This Northern Va. woman grew up hungry. She’s working to make sure no kids have the same experience.

Purcellville Police Chief Cynthia McAllister sits down to help a child with their homework at a BetterALife location in Virginia. (Courtesy BetterALife)
At the food pantry at a BetterALife location, kids learn how to make meals like chili mac and cheese during cooking classes. (Courtesy BetterALife)
Despite the organization’s plans for expansion, the group still goes door to door like it did during the pandemic, making sure every child has something to eat. (Courtesy BetterALife)
Elizabeth Ford (right) and her childhood best friend Carrie gave back at a Christmas-themed event at the BetterALife location in Reston.
Angela (bottom left) and her brother (center) receiving their Christmas Wish at the BetterALife pantry in Purcellville last year. (Courtesy BetterALife)

Elizabeth Ford didn’t have food at school, so she would tell other students that she was on a diet, something she considers easy for a girl to get away with.

On most days in her Reston, Virginia, neighborhood, she sat outside 7/11, hoping to gather enough quarters to buy a hot dog or nachos, or whatever else she may have wanted to eat.

Lacking a clear path, a mentor and access to a food pantry, Ford dropped out of high school in the ninth grade. She made sure to get her GED and then became a hostess at a Chili’s restaurant.

She eventually went to college and got a degree in IT, but in 2016, Ford decided she wanted to make sure kids in Northern Virginia didn’t have experiences similar to hers. So, she launched BetterALife, with the goal of feeding any child that says they’re hungry.

Now, the group has a food pantry in Purcellville and recently expanded to the Cathy Hudgins Community Center in Reston. Its volunteers offer homework help and cooking classes, as Ford strives to make sure students have food security.

“We experience these children that are missing meals every day,” Ford said. “Whether it be breakfast, lunch or dinner, they typically are without one of those meals per day, (in Purcellville) and in Reston.”

At the time BetterALife launched, Ford learned that Loudoun County schools had a rule that if a student was past due two lunch accounts, they got a nut butter sandwich instead of a hot meal. They also received a sticker that said they needed lunch money, Ford said.

The organization started paying off the past due lunch accounts to make sure they had a positive balance. Then, when the pandemic hit, Ford went door-to-door to help in some communities.

The Purcellville food pantry opened in 2022, but Ford always aspired to help the Reston community that she grew up in. BetterALife was approved to move into the community center and bring food every Wednesday at noon. About 40 families line up there before noon, and they “come with little children, they come with babies, just waiting for food,” Ford said.

The demand is generally high, Ford said.

Recently, a 9-year-old girl walked into the Purcellville location around 2 p.m. The girl’s mom said she could stop by because it was within walking distance, Ford said. When Ford asked if she had eaten that day, the girl said no.

“Just very nonchalant about it, like this is normal,” Ford said. “I cooked her a box of mac-and- cheese in our little kitchen here at the pantry.”

BetterALife also has a homework club, during which about 40 kids each week work with police officers or high schoolers. They arrive early for a hot meal, and then find a mentor or officer who can help them. On Tuesday night, multiplication was a big topic. But the impact goes beyond math skills.

“We had one little girl that started the year last year not being able to read, and at the end of the year, she read me a book,” Ford said. “It was amazing, and that’s the kind of progress that we’re making with these children.”

The organization’s cooking club meets once a month on Saturdays, and its volunteers teach kids how to hold a pan and which parts to touch, in addition to safety skills. They learn how to make things such as ramen noodles or scrambled eggs.

Now, the group is seeking more volunteers.

“The children can grow, the children can thrive,” Ford said. “They’re no longer the one that thinks they’ve been missed and lost in the shuffle there.”

BetterALife operates with funding from grants and donations and hosts an annual gala, which Ford said is the biggest fundraiser of the year. It’s also gathering funding for a thrift store, “so that we can have that continual income coming in to keep growing and opening up more food pantries around the area,” Ford said.

Despite the expansion, the group still goes door to door, making sure every child has something to eat.

“There’s nothing better than knowing that you’ve made a child’s entire weekend because now they don’t have to struggle, worry or have any concerns,” Ford said. “They can just have fun and be a kid.”

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Scott Gelman

Scott Gelman is a digital editor and writer for WTOP. A South Florida native, Scott graduated from the University of Maryland in 2019. During his time in College Park, he worked for The Diamondback, the school’s student newspaper.

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