By Marianne E. Weaver
The U.S. Department of Agriculture defines food insecurity as a “household-level economic and social condition of limited or uncertain access to adequate food.” In 2014 the USDA found that 48.1 million people in the United States live in households that struggle to afford an adequate diet, often compromising their health by relying on less expensive and less healthful food, skipping meals and/or reducing the size of meals.
Locally, Prince William is not immune to food insecurity. Feeding America, the nation’s largest hunger-relief organization, estimated that in 2014 almost seven percent of Prince William County residents—about 29,520 people—lived in a state of food insecurity. In Manassas that number was slightly higher at 7.2 percent, which translates to about 2,920 people. Manassas Park numbers were only slightly better at 6.1 percent of residents, or about 920 people, who didn’t know where they’d get their next meal.
Mercedes Kirkland-Doyle, founder and executive director of the Good News Community Kitchen (TGNCK), opened her doors at 308 Poplar Alley #B, Occoquan, in July to meet the everincreasing needs of the region’s underserved population.
“This has been my dream since the seventh grade,” said the U.S. Army veteran and Columbia, S.C., native. “In our youth group, we had to coordinate a kitchen in our rectory. It was a life-changing experience. Once we opened the doors, I saw there were children and babies in line.”
Carrying that image in her mind to this day, Kirkland-Doyle resolved to make a difference. The Good News Community Kitchen formally registered with the Commonwealth of Virginia in March 2015 and was granted tax-exempt status in March 2016. The doors of the Occoquan office opened officially Wednesday, Aug. 10, 2016.
“The Good News Community Kitchen has a vision and passion for helping those in need,” said Jason Hickman, president, Rotary Club of Lake Ridge. “With Lake Ridge Rotary’s focus on homelessness in our community, we felt a synergy with the work TGNCK is doing. We are happy to support TGNCK and appreciated the opportunity to participate in the ribbon cutting to showcase both our missions and commitment to community service.”
From the new space, Kirkland-Doyle will collect and store nonperishables, business attire and winter coats that are distributed through the organization’s four core programs.
The Core Four
The Good News Community Kitchen is more than the typical soup kitchen. Kirkland-Doyle said the mission is divided into four programs:
- Mobile Meals,
- Hygiene Heroes,
- Trends to Transition and
- Warm Winters.
“We serve anyone in the Northern Virginia area who needs food or assistance with hygiene and professional clothing,” she explained. “If they need assistance, we can help them.”
Through the mobile meals program, once a week TGNCK volunteers go into the community to serve ready-to-eat meals, such as sandwiches, soup, fruit, fruit snacks and bottled water.
“I’m learning my audience in Prince William, so I distribute food when I see them at any frequented location,” said KirklandDoyle, adding that right now those locations are the tent city behind Bungalow Alehouse in Woodbridge, two locations along Prince William Parkway (near Target), and outside abandoned buildings where she has seen homeless people congregate. “My goal is to establish a presence and rapport at an identified lowincome housing development and provide services on a recurring basis there,” she said.
The Hygiene Heroes packets, available during the meal distributions, provide the underserved with toiletries, such as toothpaste, toothbrushes, deodorant, feminine hygiene products, baby wipes, socks and hand sanitizer.
In addition to the community distributions, TGNCK has “adopted” the Beverly Warren Family Shelter in Dumfries, which offers four family rooms as well as six beds for single males in a dorm-style room. Every other Wednesday, volunteers pull on their TGNCK t-shirts to cook and serve homestyle meals to residents.
“Since we are a nonprofit organization, for us it is really important to find community partners. Community partners are a key to making the shelter work,” said Maria I. Rodriguez, administrative coordinator at the Beverly Warren Family Shelter. “When our clients stay in our shelter, they don’t have to worry about where the next meal is coming from; they have the assurance that they are going to have a warm meal on their plates. That way they can focus on their other goals and be more successful in getting back on their feet.”
Kirkland-Doyle has involved her children–ages seven and nine– since the beginning.
“I want them to know about being involved in their community; if you are in a position to help, you should do so,” she said, adding that she routinely takes her children along to volunteer. “I had to explain that they lived there because they didn’t have a home.”
Between her community distributions and shelter hours, Kirkland-Doyle noticed a segment of the population that was falling through the cracks: families with homes, who were experiencing short-term need. Thus the “Goods to Go” sub-initiative was born. According to Kirkland-Doyle, families come to the Occoquan office to fill out some basic paperwork. In exchange, they leave with an emergency meal unit, usually consisting of rice, beans and whole grain oats.
The Trends to Transition program also operates out of the Occoquan office. According to its website (tgnck.org), TGNCK partners with other local organizations throughout Prince William, including homeless shelters, welfare-to-work job training centers and job training programs for veterans, the disabled and recovering abusers. After these individuals complete a job-training program and schedule an interview, the partner organization refers them to TGNCK for interview-appropriate attire.
Winter Warmers donation collection is underway. TGNCK is accepting gently used coats in child and adult sizes to distribute at its Occoquan location.
“In September we kick off our coat and blanket drive in hopes of collecting 100 gently worn blankets and 100 coats,” said Kirkland-Doyle. “Through this initiative we are able to help out working poor and unsheltered homeless residents prepare for the winter months. Our goal is to provide coats to local school-age children, adults in transition and the elderly as well as providing blankets to the population that does not have any protection against the winter elements.”
Although adult coats are distributed, Kirkland-Doyle is mostly focused on helping the children of Prince William.
“We have children attending school, in the heart of winter, wearing windbreaker jackets. Their parents are doing the very best they can to survive in an area where the cost of living is rather high, and [to be honest]it’s not the child’s fault and shouldn’t be the reason a child is not performing well in school,” she said. “It really bothers me to know that we have children, who typically should only be concerned with doing well in school, who have real-time or adult stress levels. That’s just not fair or right. We get one childhood, and I’ve taken on the responsibility of cherishing and protecting it for as many as I can, Lord willing.”
Marianne Weaver (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a freelance editor and writer. She earned a B.A. in English from the University of Pittsburgh and an M.J. from Temple University. She lives in Gainesville, Va., with her husband and two children.