As the holiday season approaches, many residents of the New River Valley are looking for ways to be generous of spirit and give back to their community. It’s a noble goal, and one that’s encompassed year-round by volunteers at local food banks, working to address one of Southwest Virginia’s most persistent challenges: food insecurity.
Throughout the region, churches, nonprofits, food ministries, and organizations like the pay-what-you-can Open Door Café in Wytheville or the Plenty! Farm & Food Bank in Floyd work all year to address the “food gap” into which their neighbors fall. The food gap refers to a group of people who occasionally experience food insecurity due to a lack of available resources. These are people who do not qualify for federal or state assistance, but may not have the financial stability, access to healthcare, or reliable transportation they need to keep themselves or their families well-fed.
According to Feeding America Southwest Virginia, 8% of people living in Floyd County are food insecure, and 11% of people who experience food insecurity do not qualify for assistance. Throughout the organization’s service territory, 150,180 people are food insecure -- 43,770 of whom are children.
Of the 26 counties and nine cities served by FASWVA, seven have shown a rise in food insecurity for their total populations – Alleghany, Buchanan, Dickenson and Pulaski counties and the cities of Martinsville, Norton, and Radford.
Resources for struggling families are limited in Southwest Virginia, and becoming more limited by the day. Due to the closure of neighboring food banks, Plenty! has served 60% more people over the past year than they typically would. According to Feeding America Southwest Virginia CEO Pamela Irvine, the economic situation in Feeding America Southwest Virginia’s 26-county service area “hasn’t really improved,” and donated food therefore is harder to come by.
Food insecurity in Southwest Virginia is caused by a variety of factors. Having a disability, high utility or rent bills, medical costs, insufficient benefits or a lack of transportation may contribute to food insecurity. Feeding America Southwest Virginia works with more than 300 partner organizations throughout the region including “food pantries, children’s feeding programs, shelters and direct food deliveries to rural communities,” according to Irvine.
These partner organizations will deploy a variety of strategies to try to collect and redistribute food to the people and places that most keenly need it. This could include food “recovery” from local grocery stores and college campuses like Virginia Tech—where produce, bread and other items that went unsold or unconsumed can be donated instead. Food banks also rely on donations—of canned goods and cold hard cash—to fund their pantries.
“The charitable food distribution system needs food, financial contributions and volunteers to continue to meet food insecurity needs within our region,” Irvine explained. “Many of our partner feeding programs are 100% volunteered-based and operate on small budgets.” Making a small contribution to a local food bank can have a large and lasting impact.
In Floyd, 68 volunteers per week achieve amazing results: three days of the food pantry, 11 routes covered for fresh produce delivery, and food gleaned and recovered from area restaurants, farms, grocery stores and college dining halls. Volunteering your time with Plenty!, or any other food bank, can help create a positive feedback loop of care. According to Plenty!, one-third of families that use the food bank in a year only need to use it once. However, a full quarter of the food bank’s regular volunteers are former or current patrons.
This Thanksgiving, in recognition of and gratitude for your own blessings, we would encourage you to find a tiny way to give back to your local food bank or nonprofit combating hunger. Everyone deserves a full belly each day of the year, but it’s all the more meaningful over the holidays.