Bridging the ‘Meal Gap’
In the Northern Neck and Essex County, a region plentiful with agriculture, it is unnerving to know that over 8,000 people- among them 1,600 children- struggle with hunger.
Statistics from Feeding America’s “Map the Meal Gap 2013” study shockingly revealed that over 12 percent of individuals and 13 percent of children in each of the following counties- Essex, Lancaster, Northumberland, Richmond and Westmoreland- don’t always know when they will see their next meal.
The data also showed that of the 1,600 documented children who are food insecure in the five counties, approximately 432 of those needy children are likely ineligible for federal nutrition programs.
But although 13 percent of the five counties’ population is at risk of hunger, there are local programs to help serve those individuals and children in need.
The Warsaw United Methodist Church has a United States Dept. of Agriculture (USDA) food pantry that takes donations from local churches and individuals. The church also holds food drives regularly, including once recent drive at the Richmond County Elementary School.
On the first Thursday of the month, the church receives and bags donated food items with help from volunteers before the USDA food is distributed to applicants.
The programs at Warsaw United Methodist serve individuals and families in Warsaw, as well as Richmond County and some residents of Westmoreland County.
In addition to the church’s efforts, the Northern Neck Food Bank (NNFB) has also taken an approach to serving residents of the Northern Neck and Middlesex through not just providing them with traditional canned goods, but also with fresh produce and food products that are highly nutritious.
NNFB Director Lance Barton drew attention to his organization’s agricultural program, which hires farmers to grow crops for the food bank.
NNFB also practices gleaning, which is the method of the farmer taking what is marketable and then allowing people in the community to take the remainder at no charge.
Barton added that earlier in the organization’s life span, the NNFB had set up a database and asked its clients a series of health questions. The results showed that 32 percent of the households being serviced by the organization has Type 2 Diabetes.
The findings, along with the fact that the Northern Neck Food Bank was located in an agricultural area, influenced the organization’s drive to provide needy individuals and families with “the most nutritious food on the planet,” Barton noted in a phone interview with the Northern Neck News.
“We don’t believe that hunger is the only thing we should be fighting,” he said. “We actually think nutrition is much more of a killer than hunger will ever be in this country, and we have a responsibility to provide not just food for those who are hungry, but…the best food available.
“By the time we end this phone conversation, half a dozen people in the State of Virginia are going to die from Diabetes-related illness, whereas the last person to die of starvation in the United States was in 1961,” Barton continued.
From Social Services, Lisa Butler, the benefit programs supervisor for the Northumberland County Dept. of Social Services, cited the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) and Virginia Initiative for Employment on Welfare (VIEW) programs to help workers and families in financial need.
Essex County Social Services Director Rod Gordon also pointed out the benefits of the federal food stamp program, formally known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), to his locality.
He noted that at the end of June 2013, 2,576 Essex County citizens, or 23 percent of the total population, were enrolled in the SNAP program at a value of $330,870 in federal dollars.
“That is actually money coming back into the community,” Gordon said.
Richmond County Social Services Director Claudette Henderson also noted that 23 percent of Richmond County residents were receiving SNAP benefits. According to the Local Department of Social Services Profile Report, the cost to feed the 23 percent in fiscal year 2012 was $2,234,031 in federal monies.
Westmoreland County Social Services Director Helen Wilkins said her organization primarily benefits needy residents by helping pay their electric bill while also using a food locker to supplement meals.
In terms of helping food-insecure people secure jobs to help them become self-sufficient, the Bay Consortium Workforce Investment Board provides training and retraining to people to help them enter or re-enter the workforce.
Through a contract with the Virginia Employment Commission, Bay Consortium Workforce Investment Board uses the federal Workforce Investment Act funds to aid adults over 21 years old and dislocated workers who have been laid off to help them return to the workforce.
Bay Consortium has also partnered with Rappahannock Community College to provide services to youth between the ages of 14 and 21.
Executive Director Michael Jenkins shared that Bay Consortium has started working much closer with economic development staff in localities to expand local businesses and entice new businesses to come to the area.
“We can have all the training dollars in the world, but if we don’t have any jobs to put them in, then we’re kind of spinning our wheels,” said Jenkins. “You’ve got to create jobs, then you’ve got to train and prepare people to fill those as well.”
Feeding America, a nationwide network of 200 food banks and food rescue organizations, gathered data for the study from individual and family income estimates, as well as from food budget shortfalls that were reported by food insecure households.
In addition to factoring in food-budget shortfalls, the cost-of-food index and the national average meal cost, the study also analyzed the relationship between food insecurity and indicators of food insecurity, such as poverty, unemployment and median income.