Northern Virginia Food Rescue – a local nonprofit that has helped redirect millions of pounds of food from local grocery stores, restaurants and farmers markets to needy residents – is parting ways with its founding chief executive officer over “differing ideas on how to fulfill the [organization’s] mission,” its board president said over the weekend.
Aaron Tolson, 46, of Manassas, resigned as CEO of NVFR on Tuesday, July 26, according to a July 30 news release issued by Erika Spalding, president of the NVFR Board of Directors.
“Aaron and I share a passion for ending hunger in our community. However, we have found that he and the board have differing ideas on how to fulfill our mission,” Spalding said in the news release. Spalding is vice president of corporate communications and marketing for Didlake, a local nonprofit agency that provides jobs and job training for people with disabilities.
“After conversations with one another, and our board of directors, we have agreed to part ways,” Spalding added in the release. “We are grateful for what Aaron has contributed during his time with us.”
Tolson initially shared the news on Saturday, July 30, over Facebook. Tolson said he was “heartbroken” after being asked to resign by the NVFR board and was not provided with any “specifics” regarding the board’s decision.
“Nothing concrete, nothing in writing – so no need to ask me,” he wrote. “I’m not sure what direction the board would like to take the organization now, but I am proud of the vision, mission, staff and results created over the past [four] years. I gave my heart, soul, sweat, sometimes blood, and energy into my ‘child,’” he said of the sizable organization he created to "rescue" food and deliver it local food banks and hungry residents.
In an interview Sunday, Tolson said he was “blindsided” by the board’s decision and still doesn’t fully understand why he was asked to leave. But he declined to offer more details about his discussions with the nonprofit’s board.
“I was told some general reasons, nothing that really made sense,” he added.
Tolson’s announcement surprised many in the local nonprofit community who are served by the NVFR as well as those who have volunteered with the organization and are familiar with its work.
The food rescue concept is widely considered a game changer in the local effort to fight food insecurity. Thanks to NVFR’s many volunteers – as well as its delivery trucks and a large Manassas warehouse – local food pantries are receiving more fresh food, prepared foods and shelf-ready foods than ever before, some said.
“Nobody believes what’s going on. Everybody is in shock,” said Jhenny Michalek, director of the food pantry at St. Thomas United Methodist Church in Manassas. “He built this whole thing and now they are taking it away from him.”
Michalek called Tolson “a visionary” but also “a collaborator.”
“With me and Aaron, it was always a matter of what can we do to go further and help more,” she said. “For most of the people who worked with Northern Virginia Food Rescue, that was the ultimate goal.”
Michalek said Tolson’s initial organization, the Prince William Food Rescue, helped save the St. Thomas food bank during the pandemic, when volunteers plummeted along with donations. PWFR helped with volunteers and food donations and set up a hotline for local residents who needed food, she said.
More recently, NVFR’s partnership with local farmers markets has meant more fresh food and vegetables are available for St. Thomas's Wednesday night food pantry clients, she said.
Michalek added that news that Tolson was asked to resign after doing such good work in the community “is also a little bit scary.”
“I’m thinking, wow, if that happened to Aaron, that could happen to me or any of us trying to help people,” she added.
Joyce Entremont, an advocate for the homeless, recalled that NVFR recently loaded her car up with frozen meals it had rescued from a local grocery store. She drove them to several recently housed residents who are elderly and have a hard time preparing and cooking their meals.
“These were really nice frozen meals, which you rarely get at the food banks,” Entremont said.
Entremont said she was “flabbergasted” to hear that Tolson had been asked to resign.
NVFR, she said, “was his baby, and he grew it into an amazing thing during an incredible time of need,” she said, adding: “He had built such a well-oiled machine.”
From PWFR to NVFR
Tolson, a native of Prince William County and an Air Force veteran, was first hired by ACTS, Action in Community Through Service, in 2019 to be the nonprofit’s development director and to launch the “food rescue app” in Prince William County. The app connects volunteer drivers with excess food or food nearing its expiration date in need of “rescuing.” Donated food comes from a variety of places: restaurants, grocery stores, convenience stores, caterers, etc. The idea is to save the food from being thrown away and deliver it to food banks, shelters, etc., where it can feed needy residents.
Tolson was working in cyber-security when he first became aware of the food rescue app through a friend who was volunteering with a Pittsburgh nonprofit that used the app. He told ACTS Director Steven Liga about the idea, and Liga hired Tolson to get the program going in Prince William.
Tolson launched the Prince William Food Rescue in late 2019. In early 2020, however, the organization’s mission expanded as Prince William County officials leaned on ACTS and the PWFR to help distribute food to food insecure residents during the pandemic.
To respond to what was then a growing food insecurity crisis in Prince William County, Manassas and Manassas Park, PWFR was part of the "community feeding task force." It created a food helpline, did bulk food redistributions to supply community food banks and organized volunteers to make contactless home deliveries in addition to regular food rescues.
During the height of the pandemic, PWFR moved about 2 million pounds of food to hungry residents each month through its partnerships with local governments, food banks, nonprofits and other community groups. The effort involved more than 800 volunteers who collectively completed thousands of rescues and deliveries every month.
At the same time, PWFR identified similar needs in neighboring communities, which drove the decision to expand the nonprofit’s service beyond greater Prince William. In 2021, the NVFR spun off from ACTS and launched with its own board of directors.
Around that time, Prince William County’s Office of Emergency Management helped the nonprofit secure $2.5 million in American Rescue Plan Act funds. The funds were used both to purchase food and to help NVFS move into a larger warehouse off Interstate 66 and Va. 234 Business, behind the Cracker Barrel. The money was enough to cover lease payments on the new warehouse through June 2024, Tolson previously told the Prince William Times.
Spalding, who was one of PWFR’s initial volunteers, joined the NVFR board when it was created in 2021. In an interview Saturday, July 30, she said she had just taken the helm of the board, after its original president, Sara Singmaster, stepped down.
Asking Tolson to step aside was “not a quick decision" and came only after a board vote, she said.
“It was really a difference of opinion in executing the responsibilities of the CEO position,” Spalding added, declining further details.
“Our mission and our vision are not changing,” Spalding added. “The board has no plan to change our program. … We are keenly aware of the need in our community and our responsibility as a board.”
For his part, Tolson said that while he’s proud of what he accomplished through PWFR and the NVFR, he’s “choosing to accept the board’s request for me to resign” if the mission can continue.
“That vision is more important to me than my position,” he said. “As is my staff.”
Tolson said that he had begun to work on several initiatives with NVFR. The organization had recently expanded into both Fairfax and Fauquier counties. He was working to try to secure a warehouse space for donated food in Fauquier County and had recently joined a U.S. Department of Homeland Security task force preparing for food distribution in times of national disasters. Tolson said he was also working to expand NVFR’s work with Prince William County schools.
Tolson described NVFR’s 11 staff members as “rock stars,” whom he said would continue the nonprofit’s mission.
“I’m mostly sad that I won’t be able to see these things come to fruition,” Tolson said. “But I’m very confident in the staff. We have a great team.”
Reach Jill Palermo at firstname.lastname@example.org