Manassas food pantry coping with surge in demand

Jun 13, 2024 | News


Jim Hale | Catholic Herald Staff Writer | 6/13/24

Poverty in the diocese is increasing and the path to poverty is “complicated” according to Jessica Root, executive director of the House of Mercy, which operates a food pantry, thrift store and clothing donation center in Manassas.

Root shared the story of a recently retired couple who had generously donated to food pantries throughout their marriage, then found themselves on the other end, needing donated groceries after the wife was diagnosed with a major medical issue. Their savings disappeared.

“We see a lot of people who are just not making ends meet,” said Root. “A circumstance pops up and they suddenly find they need extra help.”

The situation is dire, as the demand for groceries and other basic necessities at the House of Mercy is at an all-time high, exceeding the worst days of the COVID pandemic. Diocesan Catholic Charities is reporting similar challenges at the relocated Alexandria Food Pantry, where demand has grown by 63 percent while donations have dropped by 44 percent.

“We’ve doubled the number of people we’re serving in the last six months,” said Root. “It’s kind of insane how the numbers have increased that much in such a short period of time. In September, we were serving an average of 60 people a day. We’re now averaging over 100 families a day.”

Root emphasized that the majority who need help are working families, not homeless individuals. “Most of our clients have jobs and many have several jobs but they’re still not making ends meet because this is such an expensive area to live in,” she said. “Obviously food is extra expensive these days, and that’s hitting everybody.”

House of Mercy began 18 years ago as a Catholic prayer group focusing on divine mercy. Prayer led to action, modeled on Matthew 25 — feeding those in need, giving clothes to the naked and drink to the thirsty.

It’s not just food, clothing and monetary donations that are running low; volunteers are needed urgently. “We just can’t keep up,” said Ann Leggett, who volunteers in the food pantry and clothing donation center. “There’s just not enough people. It’s non-stop in the food pantry. We need a lot more volunteers if we’re going to survive.”

“We try to be a great place to volunteer and a lot of them become friends,” said Root. “Service is such a great place to learn about your faith. You’re able to have a different kind of conversation in the realm of evangelization because you’re living it instead of just being at church.”

The friendships formed by the bond of serving others is one of many benefits that Leggett has enjoyed since volunteering a year ago. “I can’t tell you how many times a day people come in and say thank you for what you do,” she said. “It’s such a good cause. I’m a grandma. I thought ‘I want to do something that helps the community.’ It’s such a good feeling knowing that you’re doing something good for people.”

A father who did not want to be identified but wanted to express his gratitude to House of Mercy for helping his family said, “House of Mercy has not only been of great help and support for the economy of our home but has also given us access to benefits that have helped us grow as people.”

During the extreme shortages of the COVID crisis, the community came through. “We need that to happen again because a lot of those donors were first-time donors,” said Root. “They donated during that urgent time, but we haven’t seen them continue to support us throughout the last couple of years. We need to get it jump started again because the need is so high. We’re trying to keep our doors open. Where else are people going to go?”