Ampersand Project in Leesburg has provided 24,000 free meals and counting

Peter Burnett with volunteer Gabriela Lamas at the Ampersand Project service location on East Market Street in Leesburg. The team of volunteers has served 24,000 free meals since the project began in spring.

When the coronavirus pandemic began in March, Leesburg attorney Peter Burnett, who in January launched a little free food pantry on Edwards Ferry Road, wanted to take his community project a step further to help local residents who are feeling the economic pains of the downturn.

So he thought, “Why not provide as many free prepared lunches as he can to help those in need?”

He began raising money for the project and reached out to local restaurants to see if they would be willing to provide lunches at reduced rates, with the hope that it would provide a boost of business and help them keep employees on the payroll.

Since then, seven days a week, the Ampersand Pantry Project has provided about 350 free lunches a day, along with free diapers and other personal hygiene products, from a takeout window starting at 11:30 a.m. The window is located in the former Tastee Freeze building at 338 E. Market St. in Leesburg, across from McDonald’s.

After serving meals at the East Market Street location, volunteers bring about 80 to 100 meals and diapers to the little free food pantry on Edwards Ferry Road at 1 p.m.

Burnett says many of the people who receive the meals do not have cars, so this is one way to bring the services to them.

“This has been a big deal for people looking for assistance, and we are trying to keep this effort going. We are not seeing among our recipients or patrons any relief from the economic pressure. The optimistic me thought this would be over by June,” Burnett said.

Serving more than 24,000 lunches requires a dedicated group of volunteers who keep everything running smoothly — including Richard deButts of Hamilton — who was recently honored for his hard work since the project began.

“Richard is the first volunteer to arrive and last to leave every day. His upbeat nature and positive attitude are contagious for other volunteers and are keys to the lunch program’s success,” Burnett said.

Burnett pays restaurants on average $3.50 to $4 for each meal, costing the project about $10,000 a week.

“We have raised about $90,000, which has carried us to today, but we are in need of donations to keep it going,” he said.

He cites local businesses Deli South and Merone’s Catering as going above and beyond in providing meals at reduced rates.

“The have done a wonderful job, and it is helping us drive the costs down,” Burnett said.

Burnett is looking for support to keep the project going through Labor Day. There is a donation box at the Ampersand Pantry building on East Market Street. Checks can also sent to The Ampersand Pantry Project, a 501©(3) charity, at 105 Loudoun St., SE, Leesburg, VA 20175.

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