November 2023 marks the seventh anniversary — and tremendous growth — for Food For Neighbors, a grassroots nonprofit tackling teen food insecurity in partnership with local middle and high schools.
Founded in 2016 to address the weekend food gap for hungry students attending Herndon Middle School and Herndon High School, Food For Neighbors responded to other schools that learned about the reliable and nutritious supplemental food and requested services for their students. The nonprofit is now partnering with 42 schools in Arlington, Fairfax, and Loudoun counties, and, with its Nov. 11 collection, has provided over 425,000 pounds of food and toiletries to schools. Food For Neighbors credits this success to the generous community spirit found throughout the many neighborhoods surrounding schools.
“Our ability to help so many students is directly tied to the interest and support of our wonderful community members,” explained Karen Joseph, Founder and Executive Director of Food For Neighbors. “Our innovative Red Bag Program focuses on mobilizing community members of all ages and backgrounds to support their local schools, which means that the food and toiletries they donate are helping students living and learning in their neighborhood or one just down the street.”
The Red Bag Program provides shelving/storage units for schools to establish in-house pantries and then mobilizes community members to fill the pantries. Five times a year, Red Bag donors use a specific grocery list to shop for toiletries and shelf-stable, single-serve foods that provide nutrition and variety, so all students may enjoy the food regardless of their access to special ingredients or large appliances. The donors then fill their bags with their purchases and set the bags on their doorsteps. Volunteers, organized by neighborhoods, collect the donations and bring them to one of now nine locations for sorting and then delivery to nearby partnering schools. At the schools, social workers, counselors, and/or family liaisons identify students in need and connect them with the resources.
Food For Neighbors has registered over 2,700 volunteers and over 2,700 Red Bag donors, and more donors are always needed to address the need. For the most vulnerable students, Food For Neighbors also offers interested schools grocery gift cards, which enables students and their families to shop for their most-needed food, like fresh fruits and vegetables.
“Every time I participate in a Red Bag Event, I feel the community spirit and am moved to do all I can to support Food For Neighbors, our amazing area schools, and the students they serve,” said Anne O’Flaherty, Director of Operations for Food For Neighbors. “I see people of all ages and backgrounds, school groups, businesses, and service organizations coming together to make a difference. It’s very inspiring.”
During the Nov. 11 Red Bag Event, over 800 volunteers helped to collect, sort, and deliver more than 24,000 pounds of food and toiletries donated by over 1,800 households in the areas of Arlington, Annandale, Falls Church, Alexandria, Fort Hunt, Mount Vernon, Springfield, Lorton, Centreville, Chantilly, Vienna, Reston, Herndon, Sterling, Potomac Falls, and Ashburn.
Supporting the event with food drives and/or hands-on help were families with children, teens, adults of all ages, and representatives from 26 different businesses, service organizations, and school groups. All contributed with enthusiasm to make a direct, positive impact on students in their local schools.
For Centreville High School, Nov. 11 marked the eighth time it served as a major donation collection and sorting site. Heather Ellison, the Centreville Area Manager for Food For Neighbors, found the school buzzing with activity and her heart full of appreciation for other volunteers on the Centreville leadership team as well as for the many donors and additional volunteers working together to make a difference.
“Bags were overflowing with generosity from our donors and food drives,” shared Ellison. “There were the familiar faces of our amazing repeat volunteers, who were smiling ear to ear as well as new volunteers and organizations eagerly learning the ropes. Even the teenagers were beaming with pride as they stacked filled bins in our pantry.”
Food For Neighbors invites additional community members to join in the fight against teen food insecurity. The next Red Bag Event will be held on January 13, 2024, and new Red Bag donors, volunteers, community partners, and financial contributors are always welcome. To learn more visit,