The Culpeper Food Closet at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church remains open and providing vital nutrition for hundreds of local families during the COVID-19 crisis.

Although the waiting room is closed amid social distancing restrictions, those in need can still pick up three days’ worth of groceries in a shopping cart around back in the loading bay area attached to the pantry.

Numerous people were on site Monday morning picking up the free food while volunteers dutifully filled orders with smiles on their faces. The Food Closet is open 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. weekdays.

“As long as DSS is open, we are open, too,” said Food Closet co-director Priscilla Hilton.

Culpeper Human Services provides vouchers to food recipients prior to them picking up the supplies. Culpeper County residents in need, including those newly out of work or who have never before contacted DSS can call 540/229-3816 to inquire about getting a food voucher.

DSS closed most of its offices to the public last week, but is still operating and providing services within social distancing guidelines.

“Clients are not coming inside as we are trying to keep that distance,” Hilton said.

The link in the food chain remains strong at the Food Closet as corporate and faith-based donations continue to come in. Hilton sorted through a recent large donation coordinated by Precious Blood Catholic Church while mentioning sustained contributions from various local big box stores, grocers and restaurants.

“And people are still making donations,” she said.

Most Food Closet volunteers were still on the job Monday, though a few had opted to stay home.

“The volunteers are hanging in there,” Hilton said, as volunteer Julia Green approached to wipe down the shopping carts.

Mary McPhillips has been volunteering at the tiny food site for eight years. “I am just glad we have food here to distribute to people,” she said.

Hilton expressed slight worry about maintaining good health for the volunteers.

“All of our volunteers are in that age range that is vulnerable,” she said of the coronavirus. Still, she looks on the bright side. “Maybe people will get more exercise,” she said.

Priscilla’s husband, Bob, had just left in his vehicle to pick up store donations while an elderly man walked away, clutching a plastic case of cupcakes under his arm.

Julia’s husband, Billy Green, is another co-director, working behind the scenes as church liaison and on the financial side for the nonprofit ministry that has monthly expenses of around $9,000.

“Oh, yes, we’re staying open until we can’t stay open anymore,” he said in a phone conversation on Thursday. A meeting on Friday with Human Services will explore alternatives for keeping the food supply unbroken, perhaps getting more volunteers for evening hours and offering delivery to those who can’t get out.

The food site feeds an average of 341 families per month, including 417 children and 163 senior citizens, about 10,000 meals every 30 days, Green said. The Food Closet also gives food to the shelter for abused families and to Culpeper Senior Center.

There was not a tremendous increase in demand this week, Green said.

“With the run on the grocery stores, I expect people have stocked up for a couple of weeks. I think we’ll start seeing people here after that and not just our regular clients, but people getting laid off or their hours really cut—the working poor,” he said. “Now that they are not working so much maybe they can get to the Food Closet between 9 and 1 when before they couldn’t.”

While more volunteers are always needed, the cramped Food Closet space—in the building behind the historic church—presents a challenge in terms of social distancing, Green said.

“You put 10 people in there, with the restrictions, and you’re pretty full,” he said.

Green said they will figure out how to keep the food flowing.

“I am a native of Culpeper—this is Culpeper, we figure out how to get it done. We look out for each other, we’ve done it all our lives,” he said.

The world as we once knew it is gone whether we like it or not, Green added. A construction management instructor for local colleges, the Food Closet co-director said the world has gone virtual in the age of an epidemic. “It is forcing people, good or bad, into online meetings—but nothing beats face to face,” Green said.

Mail tax-deductible donations to Culpeper Food Closet P.O. Box 343 Culpeper, VA 22701.

“They are doing a yeoman’s job of providing food to the community in need,” said Human Services Director Lisa Peacock.

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