On a recent Tuesday night, dozens of people sat in parked cars behind an Albemarle County warehouse, waiting for the doors to open.
As the hour approached, a crew inside worked speedily to prepare the goods: chili, soup, canned fruit and vegetables, pasta, bread, cereal, macaroni and cheese, spaghetti sauce and more groceries that would be given out to Central Virginia’s needy.
“Doors are opening!” yelled Jerry Denney, the driving force behind the Loaves & Fishes Food Pantry.
What started in 2004 as a small operation has grown into a bustling enterprise serving nearly 12,000 families.
Volunteers tried to keep an orderly, smooth process as families checked in via a small office area before entering the warehouse to pick up groceries waiting in carts.
A little girl grinned through a window at a tray of cupcakes as Denney explained his system and how it came to be.
The food pantry, which began as an outreach program of First United Methodist Church, used to operate out of a cramped room at Jackson-Via Elementary School, but it’s now an official 501(c)(3) nonprofit that moved into its own warehouse space on Greenbrier Drive a year ago.
“Our numbers have skyrocketed this year as a result,” said Becky Allison, a member of Loaves & Fishes’ board of directors. “I get new calls all the time, people who have always provided for themselves but perhaps they had a prolonged illness or had been laid off from their job and now they need help. And that’s why we’re here.”
With the new space, shelving, refrigerator, freezer and forklift, the food pantry now has the capacity to move close to 400 tons of food per year, a far cry from what was possible in the tiny space at Jackson-Via.
Denney, a financial adviser with Wells Fargo, was at the center of that evolution.
“Jerry was leading the way with his decision to say, ‘This is where we need to be,’” said Allison.
With the expansion, the food pantry is the largest partner of the local Blue Ridge Area Food Bank, which provides much of the food, along with the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
“They’ve grown exponentially and since they’ve established their pantry, they are very important,” said Joe Caputi, manager of the food bank’s Charlottesville branch. “We’re all contributing to the same cause.”
Denney, 51, says he’s always felt an urge to help those who are struggling. Though some might be troubled by the sight of people living in tents out in the woods, Denney is the type who will approach to see if there’s anything he can do.
“Earlier, I felt just a little hungry, but nothing compared to what somebody else might feel who doesn’t have access to food,” Denney said. “Helping people with basic needs has just always been important to me.”
On an average week, Denney puts in about 12 hours of work for the food pantry. On heavy weeks, he puts in 40 to 50.
On the first Saturday of each month, he packs his SUV with food and makes home deliveries to shut-ins and people without cars. He starts at 7:30 a.m., and hits about 45 homes before finishing at 2:30 p.m.
He has two paid staff members who work part-time, but the bulk of the operation, which costs about $150,000 annually, is on a volunteer basis.
The volunteers include church members, college students, Boy Scout troops, families and some who just need the community service hours, according to Denney.
As the charity continues to grow, Denney is thinking of hiring an executive director.
“I don’t need to be the guy in charge,” said Denney. “I would love for somebody else to be the guy in charge at times. … But by hook or crook, I’ve stayed the guy in charge.”
He also wants to add a truck that could go to local stores such as Kroger, Whole Foods and Panera Bread to regularly pick up unused food.
As the logistical upgrades continue, Denney hopes to keep expanding the reach of Loaves of Fishes.
“This past year has been just getting this to be a functional food pantry,” Denney said. “We’re there now.”
Hometown: Sioux City, Iowa
Residence: Southern Albemarle County
Occupation: Financial adviser, board chairman of Loaves & Fishes Food Pantry
Personal: Married to Juli Denney; two grown children
Pastimes: Spending time (at the beach, when possible) with family; hunting game birds; gardening; exercising