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CYSK: Alex London-Gross

A glimpse into the daily lives, inspirations, and stories of the leaders, changemakers, and community members who call Charlottesville home

Alex London-Gross

Executive Director at The PB&J Fund

Hometown: Philadelphia, PA

Years lived in Charlottesville: 7

Favorite small business: Market Street Market

Favorite place: Shenandoah National Park

Favorite community event: BANFF Film Festival

Favorite local restaurant: Lampo

What is your educational and professional background?

I have a Bachelor’s Degree in Biology and a Master’s in Public Health. I have always felt very motivated towards trying to create healthier environments for people to live in; that is a part of what brought me to the PB&J Fund. I’ve had a pretty diverse career path. I worked for the YMCA for almost 7 years and have had several different roles for them: I did some policy work for YMCAs across the state of Virginia, then went on to a national consulting role where I was helping other states think through policy and systems change that would center community-based organizations in a healthcare system, rather than it being a hospital as the center of healthcare.

I was a volunteer at PB&J when I first moved to Charlottesville, which is how I got that connection. I was thrilled when the opportunity was presented to me to come back to Charlottesville and to be able to work with them. It’s really exciting to be doing something at a local level, that is directly impacting the community where I live.

What does the PB&J Fund do?

We are a nonprofit and we have a commercial kitchen downtown, across the street from the library, where we’d traditionally hold all of our programming. In a past, typical school year, we run programs that are aimed at children and families who come from historically under-resourced communities. We run three different programs throughout the academic year:

  1. Chef Kids – our traditional afterschool program, where we work with partners like the Boys and Girls Club and Friendship Court. Students come to us after school and learn how to make a healthy meal, and then actually get to sit down and enjoy it with our volunteers and with each other.

  2. Chef for a Day – designed for Kindergarten through 3rd Grade classrooms in both the city and the county. Students can come for a one-time exposure, make a simple recipe, but get to have an experience at PB&J and an introductory nutrition lesson.

  3. Chef Families – in partnership with Ready Kids and Young Lives. Parents come in once a month and learn how to make a family-friendly, easy recipe and go home with a bag of groceries to then recreate it for their families.

Obviously, with the pandemic, all of that ended pretty abruptly in March. We decided to pivot to just do food distribution. We recognized the extreme financial pressures being put on families and wanted to ensure that the decision between paying the electric bill and buying groceries wasn’t something families had trouble with. So starting in March and running through August, we did a weekly food delivery for families that were identified by the city schools. They got things that were relatively shelf-stable like macaroni and cheese and canned soup, but then some fresh produce as well. With the return to the school year, we decided to go to a once-a-month model, which is more similar to what we’d do every December with our Holiday Giving program. Families receive a larger portion of food and more produce, as a way to help sustain them throughout the month. We’re focusing on trying to ensure that families have the resources they need, knowing that kids are home more during the day. While they may still have access to school food, they’ve probably lost the snack that was being provided to them or there could still be some financial hardships that families are experiencing.

What makes you passionate about your work?

I went to school in Philadelphia and stayed in the city after I graduated, working in a traditional healthcare setting. I came across an article written by one of the professors at Drexel that talked about a Photovoice Project with women who lived in North Philadelphia, that was tracking their experience with food insecurity. It talked a lot about the general demographics in the city, and how food insecurity can be dialed down into zip codes. There are some Congressional districts within the city that are some of the more food insecure districts within the United States.

My zip code was one of the ones that happened to be in a food insecure Congressional district. That felt insane to me, because I lived in the center of the city and would pass a Whole Foods on my walk home from work every day. I thought to myself, “There is clearly something very different with my experience versus other people that live less than a mile away from me. What does this mean?” I started reading a lot and trying to understand what that meant and how that could be such a vastly different lived experience. I got really involved with an organization there called Philabundance, which is the large foodbanking network in the Philadelphia region, and just learned a ton about poverty, and racism, and how a two block radius can change things so drastically for people. I walked by grocery stores everyday, but if there wasn’t a grocery store a mile away, what would that mean for a mom who has kids and has to take the bus or public transportation and carry all the groceries back? That was my initial journey into the food system world and was the tipping point as well in terms of what I wanted to do in grad school.

How would you like to impact the Charlottesville community?

I think that the greatest impact that any of us could have in this social service space is to lead to policy or system change that helps create true equity in our community. The Food Justice Network has this great slogan where they want Charlottesville to become a “Food-E city” (food equitable) city. I think that there are so many of us who come from a position of privilege, who see Charlottesville as this incredibly rich community with tons of restaurants and lots of access to local producers. There are so many barriers in place and so many inequities in terms of being able to access food across our community.

I think the greatest thing we could do is to think about how we can continue to use our resources in a way that begins to level the playing field, especially for kids. No child chooses to live in a lower-resource community or to be faced with systemic racism that will lead to inequities in the way they grow up. As an organization, we need to be thinking “What can we do to ensure that kids have access to healthy food on a daily basis? What sort of systems can be put in place to make sure that they’re successful in school and they’re not hungry when they show up at the beginning of the school day, whether that’s in a real school building or virtually on their computer right now?” For me, that’s the thing that I think about the most.

What is something you're looking forward to?

I think that there is so much potential and opportunity, not just for PB&J but for a lot of nonprofits, to use this time in history as a moment to pivot and say: “We will not go back to the way things were. Our eyes are now open from the racial reckoning that our country has had to do that got the tipping point of the death and murder of George Floyd.” My team has been doing the work to be more thoughtful about race, to figure our what it means to be an organization led by a white woman in our community, and to be more intentional about becoming an anti-racist organization. I think that having this time with the pandemic, when we’re not running traditional programming and being able to slow down and be thoughtful about what happens next, and saying “we want things to be different,” is actually really exciting. It’s also really scary to not know what exactly we’ll do or what things will look like, but I think there are a lot of organizations who are asking themselves those questions and it’s absolutely the right thing for any of us to be doing.

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