For Northern Virginia food banks, 2020 was a busy year, and their need in communities across the region may become even more important before their workloads slow down.
Even as the COVID-19 vaccine rolls out, the amount of food distributed is likely to remain well above pre-coronavirus levels for months to come due to the economic damage of the pandemic.
In western Loudoun County, the amount of food leaving the food pantry at the Round Hill United Methodist Church (RHUMC) has more than doubled since the start of the pandemic in March. About 30 families, totaling about 100 people, are using the church’s food pantry to get groceries on a monthly basis.
And now the church has a new way to distribute food when the food pantry is closed. A 14-year-old Girl Scout designed and built a box where community members can pick up nonperishable food items anytime of the day. The box is similar to the Little Free Food Pantry concept.
Tessa Heffron, a freshman at Loudoun Valley High School, installed the Blessings Box on Dec. 4 next to the food pantry at the church where she and her family are members. The Blessings Box was part of a project to earn the Silver Award, the second-highest award a Girl Scout can receive.
Prior to deciding to build a Blessings Box for her church’s food pantry, Tessa, who lives in Purcellville, had volunteered at the food pantry for as long as she can remember.
The RHUMC has operated the food pantry, located in a trailer next to the church’s parking lot, for more than 10 years.
The Blessings Box operates differently than similar boxes across Northern Virginia. Residents simply take food they need from the Blessings Box but do not place their donations inside the box. The food pantry has a separate drop box where food can be donated.
“I was looking for something that was a need in the community and I could do by myself,” Tessa told the Times-Mirror.
The community center in Purcellville has a box from which people can donate or take food. Tessa saw the success of the Purcellville box, built by Adam Baime of Scout Troop 163 for his Eagle Scout project in 2019, and proposed building a similar box at her Round Hill church. The church leaders gave her Blessings Box a seal of approval.
“Our food pantry isn’t open all the time, but people always need food. I thought this could be helpful and let people get food whenever they need it,” Tessa said.
Volunteering is a way of life for Tessa and the rest of her family.
Tessa’s older sister also is a Girl Scout and is working on earning her Gold Award, the highest award a Girl Scout can receive. For her project, Tessa’s sister Riley decided to work on repairing the roof and porch of the food pantry trailer, along with making other improvements to the structure.
The Girl Scouts “is a fantastic way for young girls and young women to come into their own and be able to use those skills going forward,” said Jennifer Heffron, the girls’ mother.
Before the pandemic struck, Tessa was planning to work with other members of Girl Scout Troop 6287, which her mother leads, on a joint project to earn their Silver Award. But concerns about the spread of the coronavirus forced a change in plans, and members of the troop had to think of projects they could do on their own.
To earn the Silver Award, a Girl Scout must pick a project that addresses a need in the community and work for 50 hours to address that need.
Although she had worked with tools and had built other things, Tessa’s father helped with the construction of the Blessings Box. By the time she had completed the box and was getting ready to install it next to the food pantry, she was nearing her 50 hours.
The time she spent crafting publicity material for the Blessings Box put her over the 50 hours threshold she needed to earn the award.
“Pulling off a project like this in the situation we’re in speaks volumes to her commitment,” said Jennifer Heffron.
Luci Loeffler, coordinator of the RHUMC food pantry, worked closely with Tessa during the development of the Blessings Box.
When the box was installed on Dec. 4, Loeffler said she was “thrilled.”
The Blessings Box provides meals that are ready to go and only require a spoon, fork, or straw. The food pantry itself is more like a small grocery store where residents can order both nonperishable goods as well as dairy products, vegetables, fruits and meats.
Tessa, together with Loeffler and food pantry volunteers, will refill the Blessings Box when items in the box start running low.
“We hope people who need the food will take just what they need,” Loeffler said.
At the food pantry, Loeffler and her volunteers take orders in advance from families who need food. They prefill the orders and then deliver the bags of food to the families when they drive up in the parking lot or arrive at the trailer.
Many families are referred to the RHUMC food pantry through the Round Hill Elementary School parent liaison as well as through word of mouth in western Loudoun.
“We don’t ask questions to the people who come to the food pantry,” Loeffler said. “Our goal is to give them whatever makes them feel comfortable.” Tessa’s project also included collecting food to fill the Blessings Box. She called several grocery stores in Purcellville and Leesburg to see if they would let her set up a shopping cart in front the store to collect donations.
Due to the pandemic, several grocery stores told Tessa they were not letting people solicit donations in front of their stores. But then she called the Safeway in Leesburg, which gave her permission to accept food donations in front of its store.
Tessa collected more than 200 pounds of food in one afternoon at the Safeway.
The food collected by Tessa is now getting distributed at the RHUMC Blessings Box. “It’s a very positive addition,” Loeffler said.
The Blessings Box is located at 11 West Loudoun Street in Round Hill.