Thursday, July 18, 2013

Just being a friend!

Hunger in America 2014 Study at the Care Pantry at South Covington United Methodist Church (UMC) in Covington, VA.

As I was helping to load a heavy box of food into an older lady's car I asked her if the food that she received from the pantry makes an impact in her life. I think it was a question that she was waiting to be asked all day because she really gave me quite the answer. Her face lit up and she explained that the food helped so so much! She continued and said that the food from the pantry helps to stretch her meals throughout the month. She said that she stretches her meals by watching the Food Channel to get ideas and new recipes that she can try - this was exciting to hear as many times people don't get the proper education on preparing meals and cooking. It's easier to get snacks or a quick frozen meal that you can warm up in the microwave, I know that I have been guilty of this many times. But the times where I have prepared meals and used fresh produce have been great. The food is healthier, I feel empowered, and I am learning a new skill. All of these ideas translated to this older lady's experiences and she was making sure to use her food wisely. Hearing about this was very encouraging!

From our conversation I immediately thought of the partnership between Feeding America Southwest Virginia and the Virginia Cooperative Extension (VCE). We are working hard to educate people on food use and preparation which shows them that you can indeed "stretch" your food. It is a developing process and innovative programs are constantly being initiated but even though the ideas are new we are continually making headway in southwest Virginia.

In addition to the food she receives from the pantry the lady told me that she goes to the dollar store and gets bread and other inexpensive items for her meals. Her favorite item from the store is liver and she even invited me over for a liver dinner. I wasn't able to make it but I still thanked for the offer! This thought then developed into another reason how the pantry food makes an impact on her life. She said that she thoroughly enjoys coming to the Care Pantry at South Covington UMC for the social aspect. She was excited and was talking the whole time and telling stories while waiting at the pantry. Her goal was to meet new people and make friends and just enjoy the company. She told me that she lives alone and isn't able to get out much so the trip to the food pantry is a much anticipated trip for her to have a little fun and enjoy people and the endless stories that we tell and create!

I must say that it was a privlege to meet this older lady and to hear some of her story. She had moved to Virginia from New York after experiencing a great deal of turmoil and pain at the hand of her family. She was tired of it and decided to start anew in Virginia and she has been doing her best ever since. She was so full of joy and brought joy to others, I felt great after speaking with her and I truly enjoyed our conversation. I was also honored to see that I was working for a nonprofit that was providing a true need and that was such a blessing to this older lady and so many of the other clients at the food pantry in Covington.

As for the Hunger in America study it went really well and it was the best one that I have been to. Every person that we asked to take the survey agreed and so we had a lot of respones which will provide a great deal of data for Feeding America to analyze. This data is crucial and will help us to be able to better serve our partnering agencies, such as the food pantries, in addition to providing better service to the many individuals that rely on us to provide a basic staple for their well being and life.

I walked away from the study realizing that I had learned so much about food insecurity and had made some great new friends, and all I did was ask a few questions. It was amazing to see the doors that opened up when I stepped out of my comfort zone and took the time to learn from someone and invest in their life. It was exciting and I am going to make sure to continue to ask questions and have a passion for learning people's stories in hopes of helping them in any way that I can.

What questions do you ask?

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

The Reality of Child Food Insecurity

Hunger kills more people every year than AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis combined (WFP).

This statistic doesn't seem like it could be true but in reality there are 870 million people in the world that do not have enough to eat. The implications of food insecurity are immense, especially harmful to children and cause many long-term consequences. Children that don't receive enough food will have poorer school performance and their cognitive development will be significantly affected, in addition to adverse health affects such as increased risk of illness. Access to food and adequate nutrition for children is of the utmost importance and the best thing that we can do is inform others and provide awareness on the realities of child hunger - the more people that join in the cause, the better possibilities we will have of creating solutions!

Since my focus is on children's programs at Feeding America Southwest Virginia I would like to share with you the reality of food insecurity for children across the world, the United States and in Southwest Virginia.

Throughout the world the term "child hunger" can take on many meanings. Children can be classified as stunted (too short for their age), wasted (too low of weight for their height), or underweight (low weight for their age). [Adapted from]
  • The most recent data from the World Food Programme states that roughly 100 million children in developing countries are underweight and poor nutrition causes 45% of deaths in children under five - 3.1 million children each year [WFP].
  • In addition, 66 million primary school-age children attend classes hungry across the developing world [WFP]
These statistics seem impossible to overcome but the World Food Programme and many other agencies are facing world hunger head on and have worked to develop many innovative programs that are contributing to the solution.

Information from:

United States
Feeding America recently did a comprehensive study on food insecurity in the United States called Map the Meal Gap 2013 and the data was just released on June 10th. It provides information on the face of hunger in the U.S. at the national, state, and local level with each county across the nation represented. To say that the data is invaluable would be an understatement as it will help Feeding America and other agencies across the nation immensely in the years to come.
  • Across the nation the child food insecurity rate is at 22.4%.
  • The number of food insecure children amounts to 16,658,000. 

It's hard to believe that almost 17 million children in the United States are food insecure and are going without meals and adequate nutrition for their development into healthy adults. Think about that for a moment. If these children aren't fed on a regular basis then they will struggle in school, at home, will have no energy to make friends and play outside, many will be sick often and may develop long term health problems. All of these effects are very real and can all be halted with a simple, regular meal.

Information from:

Southwest Virginia 
The data at the local level varies from county to county across the nation and it helps to provide a great picture of the need for strategic thinking with programs for combating child hunger as the counties differ across the nation. In Feeding America Southwest Virginia's service area the numbers are as follows:
  • The child food insecurity rate for our service area is at 20.4% 
  • The number of food insecure children in our service area is at 48,850.
So, by now I am sure you are asking what is the good news? Well, for Feeding America Southwest Virginia and specifically the Summer Food Service Program I can provide some very good news! In 2012 there were 49 sites with 36,836 meals/snacks served with a total of 2,691 children being fed. These are excellent numbers and they are higher during the school year because of after school feeding and Back Pack  programs.

Information from:

The Good
Even with all of the intimidating numbers and statistics on child food insecurity Feeding America can confidently claim that nearly 14 million children are served food through their programs. This is a large and very positive number in the fight against hunger. In the coming years I am sure that this number will rise as people from all over the United States will rally together to create new programs that will influence this problem at all levels. I have hope and a positive outlook for the future and I hope that you will join me!

Please explore all of the links to learn more about food insecurity in your area and around the world and share your ideas for solving hunger in the comment section of this blog, let's really try to create some excellent dialogue, I would love to hear any and all ideas!

Monday, July 8, 2013

A Family in Need

I recently made a visit to a church in Roanoke City that is partnering with us as a summer food service site where they serve a lunch two days a week to 40 - 60 children. It was a great experience and it was fantastic to see lots of children being served in that community! While there, I had the chance to speak with the pastor of the church. I asked him about the area and how the site has been doing in providing meals to children; essentially "Is the program making an impact?"

His first words were very positive and he said that the church has been blessed to be able to partner with Feeding America Southwest Virginia in feeding children. He said that the majority of the children in the area were food insecure and that the lunch would be the only meal that some of the children would get for the day. The meals are truly making a difference in the children's lives.

He continued, saying that the area is struggling and that there is an extreme lack of stability. His definition of stable community is where there are strong family and home foundations - but this was not the case. The pastor said that there is a high turnover of families in the area...many move in and the rent is too high then they soon realize that they can't afford it. Incarceration is also a large factor. He said it separates families and creates splinters in the community. He talked more on these subjects and listed more factors that negatively affect the area, but he soon transitioned to a story.

He began with saying that many families move in from Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and northern Virginia. He met one particular family on a Sunday morning at church and he said the story that they shared with him broke his heart. It was a husband and wife who both had great jobs and they were able to support their family of four children. Their lives were soon flipped upside down when they both lost their jobs. They no longer had enough money to pay the bills, their mortgage, or buy enough food and other necessities.

The couple made the decision to sell their house and most of their belongings then relocate to the Roanoke area in search of work and opportunities. Their trip took two weeks and the family of six lived out of the car for the entire trip. Many times they had to stop to ask for help as they needed food, gas, and showers. When they reached Roanoke they came to the church for help and the pastor was more than willing to assist. He said that his congregation really saved this family and that the food provided through the Summer Food Service Program was an important aspect in serving the parents' children. Support and stability for families is crucial in reviving a community but too many times these things are difficult to provide. I could see in the pastor's face that he was willing to accept this challenge and help create stability for this family and others that will come through his church's doors.

Just as this local church helped a family in need there are countless other ways in which a community can be changed for the better. I was excited to hear that Feeding America Southwest Virginia was contributing to that change by providing meals for these kids over the summer.

Please take a look at these other stories on hunger on the Feeding America website:

At Feeding America Southwest Virginia our mission is to feed Southwest Virginia's hungry through a network of partners and engage our region in the fight to end hunger.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Burning Passion: Mobile Food Pantry

I recently have been thinking a great deal about a quote that a coworker shared with me the other day. He said, "Keep your passion on a low burn, that way you won't overreach, burnout, or give up all together." I immediately had the thought that if I keep my passion at a low burn it will go out anyways since it is a weak and small fire, but then I decided to add  the word powerful before burn and I think the addition explains the quote perfectly. A low powerful burn that won't go out, the fuel won't go dry and it will be pursued with an unending vigor. I experienced this low burning passion last Thursday while participating in a Hunger in America 2014 study in Vansant, VA at a Mobile Food Pantry site.

Now before I dive in, let me explain the Mobile Food Pantry program at Feeding America Southwest Virginia. Through a generous grant from The United Company Charitable Foundation, FASWVA was able to purchase a refrigerated semi-truck in March of 2012 to act as the mobile pantry. Its purpose is to provide food to some of the most rural areas in southwest Virginia where people don't have substantial access to food pantries. The results have been great as the mobile pantry has been able to serve 200 - 400 people each time it goes out and it has helped to rally communities around service for those in need while also helping to create awareness of food insecurity in southwest Virginia.

The Mobile Food Pantry parked at an abandoned Food City parking lot in Vansant, VA. There was a large amount of volunteers from the community helping to unload the trailer and help with the food service, it was incredible to see such a great display of support!

The day began at 5:30am when we started out for Vansant, VA, it was myself and the two Hunger Study interns, Chelsea and Katie. From the very start it was unusual to see three interns heading out on their own but the staff at Feeding America Southwest Virginia wanted to make sure that we had the chance to experience a mobile food site. We were told many times that this site would be a very challenging experience and that it would be tough on our emotions. I was excited to go and help at the site but I was also nervous because I didn't know what to fully expect when we got there. Needless to say after 3 hours in the car we arrived to the abandoned Food City building and I couldn't believe what I saw. There were about 150 people in line at 8:45am when we arrived and the actual food service didn't start until 10:00am. In my other trips to stationary food pantries there had never been a large line out the door; maybe about thirty minutes before it opened but never over an hour before the service time. The Mobile Food Pantry driver and volunteers began unloading the truck and setting up tables for the food, it was all very organized  and I could tell everybody was really enjoying the chance to serve. We began our setup of materials as well for the Hunger Study and then I decided to go and talk with those who were standing in line.

The stories were powerful and emotional and I listened to every word.

I talked to an older gentleman who was the first one in line. He was wearing tattered jeans and a plain gray t-shirt that matched his short gray beard. His hands were worn from years of work and his skin was tan and rugged. He was a Vietnam War veteran and had worked for years in the maintenance department at a local company in Vansant after the war. I noticed that he was blind in one eye and through conversation he told me that his eye had been damaged in the war. He then continued and told me that the Vansant area had been a coal mining town since the early 1900s and other than mining, there really weren't any other job opportunities, which resulted in high unemployment. He had a meager income, but said that all of his money went to housing expenses, especially his electric bill, and then money for gas and other bills. After all of this was paid for he spent the rest on food which didn't amount to much. I asked him then if the  mobile food pantry has made an impact on his life? His face lit up and he said that it has helped so much. He looked behind him down the line and said that the food has been making a large impact for everyone. Not only was he sharing his own appreciation, he also looked at the people he knew and those that he didn't and offered a shared gratitude for all of those that were being given food that day. I wish that I could share his name with you and provide you with even more of an intimate picture of the man that I spoke with, he was genuine and was truly thankful for the food that he was receiving. It really hit me in that moment that I was working for a cause that was truly creating change in this world. It was a privilege to talk with that gentleman and I'll never forget our conversation.

From there the food service got under way and the long line of people was begining to file through the tables picking up food that ranged from fresh bread and meats to milk and crisp orange juice. The volunteers had unloaded 12,000 pounds of products, with a majority coming from Food City, the largest grocery store in that area. Food City had just built a new building where they continuously donate food to Feeding America Southwest Virginia and area food pantries. Not only were they donating food, they were also allowing us to use there old abandoned building as a site for the mobile pantry.  Their support truly plays an integral part in tackling the problem of food insecurity.

Volunteers and clients making their way through the tables selecting food. It was raining and the overhang provided by the Food City building was a huge help!

Andy Ballard, the Mobile Food Pantry Driver, and volunteers unloading the truck and packing boxes full of food. It was an organized and efficient effort and none of it could have been done without the help of volunteers from the community!

Along with having the Mobile Food Pantry, Feeding America Southwest Virginia is working to promote educational opportunities through giving out vegetable plants and materials to show people how to grow there own gardens. It's an exciting opportunity!

I spoke with one of the volunteers for a while throughout the day and he really provided me with a vivid picture of the area and the struggles that are present there. He was a retired coal miner who had worked in the mine for 40 years. He now had a good retirement and was making sure to use his time to give back to the community. He asked me where I was from and I said Ohio and that I am currently a student at The Ohio State University. He was a huge Buckeye fan so we made sure to talk about all of the latest sports news coming out of Ohio State; it was nice to get a small taste of home! Our conversation quickly turned more serious when the volunteer told me that Vansant and the surrounding areas were really struggling: he talked about the unemployment and the lack of opportunities. Vansant is a very mountainous area and he said that the mountains have created a tough situation for people in getting access to food and other resources. The roads are in poor condition and when it rains there is usually flooding due to the runoff from the mountains filling rivers and low roadways. He also mentioned a darker fact in that the area was also being heavily affected by drugs. He said that he would see in the local newspaper every month that there was anywhere from 3 to 10 teenagers that had died from drug overdoses. His face was full of pain and he seemed to have a hard time comprehending the fact that he had just shared with me.

This further reinforced for me the stark reality of the very rural areas in southwest Virginia. In many cases the people there are scraping by and are looking for opportunities that simply do not exist. Then something like drugs may come into the picture and further deplete resources and hurt the community as a whole. 

I was feeling a mix of emotions, it was both a sobering but exciting time for me. It hurt to see the pain of the community but it was so great to be able to serve and give food to those who were truly in need of the most basic of resources. I talked to many in that line that day and I asked them all the same question that I asked the older gentleman, "Has the mobile food pantry made an impact in your life?" They all answered with a resounding yes and I could see the authentic appreciation in their responses. 

The Mobile Food Pantry provided by Feeding America Southwest Virginia in partnership with the United Company Charitable Foundation has been a huge blessing. It has helped provide food for thousands of people in the most remote parts of southwest Virginia in addition to empowering communities. It has provided hope and has created an all important opportunity for all of those who spoke of finding one that day.

It was a privilege to see the mobile pantry in action and I can confidently say that it fueled the low burning passion inside of me for years to come. I enjoy serving others and want to provide the real and raw stories of what happens in the field for Feeding America Southwest Virginia. The nonprofit sector is participating in great work and each every day they are creating change in this world and I am blessed and happy to be able to take part in even a small amout of that change.

Education is key and the spread of awareness will only help, so please continue to share my experiences and this blog with friends, coworkers, and family! Thank you! 

For more information access these links: