Elizabeth Ford knew hunger and housing insecurity growing up in Fairfax County. The feeling of walking past a school lunchroom and not being able to eat sticks with her decades later.
“When you pass the cafeteria and you’re hungry, it’s the worst feeling,” Ford said.
A desire to make sure local kids never know that feeling prompted Ford to launch her nonprofit Better A Life in 2016, with a focus on fighting child hunger. She started the organization on a mission to cover school lunch debt. But as COVID shifted community needs, Ford and her nonprofit pivoted. Better A Life opened its first food pantry in Purcellville in January. Ford’s goal from the start has been to create a different kind of food pantry. She offers cooking classes and mentorship programs for young people in her commercial space on North Maple Avenue. As someone who grew up with bare shelves and convenience store dinners, one of Ford’s goals is to help families take advantage of the items available in the pantry.
“This is based on my life—never cooking or knowing how to cook. I didn’t touch raw meat until I was 21, and it was a disaster,” she said. “We never had food in the house.”
Better A Life’s Purcellville food pantry is home to a small cooktop, oven and microwave and individual aprons for young clients who learn the basics of cooking and how to make the most of items on pantry shelves. Ford says clients often hesitate to take certain items from the shelves because they’re unsure about how to prepare them. She noticed that canned chicken, a food pantry staple, often sits on the shelves.
“The families will literally skip it, and I’ve got hundreds of cans,” Ford said.
Ford’s solution was to teach kids a recipe for chicken nuggets using egg, canned chicken, and cheese—all items available in the pantry—and watch the canned chicken fly off the shelves.
Ford grew up in Reston, the daughter of a single mother whose mental health challenges prevented her from taking advantage of community resources.
“She didn’t do the things that would have helped us,” Ford said.
Ford and her mother moved from rental to rental with no food in the house.
“For food, I would go to the 7-11 with my friends and we’d sit outside and bum quarters and we’d get cigarettes and a hot dog. That was our lifestyle,” she said.
As Ford struggled in school, her mother pulled her out of high school in ninth grade. She started working full time in local restaurants as a teen but decided she wanted something more.
“I knew it wasn’t the life I wanted. … I didn’t want to live hungry,” Ford said.
Ford got her GED and pulled herself up through a series of temp jobs, eventually landing in human resources. She put herself through college earning an IT degree and works in the security field. Ford now lives in Purcellville with her husband and children. But she was a struggling single mom for years, and her own childhood and experience as a single parent push her to support kids and families in need.
Ford started Better A Life as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit six years ago while living in Leesburg, initially focusing on covering student lunch debt. When the pandemic hit two years ago, she shifted gears and started making food deliveries out of her basement. But she soon realized that to partner with larger organizations like Feeding America, she needed to establish a food pantry.
And from the outset, she knew she wanted to take Better A Life a step further.
“I said, ‘If I’m going to do it, I’m going to do what is really needed and add these programs,’” Ford said.
Her Purcellville Pantry opened Jan. 28 and has quickly become a valued resource in the community. In addition to food and hygiene supplies, Ford works with clients to find and access community resources. The organization provides jackets, coats and school supplies along with non-food necessities like paper towels, formula and laundry detergent.
“I had a little girl the other day who got her first hairbrush,” Ford said.
Ford said her own experience growing up low-income in affluent Reston has helped her navigate the environment in wealthy western Loudoun.
“Often low-income communities are hidden. … Ours are hidden here in Purcellville,” she said.
The Better A Life Pantry is within walking distance of several lower-income neighborhoods in Purcellville. Ford and her husband also do outreach through monthly door-to-door food deliveries in town, packing her jeep full of 100 bags of food on the first Saturday of every month. (She says getting a van for the nonprofit is a big goal). It’s an important way to get to know the community and establish Better A Life as a resource, she said. Ford partners with the local Cake4Kids chapter for children’s birthdays and organizes Thanksgiving and Christmas food and toy drives countywide. Better A Life also supports the food pantry at Mountain View Elementary School and eight other schools in Loudoun and Fairfax.
In addition to the learning kitchen, Ford has set up a reading area in the new space and is building a mentorship program and a homework club in cooperation with the Purcellville Police Department. Better A Life does not set income limits or limits on food access. Ford says that often in high cost of living areas like Loudoun, even families who don’t qualify for government assistance can struggle to make ends meet.
Ford has ambitious goals to expand her interactive pantry model to Leesburg and Sterling and eventually into Fairfax County. For now, she runs Better A Life as a volunteer and operates with an all-volunteer staff.
“I’m trying to keep it that way as long as possible,” she said.
Better A Life’s inaugural Out Run Child Hunger fundraiser takes place Sunday, April 10 at Franklin Park and features a 5K race and 1K family fun run. Registration is open through April 7, and the registration fee is $35 for the 5K and $25 for the 1K.
Better A Life’s food pantry is located at 201 N Maple Ave, Unit F in Purcellville. For hours and information, go to betteralife.org or facebook.com/helpbetteralife.