By Elizabeth Bell, Emma Coleman and Liza Moore
Sharon Tyree shopped for milk, bacon and other essentials for her grandchildren at the Dollar General in Glasgow on a recent rainy Sunday morning.
Tyree shops about once a week at the Dollar General in the mountain town in Rockbridge County in the Valley of Virginia. But for fresh produce, she has to travel over 24 miles round trip to the nearest supermarket, a Food Lion in Buena Vista.
“I’m used to traveling that far,” said Tyree, a Rockbridge area native.
Like Tyree, nearly two-thirds of Rockbridge area residents live in a community defined by the federal government as a food desert.
Low-income residents of rural food deserts struggle to access affordable and nutritious food because there’s a lack of supermarkets in the far corners of the county. It’s also difficult for some people to get to the existing grocery stores because there’s limited public transportation in the area. Government programs don’t address the severity or the breadth of the problem. Locally, schools and a handful of nonprofit organizations try to fill the gaps. But they know that they’re missing people and they can’t serve others because of the coronavirus pandemic.
“For a rural [area] to be considered a food desert, we take into account two different factors,” said Alana Rhone, a specialist on food access at the U.S. Department of Agriculture. A neighborhood “must be low-income and low-access.”
In rural food deserts, over one-third of residents live more than 10 miles from the nearest grocery store, according to the USDA. Residents of food deserts struggle not only to make ends meet but also to find their way to grocery stores where they can buy healthy and affordable food.
The poverty rates in Rockbridge County’s cities and towns are higher than the national average, according to 2019 census data. The poverty rate for single mothers in the Rockbridge area is even higher.
Single mothers and households with incomes below the poverty line are the most likely to experience food insecurity, according to the USDA. People struggling with food insecurity don’t have “consistent access to enough food for every person in a household to live an active, healthy life,” according to Feeding America, the largest hunger relief organization in the United States.
Not having access to affordable and nutritious food can also lead to food insecurity.
The food insecurity rate in 2018 was 10.2% in Rockbridge County and 13% in both Buena Vista and Lexington, according to Feeding America.
Rural communities make up 87% of counties with the highest rates of overall food insecurity, said Alicia Voguel, a nutrition educator for the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, also known as SNAP.
Voguel said a scarcity of food stores is a problem in rural areas.
Supermarkets are few and far between
There are four supermarkets in the Rockbridge area. Kroger is in Lexington. Walmart and one of the Food Lions are on the outskirts of Lexington. The other Food Lion is on the Buena Vista city line.
The limited options make it hard for people who live in the outer parts of the county. For people who live in Natural Bridge, like Tyree, it’s more than 30 miles round-trip to go to Walmart.
“Having the choice of what you want to eat is definitely a privilege that a lot of people don’t have,” said Lorena Terroba Urruchua, the fundraising chair for Campus Kitchen, a charity run by Washington and Lee University students, faculty and staff. “Even [if] someone is experiencing food insecurity, they should still have that same level of agency as far as what they’re eating. Food isn’t just about calorie intake. … It’s such a social thing and if it’s reduced down to, ‘I need to eat to get by,’ then that’s a really hard thing to impose on someone.”
In the Rockbridge area, processed food from fast food restaurants or convenience stores is more accessible for many residents than fresh produce from a supermarket.
In Virginia communities with limited food access, the percentage of fast food restaurants and convenience stores is higher than the percentage of grocery stores that carry fresh produce, according to a 2014 study by the Virginia Cooperative Extension Food Desert Task Force.
Dollar stores aren’t cheap
For the 300 residents of Goshen, a town at the northern point of the county, the nearest grocery store is about 10 miles away in Craigsville and the nearest Walmart is about 20 miles away in Lexington.
“We’re the only store around here besides the gas station,” said Sarah Gentry, the assistant manager of the Dollar General in Goshen.
Dollar General has over 17,000 stores in the United States, mainly in rural areas. About 75 percent of the company’s stores are in towns with less than 20,000 people.
In 2019, Dollar General announced that it would start selling fresh produce in some of its stores. But produce is still only offered in a fraction of stores. The Dollar General in Goshen doesn’t sell fresh or frozen fruits or vegetables.
Dollar General responded to multiple requests for an interview by referring a reporter to its corporate website.
Across the country, dollar stores are the primary place where many people living in food deserts buy groceries. Some cities, like Birmingham and New Orleans, have passed laws to limit openings of dollar stores, such as Dollar General, Family Dollar and Dollar Tree, to prevent them from driving out grocery stores or local markets that offer more nutritious options.
At the entrance of Goshen’s Dollar General, several aisles were packed with chips, candy and processed snacks during a visit in May. There was a wide selection of bread, Hostess baked goods and Slim Jims.
The shelves of the canned goods section were mostly empty.
The refrigerators labeled “fresh food” along the perimeter of the store were stocked with cold cuts, cheese, eggs, milk, hot dogs, bacon and yogurt. The freezer section included frozen pizza, Taquitos, Hot Pockets, macaroni and cheese and chicken nuggets.
Heather Thompson, of Goshen, buys groceries for her family at Dollar General once or twice a week.
“I’ll just come in and get milk and bread and drinks,” she said. “It’s easier to come here.”
To buy fresh produce and meat, Thompson drives over 30 minutes to Walmart or Kroger in Lexington.
But “a lot of the locals come in here for all of their grocery shopping,” said Gentry, the Dollar General’s assistant manager.
The Dollar General is more accessible for Goshen residents than other supermarkets, but it still isn’t within walking distance. And shopping at the Dollar General isn’t necessarily cheaper than shopping at Walmart.
“Some stuff is around the same price as other grocery stores, but some stuff is higher,” Gentry said. “But you pay for being local, so you don’t have to go out of your way as much.”
For example, a gallon of milk and one pound of frozen ground beef are both almost twice as expensive at the Dollar General in Goshen than at Walmart in Lexington.
“Dollar stores package many of their products in smaller quantities than items sold at traditional grocery stores. This cuts sticker prices, but often results in a higher cost per ounce,” said a 2018 report from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, a nonprofit research and advocacy group that supports strengthening local economies.
Grocery prices are often higher in communities with a limited number of supermarkets, said Rhone, a USDA food access specialist.
“If there are more grocery stores that provide healthy and affordable food, it does lower prices because if there’s only one store, then that store has a monopoly of the area and they can set their prices,” she said. “But if there are more supermarkets in an area, then they’re competing against each other to get the lowest prices.”
This poses an additional challenge for federal SNAP benefit recipients who live in food deserts because they receive a set amount of money to spend on groceries per month, Rhone said. The average SNAP recipient received $127 per month in 2019, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a nonpartisan research group that analyzes federal budget decisions.
“If you are on SNAP, you may want to shop around for the prices that are most feasible for you,” she said.
But this isn’t an option for many residents of a food desert.
Poverty and poor nutrition are linked
“I just can’t afford to eat healthy,” Dr. James Kennedy recalls a mother telling him.
Kennedy, a pediatrician at the Rockbridge Area Health Center, said he sent the child to an area hospital to rule out a hormonal imbalance as the cause of rapid weight gain.
“The weight gain was so shocking, and it made me think there was something we didn’t know,” he said.
Obesity, diabetes, high cholesterol and high blood pressure are all signs of “overnutrition,” which is unhealthy eating due to food insecurity, said Kelsey Brown, a registered dietitian at the Rockbridge Area Health Center.
“We’re starting to see a shift in this country of how food insecurity is actually impacting overnutrition as another sign of malnutrition itself,” she said.
SNAP benefits average $1.39 per person per meal, according to USDA Food and Nutrition 2020 data. That means people struggling with poverty often must choose whether to buy healthy food, pay their rent and utilities, or spend their money on medicine.
“We don’t want people to make those difficult decisions,” said Jen Handy, the director of Rockbridge Area Relief Association, known locally as RARA, a nonprofit organization that addresses poverty and hunger.
Food pantries try to fill the gaps
When supplemental government programs such as SNAP fall short, food pantries provide another option by offering free food. But, like the grocery stores, the pantries are located in or close to Lexington and Buena Vista.
The Rockbridge Community Table, located in Lexington, typically serves sit-down dinners on Monday nights and lunches on Wednesdays through a system they like to call “a restaurant without a cash register.” The organizers ask people to pay whatever they can, if they can. If not, it’s free.
The Community Table’s organizers converted to a drive-through service because of the COVID-19 pandemic’s social distancing requirements. The change poses a challenge for Rockbridge County residents who don’t have cars.
“Unless you can drive to us or walk to us, right now that’s the only way we’re serving,” said Kate Crossman, the Rockbridge Community Table president.
Pantries, such as the one operated by RARA, also have changed their services from a typical grocery store-style shopping experience to drive-through or delivery because of the pandemic.
Public transportation aids the stranded
Henry Byrd, 57, used to live in Glasgow, but he couldn’t get to Walmart because he doesn’t have a car.
“There was no transportation there so I moved on out over those circumstances. I had to move out and get help here,” said Byrd, who moved to Lexington in November.
Byrd regularly rides the Maury Express, one of two transportation services in the Rockbridge area. He relies on the bus to get to and from Walmart, where he shops almost every other day.
The Maury Express and the Rockbridge Area Transportation System, known as RATS, provide transportation to people across the county who don’t have cars or cannot afford to buy gas.
The Maury Express is a subsidiary of RADAR, a nonprofit paratransit and senior transportation system based in Roanoke. Rides on the Maury Express are available on two fixed routes in Lexington and Buena Vista and cost 50 cents.
The Maury Express is funded by grants and contributions by the cities of Lexington and Buena Vista.
“What we do is we apply for a federal grant every three years,” said Rockbridge County Administrator Spencer Suter, a member of the Maury Express Advisory Board.
Washington and Lee University and the Virginia Military Institute also contribute to the Express’s annual fund. Their students ride free when they present a college ID card.
Suter said the bus is under-utilized.
“There’s an ebb and flow in it,” he said. “We did have a group some years back out at Willow Springs apartments that would use the Maury Express to get to work. And so we had a high ridership there, you know, seven or eight of them. And then, all at once, they kind of banded together and they bought a van. And so then, they had a van, so our ridership dropped way off.”
Often, he said, buses drive around with no passengers. “But we’ve always maintained, when we look at the budget every year, that even though the ridership is not, is not high, that is the last line of defense for some folks that just don’t have transportation.”
But it’s not always a reliable last line of defense. COVID-19 social distancing requirements forced the Maury Express to limit its capacity to only three passengers. That means some riders are turned away.
“You’ll have to wait an hour,” George Fauver, a driver for the Maury Express, called out to a man waiting to board the bus built for 12 passengers as it pulled into the Kroger in Lexington on a recent weekday. The bus already had three passengers and could not accommodate additional riders because of social distancing requirements.
RATS picks up where the Maury Express falls short, sometimes servicing people outside of Lexington and Buena Vista. The independent transportation service requires people to pre-schedule rides, but it is available to everyone.
“A lot of people think that RATS is only for the disabled or the handicapped. And it’s not. It’s for anybody that needs a ride,” said Justina Eason, a RATS dispatcher.
Eason said RATS gets requests for help with grocery shopping three or four times a week.
“I have a lot of the people that’s on a fixed income that we’ll call like the first of every month, or the third of every month, to go to the grocery store, and we’ll go get them, and take them, and help with the groceries,” she said. “Our drivers are not allowed inside houses. So, the most we can do is get the groceries out of the van or the car and put them on their front step.
But RATS drivers provide extra help to a regular passenger who is blind when he needs to shop for his groceries.
“Some of the stores know that he comes in, and with time, they will have to have an associate to help him,” Eason said. “But if he needs us to, then we will.”
But those services come at a higher price. RATS round trips within the city of Lexington cost $18. If you use a wheelchair, that cost jumps to $28.
If riders want to travel outside of Lexington, additional fees are applied. For example, Eason said, a trip from Lexington to Fishersville is $150, plus $11 for every hour the driver waits for the rider.
Byrd said he used RATS once while living in Glasgow to go to a doctor’s appointment. But he thought it was too expensive. He never used it again while he lived there.
Instead, he usually walked to Glasgow’s Dollar General and the Glasgow Grocery Express, a small store that sells everything from outdoor supplies and live bait to snacks and frozen food.
For people who live outside the city limits and have a car, gas prices are another challenge.
Some residents travel over 30 miles round trip to the nearest supermarket. So a trip to the store can be costly. The average cost of a tank of gas was $32.40 in Virginia in April, according to AAA.
Jim Kvach, a volunteer at RARA in Lexington, remembers a family from outside the city who came to the pantry on a day it was closed.
Because the family couldn’t afford the gas for the car to make another trip, he said, the pantry supplied them with food anyway.
“That’s not an isolated thing with people not having enough money to buy the fuel to go back and forth to the food pantry,” Kvach said.
Such a lack of information about food pantry hours is common, and the coronavirus pandemic only exacerbated communication problems between charities and the people they serve.
Need to communicate
Crossman, the Community Table’s president, said the pandemic hindered the ability of charity workers to connect with people in the community who don’t know where to go for help, or when.
“We’re not having conversations with the folks like we would normally get to have with them. It’s sort of a hi and bye,” she said.
The communication gap was a problem for the charities even before the pandemic. They weren’t talking to each other to ensure that they weren’t duplicating services. For example, in 2015, W&L’s Campus Kitchen was serving meals in Buena Vista, overlapping with Bridge to Hope Food Pantry, which was doing the same thing.
“So, we kind of sat down with them and said, okay, it doesn’t feel like our efforts here are necessarily needed, or helpful and, in fact, we might be pulling people away from a resource that can better assist them,” said Ryan Brink, the Campus Kitchen coordinator.
Before the pandemic, over a dozen groups came together to form the Rockbridge Feeds Coalition to coordinate the response to food insecurity in the area. The two goals are to improve communications among the providers and with the people they’re serving.
The coalition has created a website that serves as a hub for resources for groceries, hot meals and other food programs for people in need.
“There’s so many organizations that address food insecurity, sort of in their own unique way,” Crossman said. “So I think that Rockbridge Feeds is going to provide this great service, not only for the people that need it to find resources, but also for all these agencies to work better together, to collaborate and coordinate their efforts, just to make it all a little bit more effective.”
Offering a helping hand and a green thumb
Some local residents are helping the charities by donating food they’ve grown in their backyards.
“A true gardener always plants more than what they can use because they love to give it away,” said Jim Zimmerman, a founding member of the Brownsburg Community Garden located in northeastern Rockbridge County, about 15 miles outside of Lexington.
In 2015, Zimmerman, who is also a RARA volunteer, noticed how much people loved the fresh produce that had been donated to the pantry. He decided to get his neighbors in Brownsburg to collect their extra produce so he could take the donations to RARA every Thursday.
“I saw an opportunity to use that as a way to bring these gardeners together,” he said.
So far this year, owners of 22 backyard gardens have donated 2,000 pounds of produce to RARA, Zimmerman said.
Kvach, a RARA volunteer who lives outside Lexington, grows a variety of vegetables, including kale, squash, peppers, tomatoes and beets. Last year, he said, his garden produced over 3,200 pounds of produce that he donated to RARA.
“I mean, how much can two people eat?” he said, referring to himself and his wife, Kathy.
Farmers markets are another way to provide access to healthy, fresh food.
David Renalds, owner of Fairfield Tire, which is 11 miles outside of Lexington, started a farmers market for his neighbors and customers after food prices soared because of the pandemic.
Over 75% of Renalds’ clients at the tire shop are farmers. He said his neighbors and clients started to call him, asking if any of the farmers who use his auto body shop were selling produce or eggs.
In response, Renalds decided to invite members of the community to help put on a farmers market and provide groceries that others were lacking.
Michelle Wells, the owner of Hearthstone Farm who was already a vendor at the Lexington Farmers Market, accepted the invitation to open a stand at the Fairfield market. Wells has a garden and raises over 200 chickens on her farm in Fairfield.
At the Lexington Farmers Market, Wells sells a dozen eggs for $6 and a head of cabbage for $3.25. In comparison, Walmart sells a dozen eggs for $1.08 and a head of cabbage for $2.04.
The high prices could turn people away. But the farmers market uses a grant from Carilion Clinic, a Virginia-based healthcare provider, to help SNAP recipients cover the costs, and then some.
“If you use SNAP benefits, it’s like everything is half priced,” said Mitch Wapner, the market’s manager. “We double their dollars. So if they swipe for $5, they get $10. If they swipe for $10, they get $20.”
Many of the vendors also give their surplus to food pantries such as RARA, Campus Kitchen and the Rockbridge Community Table.
“I donate to the pantry,” said Wells, gesturing at the eggs at her stand at the Lexington Farmers Market. “I did last week and I will probably one more time this week. In the spring the chickens go bananas, and I need to get rid of a lot of the eggs. But then later on in the season, when you need eggs, they don’t give any.”
Such a cycle of high supply and lower demand during the summer months also affects the food pantries.
Kvach, a RARA volunteer, grows various produce eight months out of the year in his garden, from June to January. He said he plants in a rotation with turnips and cabbage in the winter, and mostly squash, tomatoes and green peppers during the summer.
“It’s a good way of keeping healthy food on peoples’ tables,” he said.
Renalds feels the same way. “We really want to connect local farms to local families, but also just create a network where if a pandemic hits again and there are shortages on the shelves of the grocery stores, we have a network to supply our own community,” he said.
Schools pitch in with potatoes, and life lessons, too
Some schools are contributing to that community effort. Harrington Waddell Elementary School donates produce to RARA once or twice a year.
“When we have the potatoes, we very often have lots of extra potatoes, and we’ll take those to the food pantry,” said Sue Shultis, the school’s liaison for its Roots and Shoots garden, “and it’ll probably be the same thing with the onions.”
Roots and Shoots began over 25 years ago with Molly and Dirck Brown of Lexington. The garden originally served as a space for Waddell students and elderly community members to collaborate.
“It was supposed to be an inter-generational endeavor, so that the little kids got to know the one volunteer, the older volunteer that worked with them,” Shultis said.
Now, the garden serves primarily as an educational tool. Kindergartners plant sunflowers and first-graders plant onions. Second-graders plant potatoes, which they harvest as third-graders. The fourth-graders make tea or sachets with herbs from the garden, and fifth-graders practice composting.
Shultis said Roots and Shoots is teaching students critical lessons about the nature of food. She said some students aren’t familiar with where their food comes from or how it’s grown.
“Kids don’t know that anymore,” she said.
She described an experience with one child in kindergarten, who expected quick results: “There was one little boy,” she said. “We were in the cafeteria. And he kept saying, ‘I need new seeds, I need new seeds.’ And we couldn’t understand why he kept saying that. And he got back up to his classroom with his little cup of dirt and his seeds. He goes, ‘See, I told you it’s not growing.’ Because he thought that’s how fast it would grow, from walking from the cafeteria up to his classroom.”
Daphne Stickley, nutrition supervisor for Rockbridge County Public Schools, said other school gardens in the area, specifically those at Maury River Middle School and Natural Bridge Elementary School, are not functioning at their full capacities.
Lexington Mayor Frank Friedman said education plays a critical role in the fight against food insecurity.
“My perception with food insecurity, on a macro level, goes to education,” he said. “I have the great benefit of my mother that raised me and her family being farmers, and I realized the value and the incredible taste of fresh food out of the garden.”
Friedman suggested that students and parents who understand what food is good and what food is available to them will make better decisions when accessing and purchasing food.
“I think that we have poverty and food insecurity because people don’t realize the options to better themselves and get themselves educated to be healthier and more productive,” he said. “But the food insecurity, doggone, it’s not a choice between vegetables or bad stuff. There’s nothing in the cabinets. The refrigerator is turned off. And that is devastating to think of.”
Virginia State Senator Creigh Deeds agreed.
“Before we can train kids to be rocket scientists, and to change the world, we’ve got to make sure they’ve got something in their belly,” he said. “Because that’s where it all starts. And we have to focus on that across the board.”
Deeds represents the 25th District, which includes Rockbridge, Nelson, Alleghany, Bath and Highland counties, in the Virginia Senate. He said education on every front is the best defense against food insecurity in the Rockbridge community.
Friedman said food insecurity persists in the Rockbridge area because people who need help sometimes can’t let go of their pride.
“I think that there will always, sadly, be a need for RARA, Project Horizon [a program that provides services to battered women] and other support organizations,” he said. “Because we’re humans, and we’re sinners and we’re fallible.”
Friedman said parents’ personal struggles can sometimes prevent them from appropriately providing for their children.
“There was a time my mother was a smoker,” he said. “And it was like, do we eat better with four rotten kids that she was trying to raise? Or does she satisfy her nicotine fits? And when you’re choosing between food and cigarettes, and you’re an adult, and you may not be as thoughtful a parent, you make bad choices.”
Schools going the extra mile
Public school systems are helping to feed students. During the COVID-19 pandemic, Rockbridge County Public Schools developed meal delivery and pick-up systems that continue to serve students across the county.
Stickley, the nutrition supervisor for the county schools, said the majority of students attending school in Rockbridge County are eligible for and take advantage of the National School Lunch Program, which provides low-cost or free meals to students who qualify.
“If we were in school, we would be way up there. Like 67 percent of the kids at Natural Bridge qualify. There’s a high percentage in that area,” she said. “When people are in school, we have probably 80 percent of our kids that participate in the program.”
But the pandemic has caused a decrease in federal lunch program participation.
“With the pandemic, the numbers are low,” Stickley said. “I’d say it’s like 5 percent, 10 percent. It’s very low.”
Many students and families in the county are instead taking advantage of new benefits available through Pandemic Electronic Benefit Transfer (P-EBT) cards, provided by the Virginia Department of Social Services.
“It has lowered participation in our bus-delivered meals,” Stickley said. “And I can tell you, it’s also made a difference in some other community services that offer food programs to families.”
According to the Virginia Department of Social Services website, the P-EBT program is “a federal program created in the spring of 2020 to supplement existing nutrition programs for low-income households while schools were closed due to COVID-19.”
Students who qualify for free or reduced-price meals under the National School Lunch Program automatically are eligible for P-EBT benefits.
Because so many of Natural Bridge Elementary School’s students already qualify for free meals and participate in other programs like SNAP or TANF, the school has what Stickley called “community eligibility.”
“Everyone at that school, regardless of whether they are approved for meal benefits or not,” she said, “everyone in that school gets free meals, and they are eligible for the pandemic EBT card.”
Stickley said school bus drivers played a crucial role in meal deliveries at the beginning of the pandemic.
“We started doing the delivery service, and basically our buses weren’t carrying children to school, so we used bus drivers at each location,” she said. “My staff would make the meals and package them, and the bus drivers would come through, and we’d load up tons of meals.”
The meals were dropped off at participating households every Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Families could also opt to pick up their meals at Maury River Middle School in Lexington.
The delivery and pick-up systems are still in place for students who are learning virtually, but they require families and students to place lunch orders through a website.
“We have some people that don’t have very good internet service to be able to order, or the computer technology knowledge in order to do that,” Stickley said. “So, we’ve come up with the list of people we say are perpetual.”
Those people receive meals regularly, without submitting meal orders online.
Stickley said some students have been supplied with internet hot spots in parts of the county where access to broadband internet service is limited.
“It’s a little box that you plug in and it picks up service. So, those have been given out to students who need it,” she said. “All that technology has been made available to folks.”
Last summer, the Summer Feeding Program, a subset of the National School Lunch Program, allowed the county schools to continue delivering meals to anyone who needed them while school was not in session.
“Not only are we feeding our school children, we’re feeding siblings, as long as they’re between the ages of 18 and one,” Stickley said. “We’re feeding whoever wants to get that meal. They don’t have to be our students. They can be anyone.”
That summer program will not continue this summer. Instead, students will have to pick up their meals at Maury River Middle School in Lexington.
“But in comes the Bridge the Hunger Gap van,” Stickley said.
RCPS received a $50,000 grant from No Kid Hungry in December 2020. According to the program’s website, No Kid Hungry is “a national campaign run by Share Our Strength, a nonprofit working to solve problems of hunger and poverty in the United States and around the world.”
“Part of the funds went to purchase a van, and part of it goes back to Washington and Lee’s Campus Kitchen Program, since they’re our community partner,” Stickley said.
The Bridge the Hunger Gap van delivers meals to families who still don’t have access to school lunch delivery programs. Many of those families are identified by Stickley as “English Language Learner” families.
“There’s pockets of folks in the community,” she said. “My biggest thing was to be able to serve those kids because we knew there were certain people that we weren’t getting.”
The county public schools have taken advantage of nonprofit efforts to keep county residents fed during the pandemic.
In April, representatives of the Feed the Need Foundation, a local nonprofit organization that had partnered with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, visited Natural Bridge Station. The organization distributed 1,200 boxes of food to those in need, Stickley said.
“A lot of the food pantries, churches, a lot of organizations participated in that,” she said. “We as a school system participated in it, and we did it with our English Language Learner families that wanted it. That’s how we did it.”
Despite the benefits provided by federal programs and local nonprofits, Stickley said she’s afraid some food insecure families are falling through the cracks, especially because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
When the Bridge the Hunger Gap van began delivering meals in December, staff carried 80 meals to families who live near Raphine.
“Right now, we’re doing 30 going into that area. We’re doing 32 or 33, I think, every Friday. But we want to bump that number up, and we’re pretty confident we can do that,” she said. “We want to get everybody in that community that we know we serviced last year.”
Stickley said meal recipients are grateful for their deliveries. That’s how she knows there is a need for the service.
“I know that getting the food means a lot to these people, because they say thank you in a big way. And everybody who participates in it has been very thankful,” she said.
Organizations joining forces
While county school buses and the Bridge the Hunger Gap van rushed to cater to hungry students in the county during the COVID-19 pandemic, Lexington students didn’t have the same options.
“We don’t have a typical transportation department as far as school buses,” said Jason White, the director of operations and student services for Lexington City Schools. “We have one activity bus, that we’re able to shuttle kids back and forth between the schools, and we use it for field trips and athletics and such, but we’re not able to do that door-to-door delivery as in what the county has done.”
Officials at the Rockbridge Area Transportation System, known as RATS, volunteered to keep Lexington school teachers, guidance counselors and other staff members from having to deliver meals to students who were learning virtually during the pandemic.
“They were true heroes. They stepped up,” White said. “We’re forever indebted to them and their community service in that aspect.”
The Lexington City School Board recognized RATS as a Virginia School Board Association Honor Roll Business at a meeting in April.
Eason, a RATS dispatcher, and her co-worker Laurie Hostetter used RATS vehicles to pick up meals from Lylburn Downing Middle School and deliver them to students, beginning in November.
“The ones that did open the door, they had like a look of relief, excitement, happiness,” Eason said. “I had one family, it’s about five or six kids, and every day when I was going, the kids would meet us at the door and jump up and down.”
Lexington City Schools also partnered with RARA during the pandemic.
The nonprofit’s “backpack program,” which sends students home on Fridays with meals for the weekend, was extended to all students, not just those who qualified for aid, during the pandemic.
But Eason wonders if RATS is doing enough to serve everyone in need.
“Out of all the houses here, we only go to about maybe 10 of them,” she said. “So, the other 20 or 25, you know, we don’t know what’s going on in there. We haven’t been there to sense and get a feel of the environment or anything like that. I think it would be good if we could deliver to all the kids.”
Charities carry the burden
Senator Deeds, who represents the 25th District, said that past state government efforts to address food insecurity in the area failed.
“We’ve tried to incentivize grocers into going into areas where there aren’t grocery stores,” he said, “but you can’t always get that accomplished.”
Recent legislation may have an impact. The Virginia Senate and House of Delegates passed identical versions of a bill in March that aims to address food insecurity in the state. Gov. Ralph Northam signed it into law on March 24.
The legislation established the Virginia Agriculture Food Assistance (VAFA) Program. According to the legislative information system’s website, the program allows “Virginia farmers and food producers to donate, sell, or otherwise provide agriculture products to charitable food assistance organizations.”
The General Assembly also created the VAFA Fund, “to disburse moneys to such charitable food assistance organizations to reimburse farmers or food producers for any costs associated with harvesting, processing, packaging, or transporting agriculture products donated to such charitable food assistance organizations.”
The law doesn’t appear to establish any systems for addressing food insecurity that Rockbridge area nonprofits and residents have not already established on their own.
Legislators also left charities like RARA, the nonprofit that fights poverty and hunger in the area, to rely mostly on funds it has raised on its own.
RARA receives small contributions from Rockbridge County, Lexington and Buena Vista governments each year. But the money isn’t enough to cover everything the charity does.
In 2019, Rockbridge County contributed $12,000 to RARA’s annual fund. Lexington donated $4,000 and Buena Vista kicked in $1,500, according to a document presented by RARA to Lexington City Council at a meeting in April.
The local governments’ contributions made up only 4.4% of RARA’s revenue in 2019. Another 8.6% was contributed by federal and state governments. The rest of the nonprofit’s revenue comes from community organizations, churches, grants and individual donors.
Friedman said the state government is in a better position than small cities to serve people who have food insecurity.
“When we look at the state level, you know, the governor has a lot more tools, and arguably responsibility,” the Lexington mayor said. “They are a variety of different agencies. As the local government, we don’t have that many. And I think that’s by design, hoping that family, friends and neighbors will have the support and take care of one another.”