By: Kathleen Yacharn
As Catholic Charities Diocese of Arlington prepares for The St. Lucy Project grand opening, Sherri Longhill, Program Director of Emergency Assistance and St. Lucy Project, and Catherine Hassinger, Director of Community Services at the Catholic Charities Diocese of Arlington, made time to talk with me about local food insecurity in the diocese, how The St. Lucy Project can help to support health and nutrition, and how we in the Diocese can help those in need.
What is The St. Lucy Project?
Catherine Hassinger: The St. Lucy Project is our effort to create a diocesan-wide food distribution program through our own food pantries, food pantries that are operated by parishes throughout the diocese as well as community partners, and the purpose of St. Lucy is not only to distribute food to those in need but to also make sure that those in need have access to healthy foods.
What are the healthier foods that other pantries can’t provide?
CH: Healthier foods that have not traditionally been offered include perishables like fresh fruit and fresh vegetables, milk, eggs, cheese, and meat. These foods have not been offered because they are perishable—which requires more sophisticated logistics. For one, both the food pantry AND the client have to have refrigeration to store these foods. The food pantries and food banks also need refrigerated trucks to transport the food. If a pantry is doing a collection at a certain site, they also need to bring a refrigerated truck to hold onto perishable items (or tell donors to only bring non-perishables).
If the food pantries are not able to distribute perishable foods in time, they spoil and have to be thrown out. No one wants that kind of waste, so traditionally, food pantries have relied on non-perishables. However, the St. Lucy Project will have refrigeration at all of its sites. Thanks to St. John Neumann Church in Reston, we also have a refrigerated truck to pick up donations of perishable foods and then to transport these healthy foods across the diocese.
So is The St. Lucy Project filling a gap by providing healthy foods that other organizations or local programs can’t fill?
Sherri Longhill: Actually, the local governments have just started within the last year to focus on healthy food distribution. Catholic Charities has been a part of the Food Provider Network for Fairfax County. Loudon County is also focusing on the health aspect of food distribution. We’ve joined the Prince William County Hunger Council, and that’s the purpose of this council as well, to focus on providing healthier foods through our food pantries.
Who is The St. Lucy Project for? Is it available for anyone suffering from food insecurity? Are only Catholics aware of The St. Lucy Project?
CH: The St. Lucy Project serves anybody who is in need – we don’t limit our services to individuals based on faith or family status or anything. If you’re hungry, the food is there to serve you. Our partners tend to be Catholic but they are not exclusively Catholic. We are looking to expand our partnership; we want to make sure that St. Lucy is available to any pantry in need, whether that’s here in Arlington, or out in Winchester, or down south in Page County. St Lucy Project is intended to make sure that there’s a network that is spread across the diocese, wherever the need may be.
Is food insecurity a bigger problem than most people realize? In recent years has the issue become a bigger or smaller problem locally?
SL: I don’t think that people realize that it’s as bad as it is. If you just look at percentages, they don’t look that bad. In Fairfax County, there are about 70,000 people that are food insecure. In the City of Fredericksburg has the highest percentage of food insecurity in the diocese. 18% of the population is food insecure there. 236,000 people in the Diocese of Arlington struggle with food insecurity (Feeding America).
How does The St. Lucy Project differ from previous CCDA initiatives?
SL: We started the program as Christ House on Wheels, which is CHOW. We were fortunate that we got a van donated by Sheehy Ford and we had received a Walmart grant of $47,000 for healthy foods. We actually launched our first healthy foods program three years ago and we just let people know coming in to our pantries about making healthy food choices and what foods were nutritious for them. We weren’t at the point three years ago of being able to give them that healthy food but we started at the beginning by just educating people.
Christ House on Wheels was delivering non-perishable foods out in the diocese so just canned and boxed foods, pasta, peanut butters, canned meats, and things like that. It kind of evolved after Christ House went from delivering 40,000 pounds of foods in 2011 to this past fiscal year when Christ House delivered more than 700,000 pounds of food. Again, this was pretty much all non-perishable foods.
CH: That means a lot of sodium, a lot of preservatives, a lot of bagged and canned items. Not fresh foods, not healthy stuff that would adequately nourish a child needing to go to school. At St. Lucy Project, food is important, whether perishable or non-perishable, it helps sustain. But those healthier foods give more nutrients and a better boost. We had a lot of requests from parishes as well to help in certain areas, especially if they ran out of food for their pantries. So from that, kind of the genesis of St. Lucy was realizing that the need for food was far greater than even we thought because the need for food was just constant and pervasive throughout the diocese, even in areas where you wouldn’t the need would be high like Fairfax or Loudon County. Loudon County has 1 in 20 people who need assistance with food. That’s a lot of people for one of the wealthiest counties in the nation to be hungry. With St. Lucy, it’s about giving food but especially getting the fruits, the vegetables, the fresh meats, the cheeses on the table as well.
One of the things that’s been in the news are the choices that people on food assistance have to make all the time in terms of quantity versus quality of food. How can we in the diocese support getting healthier foods in the area?
SL: The healthy food initiatives started at the state level. The Commonwealth of Virginia’s website has a white paper by the USDA that was written about food insecurity, linking it to poverty and as a cause of obesity that’s really a great resource. The state is aware of the issue and it’s been trickling down to the county level. I find that at the local level, assistance programs really are looking to faith-based ecumenical organizations to drive this [awareness of the need healthier foods] and they’re acting as facilitators.
CH: And that’s been my experience as well. Local communities and faith-based communities who are looking at especially the issue of obesity and thinking that they need to do something to tackle this and they’re the ones who first came forward and said, let’s have a seminar, let’s look at how this food pantry that’s operating out of this church can start to make a difference. That led to things like buying refrigerators so we can give people milk in addition to canned vegetables. And from there it has kind of blown up into a larger effort, which is a good thing. I agree, I think the initiative to provide healthier foods started locally more than anywhere else.
SL: A lot of the initiative for healthier foods came from them. The food banks have training, we’re members of the Blue Ridge and Capital Area Food Bank, and as members of the Feeding America umbrella, we get all of the training they offer free. I just sent staff to one of the courses they offer on healthy eating and nutrition. So as a food bank providing food to us, as a member, I’ve noticed they’re providing healthier foods: lower sodium, no sugar, whole wheat, whole grain, fresh produce, etc.
If members of the diocese or locals would like to support the St. Lucy Project, where can they go to donate or support on a regular schedule?
CH: On the website, individuals who want to donate on a regular basis can sign up to donate on a monthly pledge or an annual pledge, and the money can be debited on a regular basis from their account. That’s a great way to support the program each month without having to think about it. People can also just do a one-time donation. We also have different sites where people can bring the food directly to the pantry to donate. Or they can volunteer their time – we always need volunteers to help unload, sort the items, pack boxes for the families, and even deliver the food to the families. And sometimes that’s a great opportunity for us as Catholics or us as people of faith to truly encounter the face of Christ because we are walking up to the door of a neighbor in need and meeting them face to face, versus just a third-party or fourth-party transaction.
SL: There’s a great need for volunteers at the warehouse. I just wanted to mention one other thing too. As a part of The St. Lucy Project distribution center umbrella, we’re strengthening our other Catholic Charities’ food pantries as well. So at our relocated warehouse Loaves and Fishes in Front Royal, we had a freezer that was donated by a parishioner of St. John the Baptist in Front Royal. So we’re able to offer all of the fresh foods through that pantry by the generosity of the community donating the freezers. The same thing happened at Christ House in Alexandria. We weren’t able to provide the healthier foods because we didn’t have the freezer or the refrigerator and BB&T donated a commercial freezer to help us do that there.
CH: We also relocated our Leesburg pantry in the Catholic Charities Western Regional Office, which also provides emergency financial assistance, to a larger space because we were outgrowing the space that we were in and we now have refrigerated units in that pantry as well so we can continue to serve milk, eggs, cheese, meats, and produce.
SL: That was a local organization in Leesburg, 100 Women Strong. They gave us a $12,000 grant for refrigeration and fresh food in Leesburg.
CH: So that points to the growing awareness that we need to do more for the poor than just giving them food, we need to give them healthy food.
These stories show how the work isn’t limited to Catholic groups and doesn’t just serve Catholics but it’s an ecumenical project and it helps all those in need. It seems to be a community effort.
SL: Exactly. The Church of Latter Day Saints has been very instrumental in our efforts. They have partnered with us for the last two Governor’s Day of Food Collection, around September. They also gave us two grants for food.
CH: Lastly, The St. Lucy food pantry in Manassas is a distribution center so we’re not currently providing direct services out of it yet. So the food will come in, be sorted, and sent back out not just to the Catholic Charities’ food pantries but to all of the local pantries and partners that need additional foods. St. Lucy will have a commercial refrigeration and freezer unit so it can take in a lot of fresh foods. There is also a refrigerated truck so we can carry perishable items from the warehouse out at any point in the diocese so we don’t have to worry about the quality or safety of the food. That truck came from a very generous grant from St. John Neumann Church in Reston.