Northern Virginia food pantry turns to gift cards during coronavirus pandemic

Clients drive up for Haymarket’s distribution line early April 18. The Virginia food pantry has recently switched to giving out gift cards during the coronavirus pandemic. (Courtesy Haymarket Regional Food Pantry)

A Northern Virginia food pantry is seeking a new way to support their community facing financial troubles during the coronavirus pandemic: Giving away thousands of dollars in gift cards.

Warehouses are now empty at Haymarket Regional Food Pantry, which was, until recently, filled with piles of food for the thousands of clients per month the pantry typically serves in Prince William and Fauquier counties.

A dwindling pool of volunteers during Virginia’s stay-at-home directive meant Haymarket had to think outside the box, explained director Eileen Smith.

Instead of constant resupply trips to grocery stores, which could expose both staff and their clients to coronavirus, the pantry opted to give away their remaining food and started buying gift cards in bulk, made possible through a dramatic uptick in online cash donations from the community.

“It’s been kind of a win-win all around,” Smith said. “We’re fueling our local economy with the gift cards and we’re helping customers. We’ve seen amazing gratitude from customers when they realize we’re giving them a gift card to go shopping on their own.”

Before their turn to gift cards, Haymarket gave away the remainder of its food. (Courtesy Haymarket Regional Food Pantry)

In just a week, they’ve given a total of about $15,000 in gift cards to over 150 families — half of which are making their visit to the pantry for the first time ever, as unemployment claims in the region spike to levels unseen for decades.

“We’re seeing people drive up in Mercedes, BMWs — these are folks who were probably one or two paychecks away from the brink, and they don’t have a job now,” Smith said. “It’s, ‘Do I buy my medicine or feed my kids?’ and we’re trying to let them do both simultaneously.”

Smith hasn’t seen a situation this dire in the 15 years she has worked at the food pantry, with the closest analogue being mass furloughs of federal workers during last year’s government shutdown.

While even that crisis pales in comparison to the long-term unemployment crisis now facing the nation, it was a learning experience that paved the way for Haymarket’s current efforts.

With help from donors, the pantry launched a popup grocery store stocking food, toiletries and hygiene essentials for furloughed workers in need.

“I think that gave us some nimbleness and agility that we probably wouldn’t have had walking into this, and it made us think creatively and outside the box from what we generally do,” Smith said.

The Haymarket Regional Food Pantry serves portions of Prince William and Fauquier counties, including the cities of Gainesville, Haymarket, Manassas and Bristow.

Even though the pantry itself is closed to food contributions, they’re accepting online cash donations to keep their gift card initiative rolling.

“Rest assured, every single dollar is going to gift cards and nothing else,” said Smith. “We’re here to help our folks.”

WTOP’s Mike Murillo contributed to this report.

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Alejandro Alvarez

Alejandro Alvarez joined WTOP as a digital journalist and editor in June 2018. He is a reporter and photographer focusing on politics, political activism and international affairs.

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