Written by Kaitlin Hill

Shakespeare wrote, “How that little candle throws his beams! So shines a good deed in a weary world.” Perhaps a little candle, Seven Loaves Services in Middleburg certainly shines a bright light across Virginia. At the heart of the food pantry is its commitment to serving anyone, a word often found in all capital letters on the organization’s website.

With an enthusiastic director, dedicated group of volunteers, and robust support of the community, Seven Loaves provides meals for families in 13 counties across Virginia and West Virginia. But more impressive than the broad reach is the endless capacity for generosity, keeping the mission moving, even during a pandemic. 

Seven Loaves was founded by a group of ministers in the Middleburg area, and officially incorporated in 1994. Over the past 26 years, the food pantry has expanded. Three years ago, one of its former volunteers, Carleigh Underwood, became the new director. 

As a Middleburg native, Underwood’s connection to the Seven Loaves mission started in her childhood kitchen. “I have always had a connection with food,” she says. “Food is very important in my family, and I just remember seeing my mom and dad delivering hot meals to people without any questions. They were always just very big on making sure everyone had enough to eat.” As a child, her dad instilled in her the idea of helping others. “‘Always be a part of bringing someone up, never bringing them down,’ she says, quoting her father. “That’s a famous quote of his in my house.”  

Carleigh Underwood, Seven Loaves director. Photo by Jennifer Gray.

The lessons she learned from her parents led her to Seven Loaves. “I started as a volunteer driver at Seven Loaves, and I became completely engulfed in the mission,” she says. “I wanted to learn everything there was to be able to help.” 

After a year of volunteering, Underwood’s dedication to the mission made her a promising candidate for the director position when it became available. “I volunteered my time with different aspects of the organization,” she says. “One thing led to another, and then the director at the time [Debbie Gallagher] wanted to retire, and I was fortunate enough to get the job. Debbie and Jim McGlaughlin [the former Vice President] taught me everything I know, and I wear many hats. But I just love it. I just love the mission.” 

She is now in her third year as director. With the exception of Underwood’s role, Seven Loaves is entirely volunteer-based. “The rest of the workforce is based on volunteers,” she says. “They are just amazing. Most are locals from Middleburg, Marshall, Upperville, and the South Riding area.” Volunteers known as “loafers” can participate in a variety of ways, from unloading and stocking, to distributing and serving as pickup drivers. 

In October 2020, the National Sporting Library & Museum presented Seven Loaves with a check from funds raised by this year’s NSLM Polo Classic. L to R: Seven Loaves director, Carleigh Underwood, National Sporting Library & Museum director of development, Reid O’Connor, and National Sporting Library & Museum executive director, Elizabeth von Hassell. Photo by Jennifer Gray.

Donations are often locally sourced too. Seven Loaves has standing partnerships with local organizations, including the Warrenton Farmers Market, the Blue Ridge Area Food Bank, and Archwood Green Barns in The Plains. And the generosity of the Middleburg community is a big player in Seven Loaves’ success as well. 

“I’ll ask for canned chicken, and I’ll turn around and have a thousand cans of chicken,” she says. “The caring nature just spreads like wildfire here. That generosity is contagious here.” 

More than canned goods, Seven Loaves has a dairy, fresh produce, and personal hygiene product program. “We’ve been fortunate to be able to provide an abundance of food, fresh produce in particular, because of the local farms and really generous people in the community,” Underwood says.  

Even during the COVID-19 pandemic, when Underwood has had to scale back the number of volunteers, the spirit of generosity hasn’t dimmed. 

Volunteer holding beans, photo provided by Seven Loaves Services, Inc. 

“Before the pandemic, we had about 80 volunteers, but we’ve had to cut that in half because of the amount of people we can have inside,” she says. “But a lot of volunteers are still doing outreach or different projects for us outside of Seven Loaves. They are having hygiene bag assembly lines or their own coordinated drives, and then they bring that to us. I’m trying to keep people involved as much as possible.” 

And as the season of giving approaches, there is no slow down in sight. “Once the Fourth of July is over, I’m like ‘Alright, let’s get into the Thanksgiving mindset, especially this year,’” she says. “Thanksgiving and Christmas are really our crazy time of year, but we have a good system down. And we’re running out of room to store stuff, which I love. That is a good problem to have.” 

Having a good system and an overflow of donations is crucial when serving between 90 and 100 families per week. “Our data runs on a unique system and a duplicate system,” Underwood says. “So unique just counts the household that comes and they are counted as one. And the duplicate, it counts that household every time they come to get food.” 

Fresh produce, photo provided by Seven Loaves Services, Inc.

With that perspective, Seven Loaves has served 486 unique households, and they have served over 4,000 times. “We just try to keep everybody fed as much as possible every week,” she says. 

Even more than impressive numbers, it is Underwood’s contagious passion for what she does and the hard work of dedicated volunteers that make Seven Loaves an abundantly bright light in an often-weary world. 

“It’s hard to put into words,” she says. “I like the connection we have with the people we serve. I meet so many people and learn their stories. When kids come in with their parents, seeing them makes it all worth it. They are just so grateful, so happy knowing that they’ll have something to eat. It’s just a humbling experience to be able to give the God-given right to eat. We all need to eat.” ML

Published in the December 2020 issue of Middleburg Life.