United Community's expanded walk-through food pantry opens July 3


United Community President and CEO Alison DeCourcey thanks volunteers and donors June 30 for their work on an enlarged food pantry.

United Community’s (UC) Choice Food Pantry will reopen Monday, July 3 after a major renovation and expansion that allows clients to walk through and select their own food, including fresh meat and fresh fruits and vegetables. During the Covid-19 pandemic, food was distributed in plastic shopping bags with enough to last a person three days.

At an afternoon reception June 30 — which coincided with UC President and CEO Alison DeCourcey's last day leading the nonprofit— DeCourcey profusely thanked donors and volunteers who had prepared the new space. She thanked Joe Conti and the rest of the Emeritus Board for launching a campaign to raise $20,000 for the expansion, as well as the donors and volunteers who installed shelves, painted and removed debris: MGM National Harbor, Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Lamda Kappa Omega Chapter, Balfour Beatty, Burke & Herbert Bank, CareFirst, Centri, Hilton Old Town, LaFayette Federal Credit Union, Microsoft, Volunteer Fairfax and the missionaries from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.

DeCourcey pauses at the dry goods section as she tours the new pantry with a small group.

The expanded pantry was made possible by moving UC's main offices to the Gerry Hyland Government Center to make room for walk-through shopping and a food sorting area, as well as a community meeting room, at UC's previous headquarters in an old post office building at 7511 Fordson Road.

When the pandemic hit, UC struggled with an immediate 300% increase in food demand, DeCourcey recalled. Post-pandemic demand has continued to climb due to inflation and cutbacks in federal food and rent relief programs. UC was “serving approximately 600 families a couple months ago, but the number is steadily ticking up, and we expect to be serving 800 in the near term,” she said.

Volunteers Chariey Ababio and Shauna Cooper sort food at the UC pantry.

In addition to its main food pantry, UC services six distribution sites in the Sacramento, Sequoia, Audubon, Ray's, Engleside and Harmony Place communities. These locations are run by a team of about five volunteers from each community, with a leader known as a neighborhood navigator. UC drops off the food at an agreed upon location, and volunteers take care of distribution and record keeping. UC also delivers food to about 20 clients who are physically unable to make it to a distribution center, according to UC Chief Programs Officer Steve Luteran.

Food recipients who renew their income eligibility once a year can shop once a week for a three-day supply of food, with the amount based on their family size, Luteran said. “But if somebody comes in here hungry, we don’t turn them away.”

The food comes mainly from the Capital Area Food Bank and is paid for through the federal Temporary Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP), county sources and donations.

Jose Herrera prepares to unload food collected from area groceries onto the UC loading dock.

UC also collects food donated by Wegmans, Target, Whole Foods and other grocery stores. A staff driver picks up the donations in the UC truck and delivers them to the dock, where the food is sorted and stored for the next distribution. Volunteers do most of the sorting and shelving. Luteran said UC has 800 registered volunteers who come in from once a week to once a year, with about 10 at a time supporting the food pantry.

A large sorting room allows nonperishable food to be sorted into bins for later distribution to shelves or community sites.

Eighty-five percent of UC's clients live in the two zip codes — 22306 and 22309 — with the highest rates of poverty in Fairfax County. The majority of them live at or below the poverty line of $27,500 for a family of four, and 66% are rent burdened — meaning they pay more than 30% of their income on rent — according to a UC fact sheet. Rising rents and declining federal rent relief assistance have also been a problem, according to Luteran, who said UC tries to connect clients with housing opportunities.

Food is usually the most immediate and basic need, but UC has programs, some in partnership with the new WISH (Workforce Innovation Skills Hub) job training center at the Hybla Valley Community Center, to help people learn skills to earn higher wages. Through a two-year program called “Stepping Stones,” Luteran said, UC tries to help clients achieve goals that they set for themselves.

Fresh vegetables are offered at the Choice Food Pantry.

UC also runs Progresso Literacy and Citizenship Center. It also has an Early Learning Center and is active with a couple of community schools designated for wrap-around services. It is the major social services nonprofit in Southeast Fairfax with an $8.3 million budget, most of which comes from community support, gifts in kind and government grants, according to its fiscal year 2022 annual report.

The Choice Food Pantry will be open 10 a.m. to 1 p.m., Mondays and Fridays, and 1 to 5 p.m., Tuesdays through Thursdays.

DeCourcey announced in May she would step down after six years due to "responsibilities as a mother, daughter and wife." Chief Operating Officer Bryant Rice will serve as interim CEO while the board searches for a permanent CEO.

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