When it’s wet, cold or sweltering hot, there’s one thing Deon Stewart can count on, even more than the U.S. Postal Service.
More than 100 people—and often as many as 150—will line up at The Meadow Event Park on the fourth Wednesday of the month. They gather in the parking lot of the State Fair of Virginia site a couple hours ahead of time, not to be first on the Ferris wheel or to pet a prize pig.
They are there for the food—boxes of cereal, bags of red beans and bottles of juice provided by the Fredericksburg Regional Food Bank’s mobile pantry.
“I feel terrible when I see them there in all kinds of weather,” said Stewart, the mobile pantry coordinator. “But being able to be here helps them out a lot.”
The Meadow is the largest of 11 sites where the Food Bank aims to put a dent in the ever-present problem of getting the food to those who need it. The Food Bank partners with 260 agencies in the region to provide a smorgasbord of assistance, from church pantries to summer lunches for children.
But if those who need food can’t come to the programs, some of the programs are coming to them. The mobile pantry stops at schools and an apartment building as well as a hotel and campground where people are living for extended periods of time, not vacationing.
“Transportation can be the biggest barrier sometimes to proper nutrition,” said Pat Holland, director of client services for Healthy Generations Area Agency on Aging.
Her program serves 121 clients weekly at five cafes in Fredericksburg and the counties of Caroline, King George, Spotsylvania and Stafford. Meals are delivered to another 65 home-bound residents weekly, and boxes of non-perishable food to 70 more.
The programs are geared at putting more on the table for those identified as “food insecure.” About 31,000 people in the region, or 11 percent of the population, consistently lack the food to maintain a healthy, active life.
Going mobile is emerging as a trend in the fight against hunger. So is the push to include more fresh produce and to treat pantry participants more like shoppers than charity cases, by letting them pick what they want instead of giving them a bag and suggesting that beggars can’t be choosers.
‘EVERY LITTLE BIT HELPS’
The mobile pantry recently visited The Meadow on one of those days when skies were overcast and rain threatened. As Charles Cook, 26, loaded a reusable bag with tuna, peanut butter and spaghetti sauce, volunteer Donna Collins asked him if he’d gotten a ride or had to walk.
“I walked,” he said, toting his groceries, along with an eight-pack of flavored water and 5-pound bag of potatoes the 2 miles back to his house as a light drizzle fell.
Sarah Gresham, 77, said she doesn’t know how she’d get through the month without the food provided by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The maximum income to qualify is $1,518 a month for a one-person household.
“With me being diabetic, there are certain things I can’t have,” said Gresham, who lives in nearby King William County, “and my medicine costs so much.”
Calvin Woolfolk, a 58-year-old sandblaster, hasn’t been able to work since his back was crushed on the job in 2005. He appreciates that Stewart brings the groceries to the parked vehicles of those with wheelchairs or canes. The recipients are familiar faces to Stewart and the corps of volunteers who help give out the food.
Woolfolk lives in a nearby trailer and knows a lot of people who qualify for assistance, but are too proud to ask for it.
“When I get hungry, pride don’t put nothing on the table,” he said. “Every little bit helps.”
FRESH ‘IS FABULOUS’
Some of the residents at Mill Park Terrace in Fredericksburg are closer to shopping opportunities than those in outlying areas, but they still face obstacles. That’s why the food ministry at St. George’s Episcopal Church in Fredericksburg this summer expanded its program, calling it The Table in The World.
For eight weeks between June and September, volunteers with The Table are taking 10 crates a week of freshly picked produce to Mill Park, which has 129 units for the elderly and disabled. Residents load their bags with new potatoes and leafy greens, eggplant and squash.
Darnell Carey, 58, shows up whenever the fresh food does. Born with cerebral palsy, he walks with forearm crutches and says visiting grocery stores is a challenge. He has a manual wheelchair he uses on the FRED bus, but maneuvering it with bags of food isn’t easy.
Plus, he likes the fresh offerings.
“I don’t eat many vegetables out of the can because of the sodium content and other things, and I don’t want to create other health problems,” he said.
Sylvia Kendrigan, 82, is able to go grocery shopping once a week on the bus or with a friend, but loves having to go no farther than the downstairs lobby.
“To have the fresh food come here is fabulous,” she said, adding she puts the fruit in smoothies for breakfast and steams the vegetables for lunch. “It really is a big help, all of it is.”
‘MONEY AND MANPOWER’
Two other programs in Fredericksburg take the same approach. The Salvation Army buys fresh food from a Spotsylvania farmer and gives out the goodies to residents at Heritage Park during the summer months. The Table in The World also works with the Fredericksburg CSA, or Community Supported Agriculture, to distribute organic produce to Hazel Hill residents.
Other residents in the region could benefit from these types of pop-up markets, said Linda Carter, one of the organizers of The Table.
“There’s so much need out in the counties, they’re not getting to us,” she said. “The need is there, but I don’t have the manpower. It’s money and manpower.”
That’s why Elizabeth Borst, a Spotsylvania resident involved in several fresh-food initiatives, would like to see the region establish a food council that would provide infrastructure. The council could get a better handle on all the programs in place, work on acquiring refrigerated facilities for more fresh produce and match the need with those willing to help.
“The resources are there,” Borst said. “Getting them together on a list, that’s the challenge.”