Fighting a Rising Tide of Hunger: Food Insecurity, Part 1

Sep 30, 2015

The number of people who lack reliable access to food continues to rise in Virginia.  In the first report in a series this month, WMRA’s Jordy Yager talks with some of those affected by food insecurity and how several organizations are fighting to end it.

[Sounds of the Loaves and Fishes waiting room filled with 25 people]

It’s Tuesday night and the Loaves and Fishes food pantry behind Albemarle High School is teeming with people -- old and young, white and black.  More than 50 cars are parked out in the lot. About two-dozen people are in the waiting room. It’s like this four days every week. They’re here — many with their families — for a free monthly cart of groceries.

DEBORAH VAUGHAN:  Well, we have six all together. See, these are his grandchildren. And this is my grand daughter and we’re all one family. Yeah, so that’s why we come to the food bank.

That’s Deborah Vaughan, a 50-year old nurse, who was placed on disability after having one of her lungs removed. She currently has a family of ten living in her Charlottesville home — 6 of them are under 9 years old.

VAUGHAN:  This is not to carry me through a whole month, but they give a good supply of food and snacks and stuff like that. And so of course we use it, we have six children in our house.

Located in an old UPS warehouse just outside of Charlottesville, Loaves and Fishes serves about 1,700 families, or roughly 6,000 individuals each month. The food pantry is one of the more than 200 partner agencies that the Blue Ridge Area Food Bank provides with food, throughout 25 counties and nine cities in central and western Virginia, from Winchester down to Lynchburg. In total, the Blue Ridge Area Food Bank provides more than 118,000 people with food each month.

Just to give some perspective — that’s the same as if you fed every resident in Harrisonburg, Charlottesville, and Staunton once a month.

MICHAEL MCKEE:  We provided food for about 20 — almost 21 million meals last year. And when you think about that much volume and you think about how many people, it’s like preparing for 4,000 people to come to dinner tonight. And tomorrow night. The next night. And every night for a year.

Michael McKee is the chief executive officer of the Blue Ridge Area Food Bank.

MCKEE:  Think about the impact of that. It’s not just about someone goes to bed hungry. It means someone’s got to feed their kid. And if they have to buy that food, they go without themselves, but they may also not have enough money to buy medication. They may not have enough money to put gas in the car to get to work or pay the rent, which could lead to homelessness. We find that two-thirds of the people we serve are choosing between paying rent and buying groceries. A third or more are choosing between transportation and food. And this problem isn’t getting better simply because for many of us, the economy looks like it’s getting better. In fact, for a lot of people it’s getting worse.

McKee is describing what’s commonly called “food insecurity,” or what the USDA defines as “consistent access to adequate food [that] is limited by a lack of money and other resources.” The effects of food insecurity are pretty widespread — from higher rates of diabetes and heart disease, to increased school dropout rates. And in Virginia, like most states, the number of food insecure people continues to rise. Nine years ago, in 2006, the Blue Ridge Area Food Bank served 58,000 people a month. Since then, it’s more than doubled.

MCKEE:  At the end of the day, you say ok, well where did these extra 59 or 60,000 people come from? Well they were working before the recession hit. Many of them are still working, but at a far lower wage. They’re underemployed. And then of course some still are unemployed.

When we think of people going hungry, most of us probably think of the homeless at soup kitchens. But all of the clients I met at Loaves and Fishes told me that they not only had homes, but that at least one person in their household was currently working. Likely, we interact with these folks everyday — they’re restaurant workers, cashiers, janitors.

MARGARET MCNETT BURRUSS:  When you come and see what, you know, the clients that come through here, they are all walks of life, they are all ages, they are all demographics. We’ve got one-person households. We’ve got large families. We’ve got medium-sized families. We’ve got every, all different ethnic kind of groups.

That’s Loaves and Fishes executive director Margaret McNett Burruss. She says that the food pantry’s numbers have also doubled over the last three years. Though the growth has slowed down a little bit this year, she says, it gives her hope that perhaps the worst of the economic downturn is over and now folks can start rebuilding their lives again. She knows just how big a part Loaves and Fishes plays in allowing people to do exactly that.

MCNETT BURRUSS: I have had clients say to us, ‘We don’t know what we would be doing if you guys weren’t here.’

[Sound of patrons at the food pantry, fades out]