Why Crozet: Food Ministry Volunteers Serve Hundreds

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Long-time volunteer Nancy Avery at the new Rockfish Gap Food Pantry. Photo: Malcolm Andrews.

The Gazette began the series “Why Crozet” two years ago to remind the community why we appreciate life in Crozet. Throughout the pandemic, we wrote often about how churches were helping with food for people out of work, or with reduced work schedules, so people in need could know where to go. This month, we write about the volunteers who have made helping the hungry their long-standing mission. None of them asked for recognition, and they all pointed out that there are many deserving volunteers. We agree, and also recognize all the volunteers, plus the business and non-profit partners who make this work possible.

A Heart for the Hungry

“You have to have a heart for it,” said Brenda Johnson, one of the leaders of Crozet Baptist’s “Share the Blessing” mission. Johnson has been involved with the mission since its start. “It became obvious to all of us that there were people here who didn’t have the same advantages we did,” she said. “We didn’t have to go far to find them, either.” Although the church serves its hungry neighbors all year with donations of food in its collection boxes, it celebrates the season of gratitude with a monumental effort designed to bring a full Thanksgiving dinner to those who can’t afford it. The Thanksgiving ministry has been in place for so long that it’s really like a well-oiled machine, Johnson said, but “it’s kind of like a wedding. Everything looks so perfect that you don’t realize how much effort and time has gone into it.” This year the church will serve more than 100 families, or 400 people. Her long-time friend and partner in the yearly “Share-the-Blessing” mission is Linda Crawford. 

Brenda Johnson manages the mashed potato station at bagging night for Share the Blessing. Photo: Theresa Curry

Johnson said she was exposed to the idea that not everyone had enough to eat at an early age. She grew up in an apartment in Charlottesville and, as a young girl, worked with her church. “When we made food deliveries, I stayed in the car because I didn’t want any classmates to see me and be embarrassed.”

Linda Crawford dispenses macaroni and cheese at bag-packing night at Crozet Baptist Church. Photo: Theresa Curry.

There are advantages to her long tenure with the program, Johnson said. “For instance, just knowing who has a truck and who doesn’t makes it easier for me to find a driver to pick up a load of turkeys at the right time.” And if no one steps forward for a particular task, she’s willing to take a direct approach. “I’ve been known to shake the bushes,” she said. “Sometimes people just need a little encouragement.” The Crozet Baptist program relies on donations from the congregation throughout the summer and fall, one dinner item each week, then buys turkeys and other items that fall short nearer the delivery date. Each year, they poll the Crozet school counselors and teachers for names of families. Shortly before Thanksgiving, families pick up the supplies, with special arrangements made for those who have no way of driving and even for those who have no way of cooking. The way Johnson sees it, the mission is a double blessing: “It blesses them with ample food, and doing it blesses us,” she said. 

Volunteers Welcome Weekly Clients to Grace Grocery

Over at Crozet United Methodist Church, Diana Pace coordinates the Grace Grocery, a weekly food pantry where patrons can choose the items they want from a well-stocked line of staples, fresh food, and occasional household or personal items. Pace, who’s originally from New Hampshire, moved here, found the church, and saw that volunteers were needed.

Diana Pace (far left) works with Grace Grocery volunteers, Russell Gough, Mary Steele, Robyn Kennedy, and Dan Corbin, unpacking turkeys for pick up by clients. Photo: Malcolm Andrews.

When she first signed up for her volunteer work, she kept a low profile. At the time, she recalls, she was working as a teacher at Henley Middle School. “I didn’t want to embarrass parents of my students with my presence,” she said, “so I stayed behind the scenes, organizing and packing boxes.” After pre-packing boxes due to the pandemic, Grace Grocery is now self-service again, an option that avoids wasted food and addresses food preferences and allergies. People who come through the line love (like we all do) desserts and food that may not be that good for them, she said, but they also love it when there’s fresh produce: potatoes, apples, carrots and onions. She was skeptical about picking up fresh food from Wegmans on Saturday for Monday’s distribution, but she’s found that the grocery giant normally gives them produce that’s fresh enough to hold up nicely.

Pace has been retired for a while, has taken on the job of coordinator,  and is able to be out in front with the patrons. “Our patrons are people I might not meet otherwise,” she said. “That’s the most rewarding part.” She’s learned that the lives of people with economic stress are complicated. “They might be able to afford that week’s groceries, but if that expense is reduced, it might mean they can repair the air conditioner, for instance.” She points out the danger of stereotyping people who need food: “We definitely have people coming here who are gainfully employed full time, and who make good decisions with their money, but their paychecks are so low, and costs so high, that they can’t afford expensive services like dental care.” Pace said the volunteers can sometimes steer people towards other resources. In other cases, she said, “there just aren’t a lot of answers.”

New Home, New Name for Venerable Bread Fund

The people of Holy Cross and Emmanuel Episcopal Churches have supported the “Bread Fund” for generations, calling it by its original name, although the ministry has dispensed much more than bread for decades. Based in the Holy Cross parish building in Batesville, the bread fund has served its clients every month with fresh food and staples, and grew over the years to add cold storage and extra freezers for the perishable items volunteers picked up from the Blue Ridge Area Food Bank in Verona. 

Nancy Avery at former “Bread Fund” location in Afton. The food pantry is now near Emmanuel Episcopal Church on Rte. 250.

No one knows when this joint ministry started, but Nancy Avery, one of the administrators, has been part of the program for nearly 20 years. Avery said she had helped with a food ministry in Charlottesville (later to become Loaves and Fishes). When she moved and became a parishioner at Emmanuel in Greenwood, she wanted to continue to work with a worthwhile project. “Everyone needs to have food,” she said, “and there are so many who can’t afford basic, good-quality food.” 

he residence between Emmanuel Episcopal Church and St. Nicholas Ukrainian Church will serve as the Rockfish Gap Food Pantry. Photo: Malcolm Andrews

The ministry was successful, but there have been some challenges due to the location, Avery said: “People had trouble finding it, and we realized this was a problem for people new to the area, or those just recently finding themselves in a position to need food.”

There was an answer to the problem, in the form of an unused building between Emmanuel Episcopal Church and St. Nicholas Ukrainian Church. The Emmanuel Vestry and Trustees had bought the house and property long ago, with no specified purpose except to protect it from development.  It will be officially dedicated as the Scott House, in honor of Frederic and Elizabeth Scott, who steadfastly believed in service to the community.

After some recent renovation to the Scott House, the Emmanuel congregation found it fitting to move the food ministry to the building, with the added advantage that people passing by on Route 250 could notice the sign. It will be called the Rockfish Gap Food Pantry and will be open the first Saturday of every month from 9 to 11 a.m. This is a dream come true for Avery and the other long-time volunteers who wanted a more welcoming spot. “We’ll use the largest room for the pantry, a former bedroom for the freezers, and there’s the living room where we can serve coffee and cookies to people who are waiting,” Avery said. “It’s more of a family atmosphere.” Like Diana Pace, Avery finds the personal contact rewarding. She also appreciates the help of the congregation in adding to the supplies from the Blue Ridge Area Food Bank. For instance, there was plenty of pancake mix, but no syrup, she said, or a donation of turkeys from Cargill’s, but no stuffing. “They make up the difference.”

She likes getting to know the people who come by the Scott House. “There was a new man in here two months ago. He was very nervous, but the volunteers made him feel at home. He came back again this month, and seemed very much at ease,” Avery said.  “That’s why I do it.”

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