PHOTO: Feeding the hungry

HARD TO SAY what is more incredible, the number of people and households at risk of going hungry in the Fredericksburg area, or the number of people and organizations dedicated to making sure area residents are adequately fed.

That so many people in this region—in a prosperous area of a prosperous state—face limited access to food in general, and fresh, healthy food in particular, is not just shocking and disgraceful, it is simply wrong.

From all the statistics, programs and personal vignettes compiled in a recent series of stories on the subject by Free Lance–Star reporter Cathy Dyson, an unsettling picture of suffering in a land of plenty is revealed.

Most vulnerable are the area’s young, old and disabled residents—those least able to fend for themselves when nutritious food isn’t provided for them, and those least able to overcome the barriers of limited income and transportation.

While educating people about diet and nutrition is crucial to improving their health and quality of life, many of these people already know about the importance of eating well and how to prepare good food for themselves and their families. But then logistics and the lack of wherewithal get in the way.

About 31,000 people in the area—representing 11 percent of the region’s population, or more people than live in the city of Fredericksburg—are identified as “food insecure.” They are defined as those who lack a supply of food consistent enough to keep themselves healthy and active.

Some qualify for SNAP benefits, but the working poor whose income is just above the federal poverty line can have an especially hard time making ends meet.

The ongoing effort to combat hunger locally is impressive: 54 area churches run food pantries; 36 schools store food for distribution wherever they can find space; seven specialized agencies across the area strive to provide food where it is needed.

As the area’s food hub, the Fredericksburg Regional Food Bank, along with its mobile pantry, distributed more than 4 million pounds of food to about 34,000 residents through its partner agencies in fiscal year 2018.

Some area farmers markets are doing their part by offering to double the value of SNAP electronic purchases of fresh fruits and vegetables up to $20 a week. But even if the cost of food isn’t a primary barrier, transportation often is. Having food delivered, particularly fresh food, can make all the difference.

When it comes to perishable items, especially large quantities of fresh fruits and veggies, having refrigeration available to extend its shelf life is imperative. We shouldn’t have to let this or any other food go to waste when so many are in need.

Perhaps the future Fredericksburg Food Cooperative, which promises to be a fresh food clearinghouse once it is established, could play a role in these efforts.

If anyone has a bird’s-eye view of local food accessibility issues, it’s Elizabeth Borst, director of Fredericksburg Food Access Forum and executive director of Virginia Community Food Connections. She thinks a regional food council would help coordinate these efforts and create an effective vehicle for getting food where it’s needed.

A lot of things get done and a lot of people get help around here thanks to regional cooperation. It’s an invaluable concept that allows localities to pool resources and leadership in order to do important work as efficiently as possible. It can and should be used more than it is.

The network of pantries and the machinery of food distribution to those in need across the Fredericksburg area are already in place. Taking efforts to the next level to make sure food gets to where it needs to go and feeds as many hungry individuals and families as possible only makes sense.

It should be disturbing to area residents that so many of their neighbors lack adequate food when others of us make the trip to a grocery store or restaurant without a second thought.

Given the area’s history of reaching out to help those in need, is it prepared to do what’s necessary to keep residents from going hungry? We feel sure that it is.

Twitter: @FLS_Opinion