Food For Neighbors is kicking off the school year with a new partnership with Arlington Public Schools. This comes after a banner 2021-2022 five-year anniversary, during which the local nonprofit added programming and participating schools. By the close of last school year, the grassroots organization was helping approximately 3,400 students in 29 middle and high schools in Fairfax County and Loudoun County. To support the significant expansion into Arlington, the nonprofit is asking community members to sign up now at https://www.foodforneighbors.org/red-bag-program/ to donate food.
“We’re thrilled to be working with the Arlington County Department of Human Services to bring our programming to Arlington Public Schools,” shared Karen Joseph, Founder and Executive Director of Food For Neighbors. “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.”
Frank Bellavia, Director of Communications for Arlington Public Schools, shared Joseph’s enthusiasm. “We’re really excited to have this great new partnership with Food For Neighbors,” said Bellavia. “This amazing nonprofit will support students at Wakefield High School, Arlington Community High School, and the Arlington Career Center, and we’re hopeful that we can expand its programming to additional schools in the future. Arlington Public Schools thanks Food For Neighbors and the Arlington County Department of Human Services for their support.”
Founded to provide supplemental food to secondary students who have few, if any, reliable food sources other than school meals, Food For Neighbors will be bringing its full complement of services to Arlington Public Schools. The heart of Food For Neighbors is the Red Bag Program, which holds five food and toiletry collection events throughout the school year. This program mobilizes individuals to shop for shelf-stable items and set them on their doorsteps for collection. Volunteers, organized by neighborhoods, collect the donations and bring them to central locations, where they are sorted and delivered to participating schools. At the schools, social workers, counselors, and/or family liaisons identify students in need and distribute food and/or limited toiletries to them, mostly on a weekly basis. Food For Neighbors also provides shelving and cabinets for school pantries as well as holiday meals and grocery gift cards for the most vulnerable students. Last school year, the nonprofit gave schools over 88,000 pounds of food and toiletries and, to complement the shelf-stable food, over $105,000 in grocery gift cards for most-needed items like fresh fruits, vegetables, and meats.
A key player in bringing these services into Arlington is Stephanie Hopkins, Food Security Coordinator with the Arlington County Department of Human Services. She explained that the Food For Neighbors programming fits perfectly into the strategic plan that Arlington’s Food Security Task Force is developing and releasing this fall. “Partnering with Food For Neighbors directly addresses a key strategy—to ‘Enhance school-based supplemental food offerings, including food pantries, in-school snacks, and weekend food support’,” noted Hopkins.
Hopkins shared that she and the Arlington County Department of Human Services look forward to having an impact at the participating schools and to expanding to more schools over the course of the next year or two. She added, “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. 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.”
Joseph agreed and added, “We could not consistently help students without community support. Our whole approach centers on mobilizing community members to assist students at their local schools, and we thank our over 1,700 registered food donors and approximately 1,200 volunteers who have signed up to help throughout Northern Virginia. Their energy and enthusiasm is contagious! For this rollout to be successful, we will need hundreds of new food donors and volunteers from neighborhoods nearby Arlington Public Schools.”
By distributing resources through schools, Food For Neighbors provides easy access to a reliable, nutritious food source. Removing the obstacle of hunger adds immensely to the quality of life of students, who then have the opportunity to focus on their education and relationships. With less pressure to work long hours to provide for themselves and/or their families, students can remain in school. While there, they are also better able to stay focused, as hunger is not interfering with higher thinking. Food For Neighbors empowers children to live healthy lives, where they may thrive and succeed in school. Longer term, being better students helps them become successful members of the community, which lifts up everyone.
Joseph and Hopkins encourage Arlington community members to sign up to donate food five times a year via the Red Bag Program at https://www.foodforneighbors.org/red-bag-program/ and to get involved in other ways at https://www.foodforneighbors.org/get-involved/. There are opportunities for students, adults, and families to collect and sort food as well as for area faith communities, businesses, and other organizations to partner with the nonprofit and be recognized for their community spirit.