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Food banks struggle to feed the needy

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By Christopher Brooke, Reporter

While people struggle to keep food on the table during tough times, some Twin County food banks are "grasping at straws" to keep their cupboards full.

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Those were the words that Terri Gillespie of Rooftop of Virginia Community Action Program used to describe the organization's efforts to meet demand for families during the economic crisis, when there's less to go around to the different agencies and more people need help.

The amount that the demand has been growing varies among different groups, but they all agree that requests for aid is rising.

Organizers at the food pantry at the First United Methodist Church in Hillsville reported the sharpest increase — 64 percent more requests from 2007 to 2008.

Of course, the greater need isn't limited to the Twin Counties during these tough economic times. Even as The Gazette discussed this situation with food bank coordinators, the Federation of Virginia Food Banks put out a news release saying it would seek an extra $1 million from the General Assembly due to the extraordinary needs in the state.

The federation reported requests for help from Virginia food banks has risen by 20 to 30 percent. (See sidebar.)

At the same time, the Virginia Department of Social Services reports that 568,926 people in Virginia receive food stamps, amounting to almost $53.6 million in benefits in September, the latest month for which numbers are available.

This represents a 1 percent increase from August.

Hard Times

The supplies that Rooftop has for Galax residents in need have been hardest hit, Gillespie said. That's in part because the economy is affecting many individuals and organizations across the spectrum.

Federal agencies have fewer funds, for one. "They give us the most they could — due to the lack of funds, they couldn't give us any more," she said.

And donations from citizens and other organizations have slowed some, she explained. Others have taken up the cause — a WBRF-FM food drive, for example — and Rooftop officials appreciate it.

The slowdown means that Rooftop's Galax clients can only come to the food bank for help once every three months, instead of once a month as usual, Gillespie explained.

It's tough for Rooftop case workers to turn people away who are obviously in need, but there isn't any choice, she said.

Rooftop refers people to Willing Partners, and many of those are on food stamps, as well. "That's pretty much the only options they have right now."

Greater Needs

The requests for help from the community food pantry located at the methodist church in Hillsville have grown by more than half of the 2007 numbers — one month before 2008 even ends, coordinator Ina Horton told The Gazette.

"During 2007 we served 704 adults and children. Through November of 2008 we served 1,115 adults and children. This is an increase of 64 percent."

This food pantry was formed by the Carroll County Ministerial Association several years ago, and it's staffed by First United Methodist Church staff and volunteers.

"A large number of the people who pick up food at our pantry have lost their jobs and others can't find work," Horton said. "Many are families with children."

Food brought and donated at the Community Thanksgiving Service goes to the food pantry.

Many churches, individuals, businesses and other organizations, like the Tri-Area Health Clinic's recent food drive, assist the pantry with donations of both food and funds.

"Food is purchased in addition to what is donated," Horton said. "We are definitely ordering more food lately."

The food pantry has also received a blessing from Hunters for the Hungry in providing venison. "This has been a huge boost to our inventory and the recipients have been eager to receive it," she said.

Steady Growth

Willing Partners is having to buy a lot of food, too, said Bartlett. Fortunately, the community agency's well-stocked thrift store with lots of clothes and other offerings hasn't seen a drop off in sales, so the agency can afford the food purchases.

Workers with Willing Partners say that they haven't really seen a sudden spike in requests for food assistance. Their growth has remained fairly steady since the store moved next to Rose's department store from Bartlett's church six years ago.

"Every month since we left the church it continues to get more and more," he said.

When it opened, the store had three employees, but now it takes 24 workers plus 20 volunteers to handle the food bank, the store and missionary efforts.

In 2007, Willing Partners received 702,072 pounds of food from a variety of sources, including the Southwest Virginia Second Harvest Food Bank in Roanoke, King Benevolence in Bristol, God's Pit Crew, Abilene Motor Freight in Richmond, local donations, as well as supplies from the local grocery stores.

That food helped 14,260 area families, or 31,536 individuals, during that year, according to Willing Partners.

By way of comparison, the food bank assisted 13,843 households through early December, or 31,285 individuals.

Organizers felt that requests for aid throughout the remainder of the month might push the total to a hundreds more than last year.

It's heartwarming to be able to help people, Bartlett said. People have been and continue to be generous in helping others, despite the current difficulties.

"We may be living in a poverty area, but we've been blessed by the Lord," he said about peoples' support of Willing Partners efforts.

Communities Coming Together

All the food pantries depend on community support, and there are different ways to help.

Gillespie noted that proceeds from Rooftop's toy shop, which accepts donations of gently used items, supports the food bank. "We are accepting any donations we can get," she said.

The agency is always on the lookout for emergency assistance grants, she added. Heating oil is also a concern with higher prices this season.

Willing Partners branched out to Independence, where it opened a store in the old Grayson Garment building, Bartlett said. The food bank there is run by Springfield Church.

"It's still increasing as people find out," he said, about the monthly assistance available there.

The store in Independence is even bigger than the one in Galax.

Donors in the Twin Counties remain generous, and food bank organizers are grateful.

It's difficult for everybody with the economy these days, Gillespie said. But individuals and organizations are doing the best they can, just like Rooftop is doing the best it can with its programs.

It's good to see the communities continue to come together to help. "It's unbelievable the generosity we do see," she said.

Seeking Help

The Federation of Virginia Food Banks will ask the Virginia General Assembly to support a $1 million Emergency Food Purchase Program to help Virginia’s seven food banks in the face of unprecedented need.

Virginia food banks and their 2,800 partner agencies are experiencing daily increases in demand for assistance due to rising unemployment, higher food prices and an overall slow economy.

Requests for help have risen by 20 to 30 percent in the last year-and-a-half. Those asking for help include the working poor, children and the ever-growing senior population living on fixed incomes.

The $1 million Emergency Food Purchase Program could provide more than 671,000 additional pounds of food to needy families.

“We realize that major cuts have already been made in the Commonwealth of Virginia and that the budget is facing a major deficit,” said Leslie Van Horn, executive director of the Federation of Virginia Food Banks. “However, we owe it to the children and families in Virginia to help them during these challenging times. Our seven food banks are attempting to meet the demands through the generosity of companies and donors, but we are hopeful that our state government can assist us as well. Now, more than ever, we need the support of the governor and our legislators to assist those in need.”

Virginia food banks are able to provide assistance to people in need through donations from food manufacturers and retailers, food drives, food commodities from the federal government and monetary donations from individuals, businesses, foundations and civic groups. With continually climbing food prices, food companies have fewer surpluses and are often unable to donate as they have in the past.

Recognizing the significance of this legislative and budgetary effort, the federation has secured the services of McGuireWoods Consulting, which will provide government relations, strategic communications and lobbying services on a pro bono basis for the federation through the end of 2009.

Food banks are expecting the need to only increase heading into next year. The cold months are tough for struggling families, as they have to make choices between paying heating bills and utilities and buying food.

More than 26 states in the U.S. support their food banks, including North Carolina, Georgia and New Jersey.

The Federation of Virginia Food Banks is a state association of food banks affiliated with Feeding America (formerly America’s Second Harvest) and is the largest hunger relief network in the state.

For information, visit www.vafoodbanks.org