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! 

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