Sen. Mark Warner sees Covid relief funds in action at Western Fairfax food pantry

(Updated 3:45 p.m.) Local charitable organization Western Fairfax Christian Ministries (4511 Daly Drive J) welcomed Sen. Mark Warner through its doors last week.

On Friday, June 16, Warner toured WFCM’s food pantry and warehouse in Chantilly and participated in a roundtable discussion with WFCM leaders and partners, such as the Boys & Girls Club of Greater Washington, Fairfax County Neighborhood and Community Services, Fairfax County Public Schools, Wegmans, Boy Scouts and Kings of Kings Lutheran Church.

WFCM primarily provides financial resources and free food and toiletries to residents of Fairfax County’s Sully District.

WFCM Executive Director Harmonie Taddeo says Warner had reached out to Sully District Supervisor Kathy Smith to see how federal funding designated to the district during the COVID-19 pandemic has been used.

“What an opportunity for him to be able to see that this is how your money’s been spent, right?” Taddeo, who led Warner on the tour of WFCM’s facilities, said. “You approve these bills? Now, here’s literally the milk in the refrigerators that [those bills] paid for.”

In 2020 and 2021, WFCM received $1 million and $1.2 million respectively, from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act. Emergency rent assistance funds also granted WFCM $5.5 million in 2021, and the American Rescue Plan Act gave WFCM $257,588 in 2022 and $151,480 in 2023, according to a handout provided by the nonprofit.

These funds provided relief for WFCM, which saw a marked increase in need as soon as the pandemic hit.

“Before the pandemic, we were probably serving 300 families a month in the food pantry, and we spiked all the way up to 650,” Taddeo said. “Now we’re about 500 to 550 every single month…So the needs are just so much greater, and we think they’re going to take a long time to go back.”

With WFCM continuing to experience high demand for its services, Food Pantry Manager Kristine Hurt implored Warner to relay to Congress the significance of funding local food pantries like WFCM.

“I hope you see, beside our hearts, that we’re very efficient with money here,” Hurt said during the discussion. “And when you’re saying you need to cut things, I hope that you can go and share that this is a program that is using every dollar better than anybody else could in my opinion.”

Acknowledging the concerns over the potential decrease in federal funding for local food programs as emergency funds authorized during the pandemic dwindle, Warner told FFXnow that his office will continue to defend local organizations that had been assisted.

“How do we make sure that these great initiatives where we’re really stretching dollars don’t disappear because the Covid funds are going to run out?” Warner said. “…[We’re going to] see if we can do more in terms of direct investment, but also in terms of seeing if we can even give greater tax credit benefits.”

Warner also noted that he plans to continue using his platform to combat food insecurity locally through the Farm Bill, which he co-sponsored with Sen. Tim Kaine in 2018.

“Most of the food programs are actually funded through the Department of Agriculture and the Farm Bill,” Warner said. “[The Farm Bill] usually goes for five years — it sets up all the programs, things like these food relief programs…This is the year that it’s supposed to get renewed. So we’re trying to build in things like this challenge around food deserts.”

As Warner continues to advocate for food relief programs at the federal level, WFCM will keep providing community services at the local level. Recently, it expanded operations to a second food pantry in Centreville Square 2 near Centreville Regional Library and Centreville Immigration Forum’s Labor Resource Center in hopes of increasing accessibility to its services.

“The majority of our clients do live in Centreville,” Taddeo said. “In terms of the population of people in Chantilly who are in poverty and the people that we’re serving…we’ve reached that population because we’re here. But there’s so many more people in Centreville that are in need that we haven’t reached. And a lot of that is because…there’s so many families living right around the library without transportation.”

WFCM is also expanding and diversifying the financial resources it offers, kickstarting a new Mustard Seed Microloan program in partnership with Apple Federal Credit Union to secure low-interest loans for clients to build credit and invest in their own small businesses.

The program has already helped Fanny Carrillo, who took business classes at WFCM and learned how to develop a website for her business through Northern Virginia Family Services, Taddeo said. Her business, Tango Empanadas and Bakery, catered the WFCM roundtable event.

“Not only has [Carrillo] just shown amazing determination and focus in starting her business and supporting her family, but…she’s also climbing her way to out of poverty as an entrepreneur, establishing that banking relationship, and we are just so privileged to partner with her on that,” Taddeo said.

Success stories like Carrillo’s are what ultimately motivate those behind WFCM.

“I’ve just been blessed to be able to see this organization grow and meet that need [from Covid] so rapidly,” Hurt said.