Carla Claure didn’t come to Thursday afternoon just to take a hand-out. Claure, whose daughter attends kindergarten at the school, came to help and lead others and, most importantly, invest in her community by making sure no family goes hungry.
“My daughter’s here,” said Claure, a parent volunteer with the Capital Area Food Bank. “I want to make everything better for my daughter, for this school, and everything.”
On Thursday, Claure’s family was one of more than 250 households receiving food during the food bank’s third monthly visit to Hybla Valley Elementary. The first month the food bank set up shop at the school, 150 households received assistance. Last month it was about 200.
The school has the highest percentage of children receiving free- or reduced lunch of all Fairfax County elementary schools, approximately 86 percent of its 900 students.
Fresh Produce and Girl Scouts Cookies
This week, the Capital Area Food Bank distributed more than 13,000 pounds of food at Hybla Valley Elementary. Food bank staff members unloaded the 11 pallets of food Thursday afternoon, while parent volunteers prepared it for distribution.
Cecelia Vergaretti, senior director of the food bank’s Northern Virginia branch, directed staff as they unloaded sweet potatoes, apples, onions and bread.
“We try to do mostly fresh produce,” Vergaretti said. “What you’ll see now is what we call ‘the hard seven.’ The hard seven is basically your winter produce, things like cabbage, potatoes, carrots. When we get toward the summer you’ll see greens and berries.”
The food bank also brought pallets of donated sweets and Girl Scouts cookies. “We want to try to provide healthy (food), but kids always want the snacks and all that, and we have it, so we bring it,” Vergaretti said.
The food bank is funded through federal dollars, foundations, corporations and donations. Much of that money goes to purchase fresh produce, which is difficult to collect during food drives.
While families -- mostly women and children -- waited in line, an outreach coordinator talked to them about applying for the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), also known as food stamps, and passed out materials in English and Spanish.
“We do a lot of things people don’t know about,” Vergaretti said. “I call us the best-kept secret.”
Griselda Navarro, who has three children at the school, snagged a top spot near the front of the line, although no one goes without.
“I like the food,” she said through an interpreter. “It helps us a lot.”
A Community Effort
Lauren Sheehy, principal at Hybla Valley Elementary, said the school’s program began when someone who had a friend who worked at the food bank suggested the idea.
“Upon reflection, we thought, ‘Wow, there wouldn’t be a better place to have a food bank than here at our school,’ ” Sheehy said.
The program is popular with the community, she said.
“It’s actually brought some collaboration among parents, because it’s not just a matter of dropping food off,” Sheehy said. “It’s a matter of working together and divvying the food up, organizing it, getting everybody in a line, sharing bags so people can carry things home. People are helping each other get to their cars with their food. And it takes a real team effort to do that.”
Hybla Valley Assistant Principal Stephanie Almquist said the program provides parents with responsibility in helping feed the community.
“They get to participate in the free program as well, but they have a sense of ownership in giving back to the community,” she said. “So it’s really been building up their confidence, as well.”
A Community in Need
According to a December 2011 Fairfax County report, more than 44,000 county residents receive SNAP benefits, and more than a quarter of public school students receive free- or reduced-cost lunches. The Route 1 corridor has a much higher percentage of children receiving assistance than most parts of the county, aside from pockets near Falls Church and west of Alexandria city limits.
Food in the Washington metropolitan area is more expensive than nationally, the report found, and many Fairfax County residents are barred from receiving food stamps due to their immigration status. Even most legal immigrants must live in the United States for at least five years before they are eligible for the program.
According to the 2010 Fairfax County Youth Survey, one out of every five students reported going hungry in the past 30 days because there was not enough food at home. These students were more likely to live in single-parents families, speak a language other than English at home and be racial or ethnic minorities.
Need is growing, Vergaretti said. Since Jan. 1, the Capital Area Food Bank has distributed nearly 1.5 million pounds of food throughout the region, up more than a half million for the same period last year. Working with partner agencies, the food bank distributes nearly 30 million pounds of food to more than 478,000 people every year.
Sheehy, the Hybla Valley principal, said the program has been a success.
“It’s a lot of work for us, and it’s a lot of work for our community, but the payoff is a win-win for everybody,” she said.