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A shuttle for Fairfax County’s Stuff the Bus food drive from 2021 (staff photo by Angela Woolsey)

Fairfax County’s annual Stuff the Bus food drive has gone virtual, allowing people to make online donations directly to local nonprofit organizations that provide food assistance in the county.

This is the county’s 12th year partnering with local nonprofits to participate in the campaign, according to a county release. Previously, people could only make physical donations directly inside Fastran buses parked outside grocery stores or libraries.

“While that will still be offered for the Winter 2024 Stuff the Bus campaign, the virtual food drive will help prepare Fairfax County’s nonprofit food access partners for the busy holiday season,” Fairfax County Neighborhood and Community Services (NCS) said in the release.

The campaign comes months after the Capital Area Food Bank’s 2023 Hunger Report found that 24% of county residents are food insecure — a statistic referenced in the NCS release.

“Inequitable economic recovery from the pandemic, inflation, and the end of many federal benefit programs make it difficult for families to put food on the table,” the release states.

NCS Equity Program Manager Ramona Carroll said in the release that virtual donations will open up the campaign to people who can’t donate in person.

“In addition to convenience for the donors, it helps the nonprofits receiving the contributions because they can use the funds to purchase fresh and culturally-appropriate foods for the neighborhoods they serve,” Carroll said.

Stuff the Bus was created in 2011 as a “response to a critical need to help restock the shelves of local food pantries after the holidays.” The campaign has collected more than 220 tons of food since it started.

The virtual campaign runs through Nov. 30. An in-person Stuff the Bus campaign will return on Jan. 24 at local grocery stores and other locations throughout the community. The county encourages donations of items that are high fiber, low sugar and low sodium.

The most-requested items include:

  • Cooking oil
  • Corn Flour Maseca
  • Bag (dry) beans, peas or lentils (16 oz.)
  • Rice – brown or white (5 lbs. or smaller)
  • Canned fruit in light syrup or juice (20 oz. or smaller)
  • Healthy hot and cold cereal (42 oz. or smaller)
  • Healthy snacks (e.g. raisins, granola bars)
  • Canned tuna, salmon or chicken (15 oz. or smaller)
  • Canned tomatoes – low sodium, no salt added (29 oz. or smaller)
  • Soup – lower sodium (19 oz. or smaller)
  • Canned pasta (16 oz. or smaller)
  • Macaroni and cheese
  • Peanut butter (40 oz. or smaller)
  • Fruit jam (32 oz. or smaller)
  • Instant potatoes (16 oz. or smaller)
  • Pancake mix (32 oz. or smaller) and syrup
  • Canned vegetables – low sodium, no salt added (29 oz. or smaller)
  • Canned beans or peas (29 oz. or smaller)
SevaTruck provides free meals at the Annandale Community Center in March 2023 (courtesy Fairfax County Neighborhood and Community Services)

A nonprofit that has been serving free meals made at Lewinsville Senior Center throughout the COVID-19 pandemic hopes to establish a permanent presence at the McLean facility.

Fairfax County Neighborhood and Community Services (NCS), which operates the senior center at 1613 Great Falls Street, applied in late 2022 for a special exception amendment that would let SevaTruck Foundation keep using the center’s kitchen to cook, store and package food.

NCS is now seeking public input on its partnership with SevaTruck. It will host four information sessions on the application, starting with a virtual meeting on Thursday, Nov. 16 at 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m.

“SevaTruck serves a crucial role in addressing hunger and food insecurity and has a deep understanding of the communities it serves,” NCS said in a press release announcing the meetings.

SevaTruck provides “free, fresh, nutritious warm meals to children attending Title 1 Schools and…living in historically low-income, marginalized communities across Fairfax County and the Washington DC, metropolitan area,” according to a statement of justification for the application.

Areas served so far include McLean, Tysons, Reston, Herndon, Fairfax, Annandale, Falls Church and Alexandria. The nonprofit also has chapters in Richmond, Michigan and the San Francisco Bay Area.

The D.C. area chapter began operating out of Lewinsville Senior Center early in the pandemic after the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors declared a local emergency, which suspended zoning requirements that would “preclude a temporary modification to an activity, use, or structure where the Zoning Administrator determines the modification is needed to respond to the COVID-19 emergency and its impacts.”

However, the county’s official state of emergency for Covid ended on March 1, giving SevaTruck and other organizations or businesses operating under an emergency waiver 12 months to obtain the approvals and permits necessary to continue.

In the application, NCS regional manager Karen De Mijango says two SevaTruck employees work out of the senior center Monday through Friday, preparing 1,800 meals a week that are delivered to around 1,400 Fairfax County residents both on-site and off by an 18-foot-long food truck.

“Meals are either picked-up from the senior center by partners, delivered in either a personal car, or in the food-truck,” De Mijango wrote in the statement to the county’s zoning division. “Partners picking up from the center does not cause disruptions to the senior programs. SevaTruck uses the backdoor of the kitchen to load/unload with a cart-roller.”

She noted that SevaTruck is seeking to expand by boosting its base of volunteers to assist with off-site food distributions, but no increase in staff is planned.

The application is currently scheduled to go to the Fairfax County Planning Commission for a public hearing on Jan. 24, 2024. Two more virtual information sessions will be held on Dec. 12 and Jan. 11, and an in-person meeting is planned at the senior center on Jan. 9.

A hearing before the Board of Supervisors, which is responsible for approving the application, hasn’t been scheduled yet.

Reston Community Center is holding a food drive until Nov. 20 (via Reston Community Center)

Several Reston organizations are partnering once again for an annual Thanksgiving food drive.

Reston Community Center, the Greater Reston Chamber of Commerce and the nonprofit Cornerstones are collecting donations of non-perishable food and other items through Nov. 20.

Items that are needed include the following:

  • Grocery store gift cards
  • heavy duty clear plastic bins
  • toilet paper
  • baby wipes
  • hygiene items
  • cooking oil
  • flour
  • sugar
  • condiments
  • dried beans
  • canned fruits
  • canned meats
  • bagged or boxed rice
  • quinoa
  • cereal
  • oatmeal
  • coffee
  • tea
  • shelf-stable milk

Drop-off locations are listed online. They include RCC’s Lake Anne (1609-A Washington Plaza) and Hunters Woods (2310 Colts Neck Road) facilities, the Hunter Mill District office at 1801 Cameron Glen Drive, and other options throughout the community.

The community center is also looking for volunteers to help sort and load the donated food on Nov. 23.

In its annual hunger report released in September, the Capital Area Food Bank found that 24% of Fairfax County residents are food-insecure — a rate unchanged from last year.

River-Sea Chocolate Factory is moving its Chantilly production operations to Reston next year (courtesy River-Sea Chocolates)

River-Sea Chocolate Factory is moving its chocolate production facility to Reston, though its retail store and hot chocolate cafe will remain in Chantilly at 4520 Daly Drive, Suite 100.

While the company isn’t ready to share the exact address yet, co-founder Krissee D’Aguiar tells FFXnow they are in the process of working with architects and engineering experts to plan the build-out for the Reston location, which is expected to start operations next year.

“This strategic expansion will allow us to continue providing the finest bean-to-bar chocolate products to the D.C. area and enhance our production capabilities,” the company said in a statement. “We want to assure our customers that our retail shop and hot chocolate cafe will remain in Chantilly, ensuring that you can still enjoy our nourishing bean-to-bar chocolate and experiences in the same familiar location.”

The company plans to celebrate its fifth anniversary with a party on Nov. 4 from noon to 5 p.m. at the Chantilly factory.

The $8 entrance ticket for the event includes a s’mores kit, hot chocolate, and samples of chocolate from around the world. The event will also include live music by Herndon percussionist All Around Acoustics from 1-4 p.m. and cacao bag races that start at 2 p.m.

River-Sea founders Krissee and Mariano D’Aguiar started making chocolate in 2017 after visiting family in northern Brazil, where they saw the potential of using food to act as a “connecting bridge” between their life in D.C. and Brazil, according to the company’s website.

The Halal Ribfest is coming to Springfield this weekend (courtesy Halal Ribfest)

An event for foodies — specifically barbeque fanatics — is coming this week to Fairfax County.

The first-ever Halal Ribfest is coming to Springfield Town Center (6500 Franconia-Springfield Parkway) this Friday through Sunday (Oct. 27-29) as part of a 20-city tour. As suggested by its name, the festival features halal food — an Arabic term that denotes meat that is slaughtered in accordance with methods prescribed by Islamic law.

The event was first organized by Salaam Events in collaboration with Eventzilla Group in Toronto last year. Demand and the overall success of that launch led the organizers to kick off a tour that includes the U.S. this year.

Organizers say the ribfest is the first to cater to the needs of the Muslim community.

“North America is multicultural and diverse with over 250 ethnicities representing from around the globe,” the Halal Ribfest said. “Our traditions, values, and lifestyles mesh together to create a cultural mosaic. We are home to over 5 million Muslims. Our objective is to showcase the unique Halal flavors through an authentic ‘Halal’ experience.”

A spokesperson for the organization told FFXnow that Virginia was chosen as a stop because of the high concentration of Muslims in the area.

“We chose Virginia based on the growing Muslim population in the region and the demand for events with Halal options. Halal Ribfest Tour started with the vision of promoting events with Halal-options,” the spokesperson said.

The food festival features halal international cuisine, street food, live entertainment, meet and greets with influencers, shopping stalls, carnival rides and other family-friendly activities.

Tickets can be purchased online in advance for $10. A portion of the festival proceeds is donated to charities, according to organizers. The U.S. tour will conclude with a final stop in California in late November.

The carry-out shop Ramona Empanadas is coming to Señor Ramon Taqueria restaurants in Reston, Chantilly and Great Falls (courtesy Señor Ramon Taqueria)

A local taqueria will expand its services next month with the introduction of a new empanadas shop.

Señor Ramon Taqueria hopes to launch Ramona Empanadas by Nov. 15, founder Damian Dajcz says. The carry-out shop will start at Señor Ramon’s flagship Leesburg restaurant before rolling out to its other locations in Sterling, Reston, Great Falls and Chantilly.

The shop will also be available at the company’s main kitchen in Sterling (506 Shaw Road, Suite 324), which is expanding with a butcher shop and “a small Latin grocery store” as well, Dajcz told FFXnow.

“Customers can order empanadas in advance online or come to one of the five locations where they will find a large Ramona Empanadas digital ordering kiosk,” the restaurant said in an announcement of the launch.

According to Señor Ramon’s website, the empanadas are freshly made and then flash-frozen for pickups, deliveries and wholesale orders. Online orders are already being accepted through the website.

The stuffed pastries will come in a variety of flavors, including regular or spicy beef and chicken, beer-braised brisket, caprese, ham and cheese, spinach, sweet corn, onion and cheese, pulled pork carnitas, pepperoni and cheese, and bacon, egg and cheese.

Dajcz and his team opened the first Señor Ramon Taqueria in Leesburg in 2016 with the goal of bringing authentic Mexican street food to Northern Virginia, according to the website.

A native of Buenos Aires, Argentina, Dajcz considered studying medicine and hotel management in college before taking cooking classes and getting the opportunity learn from renowned chef Gato Dumas, who founded Latin America’s largest culinary school, according to a 2019 profile by Loudouner magazine.

After working in one of Dumas’s restaurants, Dajcz moved to the U.S. to finish his culinary studies at Ohio University and Le Cordon Bleu’s Scottsdale, Arizona, campus.

Señor Ramon expanded into Fairfax County for the first time in 2018 with its Chantilly location (4500 Daly Drive). Reston followed suit a year later with an opening in the Home Depot shopping center at 11790 Baron Cameron Avenue, Unit A, and the Great Falls restaurant (9900 Georgetown Pike) got a grand opening in June 2021.

In addition to Señor Ramon and now Ramona Empanadas, Dajcz’s company is behind Bites Grilled Cheese & Cheesesteaks and Daybreak Kitchen and Biscuit Company, which can both be found at 22455 Davis Drive in Sterling.

According to the announcement, the Ramona Empanadas team is already “in talks to expand” to other locations in the D.C. area.

A stocked shelf at the nonprofit Food for Others’ Merrifield warehouse (staff photo by Angela Woolsey)

Finding sufficient, quality food remains a challenge for many people across the D.C. area, even with the immediate economic disruptions triggered by the pandemic in the rear view mirror, the Capital Area Food Bank (CAFB) says in a new report.

Released last month, the nonprofit’s 2023 Hunger Report found that the region is still seeing elevated levels of food insecurity that are nearly identical to what was reported a year earlier. In Fairfax County, 24% of residents are food insecure — the exact same percentage as in 2022.

CAFB didn’t start issuing its annual hunger reports until 2020, making a direct comparison to pre-pandemic years difficult, but the amount of food it distributes in the county has risen from 5.2 million meals in 2019 to almost 7.2 million this year, as of mid-September, indicating more need. Meal distributions peaked at more than 9 million in 2022.

“While signs of improvement seem to be everywhere in our economy over the past twelve months, there’s a far different story unfolding for over a million of our neighbors,” CAFB president and CEO Radha Muthiah said. “This year’s Hunger Report makes clear that food insecurity and economic inequity are still enormous problems in our area.”

Overall, about 32% of D.C. area residents are food insecure, including 18% who are severely food insecure, according to the 2023 Hunger Report, which is based on data collected between May 2022 and April 2023.

The only surveyed jurisdiction with less food insecurity than Fairfax County was Arlington, where 17% of households struggle to find food — a decline from 21% in 2022. Prince George’s County had the highest rate at 45%.

Food insecurity levels in the D.C. area from the 2023 Hunger Report (via Capital Area Food Bank)

Other notable findings from CAFB:

  • Food insecurity is more prevalent among Black (47%) and Hispanic (52%) respondents than white respondents (14%)
  • About 82% of food-insecure households are low-income, which is defined as earning $83,000 a year or less, but 1 in 5 families who earn the area’s median income of $120,000 still experience food insecurity
  • 76% of food-insecure individuals are employed — a higher rate than the one for food-secure individuals (73%)
  • 10% of children are experiencing food insecurity, a lower rate than the general population that the report attributes to parents prioritizing feeding their kids over themselves and access to school meals

The lack of improvement in the region’s food insecurity levels, despite signs of a strong recovery for the U.S. economy, reflects “the pandemic’s ongoing impacts on employment, high rates of inflation, and the rollback of…government assistance programs,” such as the emergency Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits that ended in March, the 2023 Hunger Report says. Read More

Like previous years, the 2023 MPAartfest will include a Children’s Art Walk (courtesy McLean Project for the Arts)

Art will take over McLean Central Park this weekend with the return of MPAartfest.

Now in its 17th year, the annual festival from the McLean Project for the Arts (MPA) will be back on Sunday (Oct. 1), promising dozens of artists, food trucks and live entertainment from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.

This will be a comeback for the festival after the prospect of Hurricane Ian canceled its 2022 iteration. Fortunately, a repeat appears unlikely, as the National Weather Service is forecasting clear and sunny skies for Sunday.

“Each fall MPAartfest celebrates our community and the arts in the beautiful setting of McLean Central Park,” MPA Executive Director Lori Carbonneau said. “We are so appreciative of our lead community sponsor, the McLean Community Center, and of all the generous community sponsors who help to make this event possible. We invite all the community to join us for a relaxing and inspiring day of art in the park!”

The event’s centerpiece will be a juried fine arts show featuring more than 35 visual artists from across the Mid-Atlantic region. Their work will be available for sale and on display in mini galleries spread throughout the park at 1468 Dolley Madison Blvd.

The festival will also bring musical guests, food vendors, children’s activities and an outdoor gallery showcasing work by local students, according to a press release from MPA:

MPAartfest will again offer a full day of lively and varied musical performances. Sponsored by Mars and curated by Music Director Ken Avis, radio host of Antidote WERA 96.7 FM and a performing musician with the award-winning band Veronneau, this year’s performers include: Blues Alley Youth Jazz Orchestra (10am), Alison Crockett (11am), Bobby Thompson (12pm), Little Red and the Renegades (1pm), The Honey Larks (2pm), and Taisha Estrada (3pm).

Sponsored by BOWA, Deirdre Maull Orthodontics, McLean Community Foundation, and TTR Sotheby’s International Realty, the MPAartfest Children’s Activity Tents will feature a variety of art-based activities and learning stations. Other art highlights include the New Dominion Women’s Club Children’s Art Walk, a juried open-air gallery displaying artwork from local public and private elementary school students.

On the food front, MPAartfest will once again feature the much-loved Café Beret (sponsored by The Mather) where guests can enjoy wine and beer provided by The Wine Outlet. The event will also offer food from a variety of food trucks and eateries, including Rocklands BBQ, Pikoteo, Timber Pizza, Kona Ice, and MooThru.

Admission to MPAartfest is free. Parking will be available at the McLean Community Center (1234 Ingleside Avenue), along with overflow lots at Capital One Bank (6890 Elm Street) and FitzGerald Properties (1446 Dolley Madison Blvd).

MPA’s latest exhibition, “(Not) Strictly Painting,” remains on display inside the community center. Accompanied by an artist talk scheduled for Oct. 19, the biennial showcase of painters from around the region will stay open through Nov. 11.

D’Ambrosio Gelato is now open in Fair Oaks Mall (photo by Vivian Hoang)

A new gelato stall has arrived at Fair Oaks Mall, just in time to offer sweet relief during the final days of summer.

D’Ambrosio Gelato opened for business on Aug. 16. It’s located on the first floor outside the Apple store at 11750 Fair Oaks Mall and sells both milk-based and vegan options as well as coffee.

Flavors include hazelnut, Italian coffee, strawberry, Italian organic chocolate, matcha green tea, and more.

This is the company’s first physical location in Virginia and only its second in the U.S., following a debut in Seattle back in 2010.

D’Ambrosio was concocted in Milan, Italy, by master chef Enzo Dambrosio, who began making gelato when he was 17. The business still utilizes ingredients made by the same dairy production facility that has been operating in Italy since 1957, per its website.

The company expanded its production line in 1974, adding other Italian desserts, coffee and beverages to its offerings. Its products can now be found in restaurants and hotels, along with its official shops.

D’Ambrosio has opened six locations worldwide now, including in Italy, France and Taiwan. Three stores are slated to open in Japan this year, according to its website.

Paul Kwon, who manages the Fair Oaks location, says the shop is planning to introduce more desserts in the coming weeks. On Monday (Aug. 28), they added panna gelato — warm, toasted bread filled with gelato — to the menu.

“We will introduce other desserts called cream fredda [a mousse-like coffee cream] and panna cotta in September,” he said.

Sheetz is officially opening its Herndon location on Aug. 30 (courtesy Sheetz)

(Updated at 5:30 p.m.) Sheetz is officially opening its doors in Herndon next Wednesday (Aug. 30), sneaking in just under the wire to make its projected summer launch.

To mark the grand opening celebration, the gas station and convenience store chain will offer free coffee and soda all day at 13840 McLearen Road.

A ribbon-cutting ceremony will begin at 9 a.m. Customers will also have a chance to enter giveaways and raffles, including a grand prize giveaway of a $2,500 Sheetz gift card.

To mark the opening, Sheetz is donating $2,500 to the Capital Area Food Bank, which addresses hunger and food insecurity issues in the D.C. region. The company will collect non-perishable food items at the location. In return, customers will receive a thermal bag while supplies last from 9-11 a.m.

The company also plans to donate $2,500 to the Special Olympics of Virginia.

Established in Pennsylvania in 1952, the company has more than 680 locations across the country. The store will be open all day and throughout the year.

The Herndon location has 20 fuel terminals and four electric vehicle chargers, a public relations representative for Sheetz said.

(Correction: FFXnow was initially told that the Herndon store had no EV chargers.)


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