Hunger in the Countryside: Food Insecurity, Part 2

Oct 7, 2015

Although the rates of hunger in the countryside are a little lower than those for urban residents, rural hunger presents its own unique problems.  The Blue Ridge Area Food Bank operates a series of Mobile Food Pantries throughout rural Virginia, providing food for thousands of people in hard-to-reach areas. In the second installment of our special series on food insecurity in Virginia, WMRA’s Jordy Yager visits two of these rural pantries and speaks with the people who run them, and the people they serve.

I arrive at the Effort Baptist Church in Fluvanna County just after sunrise for the monthly Mobile Food Pantry. The truck carrying nearly 10,000 pounds of food isn’t scheduled to arrive for another three hours, at 10 o’clock, but already, eleven cars are parked in the top lot. These are the first of the 209 households that the Blue Ridge Area Food Bank will provide with bags of groceries today.

By 8:15 there are 20 cars in the lot. By 9:30, 40 cars have arrived and parked. I meet a former UVA cook, a man who worked for the Department of Transportation, an unemployed construction worker. But I want to talk to the folks in the very first car that arrived this morning.

CLARA BRUCE: Most time we have to get here, be here before 5 o’clock.

That’s right, 5 a.m. is when 78-year old Clara Bruce and her husband Horace get to the Mobile Food Pantry in Palmyra. Every month for the past 4 years they drive about 25 minutes from their country home to ensure they’re near the front of the line. Clara brings a blanket for naps and a word-find puzzle book to pass the time. She used to work at the Comdial telecommunications plant in Charlottesville. Horace used to work as a janitor for Fluvanna County Public Schools. And now, aside from Social Security and a little pension money, they struggle to put decent food on their table.

I asked them, what would they do if they didn’t have the Mobile Food Pantry? Would they be able to make ends meet?

CLARA BRUCE: Well, we maybe would make it meet, but we wouldn’t have much to spend…I just love it over here because it do help us to save. And we’ve been going to the doctor very much because I’ve got a pace maker and he’s got discs in his back, so we can’t do too much.

The Bruces also go to the Mobile Food Pantry in Columbia every third Wednesday each month to get a similar amount of food.

In total, the Blue Ridge Area Food Bank operates nine Mobile Food Pantries throughout rural Central Virginia, serving as many as 5,000 people each month. It began five years ago, when they realized that thousands of people were going without food because they lived in the countryside.

MICHAEL MCKEE: We find too that especially in rural areas there aren’t a sufficient number of pantries to meet the need. We talk about food deserts.

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

MCKEE:  In rural areas, those food deserts are quite large. And then for people without sufficient funds, they could live behind a grocery store and still live in a virtual food desert because they can’t afford to go in there and buy anything. So we try to get our mobile pantry into remote rural areas, where they don’t have access to pantries, or the pantries might be open only once a month or so, to supplement what’s available in their communities. Reaching the rural poor is a real challenge because you just can’t imagine the barriers of transportation. There are no buses, the car’s broken. Where are you going to go? Are you going to rely on some neighbors? Well, there might not be a neighbor with a working car for another couple of miles, right?

[SOUND — KATIE HARRIS (Saying hello to a client in Scottsville)]

“Good morning… How are ya? Good, thank you.”

Everyone knows Katie Harris. She’s a partner services coordinator for the Blue Ridge Area Food Bank and oversees eight Mobile Food Pantries, including the one in Palmyra and the bimonthly one in Scottsville, where I found her on a recent Tuesday.

Harris lets headquarters in Verona know how many people they’re expecting for the day. The truck, which can carry up to 15,000 pounds of food, is loaded up and when it arrives in Scottsville, it’s all hands on deck. As few as a dozen to as many as 30 volunteers pull down the foldout tables, unload hundreds of boxes of food, and get to work.

[SOUND — BAGS]

The empty paper bags make their way down an assembly line, getting filled to the brim with groceries, ranging from fresh apples, onions, and zucchini to almond milk and cottage cheese. Families go home with an average of 40 to 50 pounds of food each visit.

[SOUND — CAR STARTING]

When all is ready to go, the cars make their way around, one by one, with trunks popped open, as the volunteers fill them with bags of groceries.

Though food insecurity rates tend to be lower in rural communities than in cities, for those it affects, it can be more severe. It’s often harder to get work, and to get to work, if you live in the country. Heating costs in the winter are often higher than in urban areas. Childcare is not as accessible. And there’s typically only one grocery store for the surrounding area. Many families I spoke with did not want to be recorded. They live in the country, away from cities, and prefer to keep their lives private. And for the most part, unless we interact with these folks, their plight too remains hidden.

I posed the same question to Harris as I did to the Bruces. What does she think folks would do if the Mobile Food Pantries didn’t exist?

HARRIS: I’m not sure. It’s tough. Produce-wise though, I’d like to think that we’re able to provide them with something that’s helping them get some more nutritious items into their diets, which are more expensive, I know. I’m not really sure what their other options would be.