HANOVER, Va. – The line of cars snaked past the building, lazily looping around the adjacent parking lot as a warm breeze fluttered past. A group of Soldiers was set up behind the building, camouflage-colored trucks lining the edge of the roadway that stretched from the parking lot along the rear of the building and out to the main road.
“Two,” shouted a Soldier, holding up two fingers as the driver of the lead car inched forward. Shouts of “two” echoed down the line from other Soldiers as they moved quickly, loading items into the trunk as the driver moved down the group.
For the Soldiers, from the Virginia Army National Guard’s 229th Brigade Engineer Battalion, it may have been the number two that was shouted out, but what they were doing was actually the first.
“This is our first pop-up site,” said Army 2nd Lt. Kyle Rash, a platoon leader with B Company, 229th BEB. The site was part of COVID-19 response efforts, with unit members working with a food bank to distribute food to those who need it.
“A pop-up site is where we’re able to take their food bank vehicles and augment them with our vehicles so that we can take rations and meals and distribute them anywhere, anytime to meet the community need,” said Rash.
The number two, shouted out as the drivers moved forward through the line, indicated items the Soldiers were to load into the vehicle as the driver moved through the line.
“It’s been rolling,” said Rash, describing the activity level at the site.
The pop-up site, set up at a local church, came about after food bank staff saw increased demand during distribution days at the food bank’s warehouse, a result of the COVID-19 outbreak.
“The [warehouse] facility had about an 800 percent increase in demand,” said Rash. “Setting up these facilities, we can lower that to more of a stable demand at the [warehouse] facility.”
Food bank staff also noticed that many who visited the food bank came from specific areas throughout the region. They worked with the battalion’s Soldiers to plan out pop-up sites in areas where outreach was needed.
“We were able to look at the data of the people who were coming into the food bank for normal distribution [days] and identify that this was a large community in need,” said Rash, of the area where they set up. “So, we were able to choose this as our first community to push out the most food [to] and have the largest impact right off the bat.”
Getting the site up and running mostly came down to simple logistics, said Rash.
“We worked with the full-time staff at the food bank to identify how much food and rations we [needed],” he said. “Their marketing team, along with their leadership, were able to identify and call out to the local church here and put out the message that this is when we’re coming, this is roughly how much we can support.”
From there, it was a matter of loading up and heading out.
“We were able to fall in on the vehicles, load them up and push them out,” said Rash.
Once at the church, the Soldiers unloaded the trucks and established a drive-through traffic pattern to efficiently get people through the line.
For Army Pfc. Maria Ferello, a combat engineer with B Company, efficiency was a key part of the mission.
“If we were just at the food bank, a lot more people would have to come to one, specific location,” she said. “But, if we can branch out into the community, more people can come and we can serve people more efficiently.”
While distributing food isn’t typically part of a combat engineer’s duties, Ferello said there are similarities.
“As a combat engineer, you have to pay attention to detail and make sure you’re organized,” she said. “In the distribution line, you have to pay attention how many people are in the car or how many households are [receiving food], and you have to make sure they’re getting everything. You have to make sure it’s organized so you don’t mess up or give the wrong amount.”
Ensuring distribution of the right amount of food is also one of the biggest challenges, Ferello added.
“We don’t want to short-change anybody,” she said.
The unit has been on duty at the food bank since April, Rash said, and there are plans for other pop-up sites where needed.
“[The food bank] has identified sites throughout the area,” he said. “The intent is that every day of the week we can set up either at the warehouse or we can set up a mobile site.”
The mission is one that hits home for some Soldiers, said Rash.
“This mission is more personal for the team because a lot of them live in the surrounding community,” he said. “Being able to throw on the uniform and then distribute food knowing it’s going to reach their neighbors’ home and their dinner plate makes it more personal.”
For many in the unit, that’s also what has made it rewarding.
“I did not expect to necessarily be doing this when I joined, especially as a combat engineer,” said Ferello. “I’m really grateful we get to do this. I really like seeing us do this.”