies to place in the truck,” the church said. “Items needed most are shelf-stable foods such as rice, beans, canned food and cornflour.”

The event is the latest in a series of fundraisers and food drives for the church to support the Chirilagua community. So far, the church says it has raised $24,000 of its $25,000 goal. The church plans to make an additional $15,000 pledge to bring the total to at least $40,000, the church said.

“Donors wishing to make a financial contribution to MISSION:COVID can donate at the event or through the Calmeth.org website,” the church said, “or text GIVE to 703-936-2684 and select MISSION:COVID from the menu.”

Staff photo by James Cullum

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