Loudoun Hunger Relief’s Successful Strategy for Going Healthy
Share This
Grantee Spotlight

Loudoun Hunger Relief’s Successful Strategy for Going Healthy

By: Northern Virginia Health Foundation
By Jennifer Montgomery, Executive Director, and Trish McNeal, Development Director, Loudoun Hunger ReliefFor many years, Loudoun Hunger Relief focused on doing what most emergency food pantries do: supplying “shelf-stable” items like canned vegetables and beans, packaged milk, dried pasta, and cereals to people who struggled to feed their families.We knew these weren’t necessarily the healthiest foods, but they were the healthiest foods we could provide at the time.Doing more meant doing things differently—and that would have required us to reimagine ourselves as an organization.In 2015, we did just that. And in three years, our annual distribution of fresh fruits and vegetables soared—from about 30,000 pounds to an estimated 275,000 pounds.That’s like turning a single tractor-trailer truck into six.And that’s not all. Our food pantry today is a place where people who come to us for help feel welcomed. Now they have choices. Our food pantry is laid out like a mini-mart, with refrigerator cases and baskets of produce for people to look at and decide for themselves what they want, and what their families will eat.Not only do they appreciate having choices, but they are choosing healthier foods.They like the changes we’ve made—I’ve even heard clients exchanging recipes while they shop. That never happened before.How did we achieve such dramatic change?It started with a vision, which become a strategic plan, which translated into action.

A Vision for Universal Access to Healthy Food

In 2015, as we approached our 25th anniversary as an organization, we did some soul-searching, exploring both our challenges and opportunities for the future. Our board of directors articulated a simple but bold vision for a community where everyone has access to sufficient, nutritious food. We documented our core values and developed a strategy, SEED, which stands for:
  • Supply nutritious food

  • Empower people in the community

  • Educate our donors, clients, and suppliers on the value of nutritious foods

  • Deliver the food that people need in the most successful, effective way

To implement this strategy, we started at the beginning, with our food supply, which hinged on our capacity to store fresh produce. We desperately needed to increase our storage capacity, so we applied to the Blue Ridge Area Food Bank for a grant to purchase a walk-in, produce-dedicated refrigerator.Once we got that, we reached out to our donor partners, grocery store partners, and farmers market partners, letting them know that we were ready to accept their produce—and keep it fresh.The produce started rolling in.Next, we took up transportation. At the time, we had three refrigerated vans, one of which was on its last legs. We wrote grants to two family foundations and to 100 Women Strong to acquire two new vans. We traded in one old van and ended up with four refrigerated vans to transport our produce.

Empowering People with Choice

We decided we wanted to give our clients a more dignified and empowering experience by allowing them to select their own produce—an experience more like shopping.We wrote another grant for the Blue Ridge Area Foundation, asking this time for funds to purchase the types of refrigerator units that convenience stores use. And we bought bins for produce that doesn’t need to be refrigerated, like potatoes, apples, tomatoes, and onions.And then we got lucky. A nonprofit called Home Aid for Northern Virginia offered us a lobby remake. Their builders reconfigured our lobby so that it has a separate client selection room where people can pick out produce as well as baked goods like bread, muffins, tortillas, and cakes. Home Aid for Northern Virginia, working with the Knutson Companies, remodeled and donated everything for us.Now we can offer our clients a more dignified experience.Progress seems to generate more progress—sometimes in unexpected directions.For example, we’re now working with a new nonprofit community farm, JK Community Farm, which grows produce solely for donation, as their pick-up partner. We have committed to picking up their farm-fresh produce, immediately after harvest, for distribution to a network for smaller food pantries throughout Loudoun County. Next year, the Piedmont Environmental Council will start a donation-only farm, and we will work with them as well.To be sure, we still have a wish list. Most significantly, we’re working on getting a refrigerated box truck to make produce pick-up and distribution more efficient.But the amazing journey we’ve been on the past three years just continues. This is in large part due to the clear strategic direction and plan established by our board of directors. Their decision to focus strategically on healthier foods made it easy for everyone in the organization to support the new direction.And once you have full organizational buy-in, you can move mountains, because everyone knows what the end game is. It is truly empowering.We are thrilled with what we’ve managed to achieve. Yes, we have more mountains to move but we are moving in the right direction—toward our vision of a Loudoun County where everyone has access to sufficient, nutritious food.Loudoun Hunger Relief is a grantee of the Northern Virginia Health Foundation    Photo by Scott Warman on Unsplash