A woman selects food from the SERVE pantry in Stafford. (photos by Kathy Knotts)

Serving up dignity, self-reliance at Stafford’s oldest food pantry

by | Apr 19, 2024 | ALLFFP, Non-Profits, Stafford

Lee Chaney asks the young woman standing before her how many children she’s feeding.

“Bambinos? How many? Dos? Doce?”  

The woman looks surprised and lets out a laugh.

“Doce is 12,” she replies.

Chaney gets a crash course in languages every week she opens the door to the SERVE food pantry. She also learns more about the cultures, nationalities and religious beliefs of the communities she serves.  

Lee Chaney (left) helps a client select and bag items from the food pantry.

Chaney is the executive director of SERVE, the largest and oldest food pantry in Stafford County, which feeds more than 3,000 people a month from Stafford, Caroline, King George, Westmoreland, Spotsylvania, Essex, and Fredericksburg.  

SERVE (Stafford Emergency Relief through Volunteer Efforts) is open Monday through Thursday 11 a.m. until 4 p.m.. On the second and fourth Wednesdays, they remain open until 8 p.m. 

“We serve all of Planning District 16, plus we are now serving Quantico, the Army base and even some families across the state line at the naval base in Maryland,” Chaney said. “The need is just tremendous.”  

SERVE has seen a 450% increase in the number of people needing their services since last July. As more families struggle with food insecurity, the lines at the pantry grow.  

Recent studies conducted between 2020-22 show that 44.2 million individuals (about four times the population of Virginia) in America are experiencing food insecurity. Those who are food insecure often struggle to access healthy and nutritious food, which can lead to a variety of health and social problems.  

Those rates are higher among certain groups, such as single women with children, Black people, Hispanics, and households that fall below the federal poverty level, which is currently $31,200 annually for a family of four.  

Chaney sees those statistics in the growing numbers of people coming to SERVE for assistance.

“Typically it’s always been about the working poor. I’ve been in this work 20 years,” she said. “But now more and more, we’re seeing really moderate-income individuals as well. People just simply can’t afford it.”  

The “hunger game”, as Chaney calls it, is about paying all the bills and then using whatever is left for food. “You pay your mortgage or your rent, then your car, maybe childcare. What’s left over is food money. And food money is a luxury for some these days,” she said.  

Organized in 1979, the SERVE pantry operates differently from traditional food banks. Instead of filling a box with a portion of whatever donated goods they have on hand, SERVE brings clients in to choose for themselves what they want in a space that resembles a small grocery store.  

Clients “shop” the aisles with a SERVE member, selecting canned goods, dairy products, meats and breads, receiving a set amount of food based on the size of the household. 

A young woman gets cereal for her family at the SERVE pantry in Stafford.

“We are an ‘open pantry’ which means our guests shop for themselves,” Chaney said. “We are also a healthy pantry which means we have a walk-up/help-yourself produce market every day. We are the only food pantry in this service area that is 100% committed to being a healthy pantry, to tackle the social determinants of health, associated with poor eating due to low or no access to healthy food.”  

The woman shopping with Chaney grabs boxed pastas, and cereal and gets some snacks for her kids on the way out. 

Outside, a produce table with vegetables and fruits is available to anyone with no limits. On a recent Tuesday, there were cherry tomatoes, sweet potatoes, collard greens and mushrooms.

SERVE partners with area farmers who bring in produce and eggs and retail businesses provide meat, bread, snacks and dairy products. They also get a portion of goods from food banks.

But Chaney says it’s not enough. She wants to bring in more farmers and reduce the reliance on canned goods.  

“What’s unusual about the work we have been doing lately is that we have to build procurement budgets,” Chaney said. “We shouldn’t have to, we should be getting enough food. Our retailers are great partners. But again, I recognize, and I have said this for 20 years — they’re in their business for business. They are in their business to make money. We can’t expect them to give more.”  

It’s not just food that SERVE clients are seeking. In a building next to the pantry is “the House” where clients can get dog food, diapers, menstrual products, laundry detergent and baby formula.   

Infant formula is available from SERVE, as are diapers, dog food and other household items.

As a standalone nonprofit, the organization relies on donations both monetary and tangible to keep its doors open. A recent $10,000 donation from the Mary Washington Foundation, for example, goes not only to purchasing food but also supports the free wellness checks provided by Stafford’s mobile wellness service, Central Virginia Health Services and nutrition education provided by SERVE’s partners.  

The International Lions provide free and confidential checks of blood pressure, cholesterol and other medical needs. They also provide hearing and vision screenings and can help clients obtain glasses and hearing devices.  

It’s another part of SERVE’s mission to support its clients holistically.   

“Studies for the last 15 years have shown many of the people that are food insecure have either pre-existing or existing underlying medical conditions. High blood pressure, diabetes, high cholesterol, obesity,” Chaney said. “When you are struggling constantly, and you have medical conditions, it begins to affect your mental stability, right?

Volunteer Carter Barrett prepares boxes for clients at the SERVE pantry in Stafford.

“It causes anxiousness. It causes depression. How about just your overall self-esteem? We are all about helping people and giving them the resources to actually become self-reliant and uplift them.”

Chaney says the stigma surrounding food insecurity needs to end. Despite how someone feels about immigration, border control, migrant workers or refugees, they are still people in need, she said.   

“We are in such a polarized world now that you’re going to be talking to one group of people and they’re going to be thinking from their political stance. Do they support us because of where they lie politically, or do they not support us because of where they lie politically?” Chaney said.

“How did we move away from just talking about the story? The human story of fellow American[s] in need of food. How did we get to a place where we’re judging based on how we feel politically? If we continue to do that, we continue to dismiss 90% of the people that all food pantries are serving.”  

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