Plenty of times, the money ran out before the month did, and Carey Sealy had to feed her family of six for as long as 10 days on as little as $30.

“Food was flexible, something you could spend more or less on, unlike other bills, which were fixed,” the Stafford County woman said. “There were times I had to be creative … when there was no meat in the freezer, I’d say, ‘Let’s have cereal for dinner.’ ”

That was about a decade ago, when Sealy and her husband regularly worked up to 60 hours a week as restaurant managers. Two of their four children had ongoing health problems, and medical co-pays and prescriptions ate away at their budget.

“We couldn’t make ends meet,” she said.

The couple declared bankruptcy and separated. These days, they share custody of their kids, and she works as a manager at the Fredericksburg Regional Food Bank, where she’s learned how many people face food shortages way worse than hers.

“The first couple months here, I would go home in tears every day,” she said. “I just didn’t know.”

About 31,000 residents of Fredericksburg and the counties of Caroline, King George, Spotsylvania and Stafford consistently lack enough food to maintain a healthy, active life. They’re considered food insecure by the United States Department of Agriculture.

That means there are more local people who have trouble putting food on the table than the entire population of Fredericksburg. They are teachers and service workers, first responders and retail employees—and many of them work several jobs, which often means they make too much for government assistance.

“It’s really the families that don’t qualify for benefits that find themselves at a food pantry,” said Candice Armstrong, the Salvation Army’s social services coordinator who worked with SNAP, formerly known as the food stamp program. “There are a certain percentage of people in the middle who aren’t the poorest of the poor, but find themselves struggling.”

PLENTY OF PANTRIES

While plenty of volunteers are helping in food pantries, there’s no single network that keeps track of how many food programs are in the Fredericksburg region.

Some organizations operate independently, such as the King George Department of Social Services. It supplies groceries to three to five families in need daily, said Director Dave Coman. Five county churches donate money or food to keep the pantry stocked.

Others share the ins and outs of their programs at the Fredericksburg Fresh Food Forum, a new group focused on identifying food insecurity, down to the neighborhood level. Participants hope to pair those looking to help the hungry with those who need fresh food the most.

And then there’s the agency that dispenses food on a warehouse scale: the Fredericksburg Regional Food Bank.

More than 160 community partners—schools, churches, nonprofits and regional agencies—get items from the Food Bank to operate 260 programs in the city, four surrounding counties and Locust Grove in Orange County.

Programs range from weekday summer lunches for children whose meals end when school closes to cafes at local senior centers three days a week. There are programs that give boxes of food staples to the disabled and offer help with pet food.

In the Fredericksburg region, 54 churches operate pantries, either weekly or a few times a month, through their partnership with the Food Bank. Another 36 schools set up food pantries in closets and cubbyholes. And an additional seven agencies, such as SERVE in Stafford, SECA in Spotsylvania or the Barbara Carroll Community Outreach in the city, have regular food giveaways.

In fiscal 2018, the Food Bank distributed more than 4 million pounds of food to about 34,000 residents through its partner agencies.

Tracey Bailey often meets folks who were doing fine until one event changed everything. He runs a food pantry at Chancellor Baptist Church in Spotsylvania County where every Wednesday, 120 to 150 families line up for canned goods and frozen meat, tubs of salsa or clusters of bananas.

“I remember being shocked, my first year helping in the food ministry, how many families are only one medical issue or one serious family change away from being in need,” he said. “There’s a huge number who go through a crisis, it has to be at least 80 percent of the people I know. If you live long enough, it’s going to rain in your life.”

PROSPERITY

AND POVERTY

On the surface, food insecurity seems out of place in a region that’s both prosperous and historical, that boasts technology-driven military bases and one of the state’s fastest growing populations.

In its pitch to attract businesses, the Fredericksburg Regional Alliance touts the area’s high concentration of residents with doctorates and its highly skilled and expanding labor force of more than 1 million residents within a 40-mile commute.

Consumers might pay more than $10 for a loaf of fresh-baked bread at a regional Farmer’s Markets or shell out $8 for a gourmet grilled cheese sandwich at a downtown restaurant. At Sealy’s worst times, that would have consumed more than a quarter of her family’s 10-day food budget.

Stafford County had the best economic ranking in the region in 2016. Its median household income of $97,528 was the area’s highest and its poverty level, of 5 percent, the lowest, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

But there’s another reality amid the upscale neighborhoods and bedroom communities.

The USDA classifies the entire city of Fredericksburg as a food desert because of the number of residents who can’t afford what’s sold in grocery stores or don’t have transportation to get there.

“There’s just so many barriers,” said Elizabeth Borst, a Spotsylvania resident who directs Virginia Community Food Connections, which helps low-income residents afford fresh food. “You try to go to a grocery store on a FRED bus.”

The city also has the region’s highest percentage of people with food insecurity, at 16 percent, according to Feeding America, a nationwide network of food banks and pantries.

And while Stafford made the nation’s list of 10 wealthiest counties in the past, it has more places that give out food than any other locality in the region.

In July, food pantries were open 24 of 31 days in Stafford, and at the busiest time—the third Tuesday of the month—five were in operation.

Even with all the food distribution in the region, those who don’t have problems putting meals on the table may have no idea how pervasive food insecurity is.

“I always say that poverty is America’s little secret because nobody thinks it’s in their own community,” said Elizabeth Gilkey, the Food Bank’s director of development. “These are our neighbors who are hungry, and we don’t even know about it.”

‘STILL NOT ENOUGH’

The disparity highlights the struggles faced by people recently identified as the ALICE population: those who are asset limited, income constrained and employed. More than 39 percent of Virginia households don’t have enough money to cover basic living expenses, according to the ALICE report from the Rappahannock United Way.

After the economy tanked in 2007, the cost of living, including housing and taxes, child care and food, increased dramatically. Health care expenses alone climbed 81 percent between 2007 and 2015, the report stated, and wages couldn’t keep pace.

Those once considered middle class joined the ranks of the working poor, and charitable groups from Culpeper to Colonial Beach started handing out bags of groceries to help fill the void. The local United Way encouraged pantries to ease up on income restrictions so that working families wouldn’t be turned away, said Sarah Walsh, the United Way’s vice president of community impact.

“If a family asks for help,” Walsh said, “it is because they need it.”

Linda Miller, who helps coordinate The Table, a food ministry at St. George’s Episcopal Church in Fredericksburg that focuses on adding fresh produce to the menu, is often asked if people are taking advantage of food programs.

She has friends who say, if you would just teach them how to fish, they would make it.

“Well, they’re fishing two to three times a week,” Miller said, referring to the jobs each adult is working, “and it’s still not enough. If we could solve affordable housing and a decent living wage, we would solve hunger.”

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Cathy Dyson: 540/374-5425

cdyson@freelancestar.com

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