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Blue Ridge Area Food Bank sees demand rising again

Park View Community Mission 1

Volunteers pack boxes full of nonperishable foods at Park View Community Mission in Lynchburg on Wednesday, May 4.

The Blue Ridge Area Food Bank is working to combat childhood food hunger with area partners by serving 7,500 children per month across Lynchburg and the counties of Bedford, Amherst, Appomattox, Campbell and Nelson.

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Tom Kepler stacks a box containing nonperishable foods at Park View Community Mission on Wednesday that is ready to be distributed to the Lynchburg community.

Kristi West, BRAFB partner engagement manager for the Lynchburg area, said the food bank works with about 50 agencies and said the needs have ebbed and flowed throughout the pandemic.

“They were up quite high in 2020 and dipped a little bit in 2021 and are starting to go back up so far in 2022,” she said.

She thinks the dip is due to additional support families were getting during the pandemic but as that dries up, families and individuals are coming back and needing further food assistance when they didn’t need it last year.

“I have been speaking to a lot of the partners around here and they have seen a lot of new families they’ve never served before, so there are people that have not normally needed to go to a food pantry but have lost their jobs or their hours were cut and then on top of inflation, they’re just needing the food more,” she said.

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A completed box full of nonperishable foods is ready to be distributed at Park View Community Mission on Wednesday, May 4 in Lynchburg.

BRAFB also has a Community Supported Backpack Program (CSBP) in which Park View Community Mission’s Food For Thought is the largest CSBP and serves the entire Lynchburg City Schools district along with a few county schools and some college pantries.

Park View also fills in the gap over breaks from schools during the summer and over holidays with bags and produce boxes also from BRAFB.

Amherst Cares is another CSBP serving Amherst County schools, and Feed the Need offers food to one school in Bedford County and opens to the community in addition to the families of that school.

BRAFB works with Lynchburg Parks and Recreation to offer after-school meals and snacks. They also get produce from its warehouse to offer to their children and families.

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Volunteers pack boxes with nonperishable foods at Park View Community Mission in Lynchburg on Wednesday that will be distributed to members of the community in need.

Todd Blake, executive director for Park View, said education is the way out of poverty and it’s hard to succeed on an empty stomach.

“Sometimes the only food a student can count on is breakfast and lunch at school. So if we can make sure that they have proper nutrition over the weekend, then we really can help education to be [the] way out of poverty,” he said.

Summer break can be daunting for a child who doesn’t know if there is going to be food available in their home.

“Hunger doesn’t take a break, so neither do we,” he said.

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Detria Moore grabs a can of black beans to be packed into a box full of nonperishable foods at Park View Community Mission in Lynchburg on Wednesday.

The nonprofit is sending nearly 800 bags per week to various schools. Each bag includes seven meals and he said those costs add up.

“It’s not cheap to pack all those bags each week, but we’re going to keep being here and showing up for those kids to provide them the food that they need,” he said.

Park View also offers a food pantry where families can come twice per month. Blake said it couldn’t offer fresh fruit, vegetables, eggs, milk or bread without help from BRAFB and area grocers such as Walmart and Kroger.

“It may help families fill in the gap in their food budget, which we all know are not going as far as they used to,” he said. “I think that’s the experience for all of us, but we hope they can have enough funds available to continue to pay their rent, utilities and care for their children.”

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Tom Kepler carries a box full of nonperishable foods at Park View Community Mission in Lynchburg on Wednesday that will soon be distributed to members of the community in need.

And numbers are up at the pantry, he said. A few weeks ago it saw 300 families in one week — which are how many people usually show up around Thanksgiving and Christmas.

“So those numbers are climbing steadily and there are new families that we’re seeing at the food pantry. There are families that we have not seen in a couple of years that now they’re in a situation where they need some more help with their food budgets,” Blake said.

Michael McKee, CEO of BRAFB, said there is an increasing urgency in getting Congress to pass Child Nutrition Reauthorization, which was last reauthorized in 2010. It funds child nutrition programs, particularly free and reduced meal programs in schools.

“And it’s not just about adding funding to the mix,” he said. “It’s about meeting the challenge of the times and what needs to happen in 2022 is quite different even than what was needed 10 years ago. Coming out of the pandemic we are realizing that families, especially those living on low income wages, are really struggling through inflation.”

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A volunteer grabs a canister of oats to be packed into a box full of nonperishable foods at Park View Community Mission in Lynchburg on Wednesday.

McKee said these families really are struggling through rising costs for fuel, food, housing and health care.

“And beyond that, long term, we’re talking about a segment of the workforce, that despite gains in wages, is still struggling to make ends meet,” he said.

What food banks are asking of Congress is that it enhances what is available in school during the school year.

McKee said currently there is a provision called community eligibility, meaning if a school district or an individual school has 40% or more children who are eligible for free or reduced lunch, it may be able to offer school meals free of charge to all students in the building or all students in the district.

“We are encouraging Congress to improve the availability of food to children by bringing that eligibility number down to 25%, so that 25% of the children in a school building or in the district qualify, that the food is made available to everyone,” he said. “It’s not about being overly generous. It’s about compensating for the stigma and the lunch shaming that prevents many children from accessing the meals that are available to them.”

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Volunteers pack boxes with non-perishable foods at Park View Community Mission in Lynchburg on Wednesday that will be distributed to members of the community in need.

He added it’s also urgent now, coming up on summer break, to enhance the Summer Food Service Program — often referred to as summer feeding programs by the food bank.

McKee said the government requires nonprofits such as food banks to provide the food to children in a group environment and to combine the food with enrichment activities.

“The restrictions that the government has imposed on how much these programs can be delivered means that only one in five children who are eligible for free and reduced lunch during the school year actually participate in the Summer Food Service Program because they’re inaccessible, especially in rural areas,” he said.

McKee and Blake alike said children are affected profoundly by nutrition insecurity and are unable to participate as fully in school, pay attention as fully to teachers and are more inclined to exhibit behavioral problems and fall behind in school.

“And so, the idea that we need to make these investments to ensure nutrition security for our children benefits not only children and their families, but all of us by strengthening our communities and helping us to ultimately graduate students who are likelier to be more successful, go on to acquire skills and education and contribute more fully to their community and to society,” McKee said.

Park View Community Mission 9

Volunteers pack boxes with nonperishable foods at Park View Community Mission in Lynchburg on Wednesday that will be distributed to members of the community in need.

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