A dozen years ago, Julia Brizendine cruised the roads of Loudoun in her pickup collecting crates of fresh produce from local gardens and farmers markets and delivering to food pantries on a mission to bring more nutritious food to neighbors in need.
Like a modern day Johnny Appleseed, Brizendine set out to spread the word that food pantries welcome fresh fruits and vegetables at a time when shelf-stable donations were the norm. Over the past decade, Brizendine and her nonprofit Feed Loudoun have changed the landscape of food donation in the county. Now fresh produce donations have snowballed and taken on a life of their own, and Brizendine is stepping back, disbanding Feed Loudoun as she prepares to leave Loudoun.
“We have to really stop and be proud of ourselves right now. So many of the things that weren’t being done until we came in there to fill that gap are now being taken care of,” Brizendine said.
Brizendine, an avid gardener who runs a small landscaping business, got her nonprofit rolling in early 2009, inspired by then President-elect Barack Obama’s call to service on Martin Luther King Jr. Day. She was looking for a way to volunteer that would tap into her passion for plants and gardening. After conversations with the food pantry then known as Loudoun Interfaith Relief, which has since grown into Loudoun Hunger Relief, she realized there was a lack of understanding about the need for fresh produce donations.
Brizendine launched her project under the auspices of the national organization Plant a Row for the Hungry. Her mission was to encourage individual gardeners to plant extra rows for donation while also building relationships with local farms and orchards and making it easy for vendors at the Sunday Cascades Farmers Market to donate leftover produce. Brizendine also offered on-the-ground help for individuals and organizations who needed help getting donation gardens growing, providing everything from manure to donated seeds.
The project was a labor of love for Brizendine and a small team of volunteers who made trips to the farmers market every Sunday, taking donations back to her home and then to the food pantry on Monday. Brizendine was also an evangelist, letting everyone from small time gardeners to larger farms know that food pantries needs went beyond canned foods, and the response was beyond her expectations.
“I knew that if I didn’t know, other gardeners didn’t know,” Brizendine said. “Nobody who’s a gardener wants to see their hard work go to waste. … Most gardeners are happy to know that somebody’s going to enjoy it. The response has always been very positive. It’s just been a matter of getting things from one place to another.”
The logistical challenges were eased in 2010 thanks to support from the recently launched Loudoun nonprofit 100 Women Strong. The group helped Brizendine get 501(c)(3) status which then took on the Feed Loudoun name and ramped up its activities. 100 Women Strong also donated a refrigerated van to help with transporting produce, allowing Feed Loudoun to streamline its delivery process.
For Loudoun Hunger Relief Executive Director Jennifer Montgomery, Brizendine was at the cutting edge of a national wave of interest in providing fresher, more nutritious fresh food to food pantries.
“Julia saw that coming down the line and then took it upon herself to really make that connection and bridge that gap and bring that idea to help other people was really just so novel and innovative at the time,” Montgomery said. “She really was the one that forged those relationships with the farmers market to say, ‘Hey, instead of composting that or feeding it to your animals, let’s give it to people in need.’ And that’s not something really that food pantries were tracking on at that time. They were really about commodity food and bulk and shelf-stable [foods] and calories. … She was really ahead of her time.”
As Brizendine’s organization gained steam, donating around 30,000 pounds of produce a year at its high point, Loudoun Hunger Relief was growing, adding an increased focus on nutrition to its strategic plan when Montgomery took over as director in 2014.
“We started to recognize a broader movement that people deserve to have access to more nutritious food. Just because you need assistance doesn’t mean you should have to eat junk,” Montgomery said.
Loudoun Hunger Relief now has a market room where clients can select fresh produce and acts as a produce distribution hub for smaller food pantries and other organizations. In the summer when fresh vegetables are abundant, LHR provides donations to several local organizations, including the Loudoun Free Clinic’s diabetes clinic, Healthworks and the local WIC office.
Last year LHR distributed 450,000 pounds of fresh fruit and vegetables, up from around 40,000 pounds in 2014, Montgomery said.
Local farms are now directly donating to Loudoun Hunger Relief, which has its own team of volunteers at farmers markets. The food pantry also gets large produce donations from big box and grocery stores. And in the past few years, nonprofit farms like JK Community Farm and The Piedmont Environmental Council’s Roundabout Meadows Community Farm and A Farm Less Ordinary have grown up, serving food insecure families in the community through Loudoun Hunger Relief.
“I definitely think that Feed Loudoun was the seed that was planted a dozen years ago to really bring attention to the possibility of this…. It’s evolved into something much bigger that I don’t think anybody would have thought could have happened,” Montgomery said.
And as her mission has taken on a life of its own and her own circumstances have changed, Brizendine has decided it’s time to step back. As she and her husband, now empty nesters and grandparents, contemplated downsizing and leaving Loudoun, Brizendine had to decide whether to change the mission of her organization or close up shop and opted to bring Feed Loudoun to an end.
“It’s good. [Other organizations] are now ready to do it. I’m now ready to move on to something else and the timing couldn’t be any better,” Brizendine said.
Brizendine and her husband plan to move to the Winchester area, but she’ll continue her landscaping work in Loudoun.
“It’s kind of bittersweet. … I’m going to be really happy on one hand not to have to think about what I’m going to do on Sundays,” she said. “It has been really rewarding, and in my way it’s been my church. I’m going to have to find a new outlet for that volunteerism. I’ll be involved in something.”