By Alex Cummings
In the midst of surging hunger rates, local food pantries are struggling to stock their shelves.
According to the latest report from Feeding America, a national hunger relief organization, 50 million Americans are classified as “food insecure” — the highest number since the United States Department of Agriculture began tracking the statistic.
In Rockbridge County, 2,540 people are classified as food insecure, meaning they do not have guaranteed access to food.
Rockbridge County’s Walmart Supercenter tries to address local hunger by donating thousands of pounds of leftover food to area relief organizations each month.
But Candace Camden, who oversees food donation for the local Walmart, said area residents don’t get much of this food because the primary local food pantry, run by Rockbridge Area Relief Association, generally turns away the store’s direct donations.
“We’re a community store, so we want to take care of our own people,” Camden said. “It’s sad that there is so much food that could be donated and going back to Rockbridge County.”
Last month RARA accepted 538 pounds of Walmart’s food once volunteers from Washington and Lee’s Campus Kitchen cleaned, sorted and delivered it to the pantry.
Mary Bergen, RARA secretary and treasurer, said the amount of work needed to ready the donated food for distribution is “too much trouble.”
There’s another complication: RARA serves only those who meet income-based guidelines set by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, said President Chip Honsinger.
“We follow USDA rules,” he said. “They allow people to pick up food once a month, and they specify how much food we should give to them.”
To qualify for the USDA’s free government food in Virginia, a family of four cannot have an annual income of more than $33,525.
At least 26 percent of Rockbridge County residents don’t qualify for free USDA food even though the government identifies them as “food insecure.”
“It can be a matter of someone making $5 more than the income cut-off,” Camden said. “Not qualifying doesn’t mean a family’s not still going hungry.”
Recent USDA budget cuts mean less government food is available to area food banks, which in turn limits what local pantries can get.
“There’s only one USDA item available at the food bank tomorrow,” Bergen said. “Carrots — and I don’t need carrots.”
That’s why more food pantries are depending on donated food to meet community needs. There are no USDA income restrictions attached to donated food, so anyone can receive it.
Many pantries separate the USDA products from donated items so people ineligible for USDA can still come in and get something to eat. That way, staff can control to whom the regulated food is going and then feed more people with donated food.
RARA operates differently. The pantry serves about 550 families once a month who meet the USDA income level, Honsinger said. “These are the only people we let in the door.”
All food at RARA, whether donated or USDA, is combined and arranged on grocery aisles.
“We have the two co-mingled, so we have to follow the stricter rules of the USDA,” Honsinger said.
He said separating the food and regulating its distribution would require more manpower – and acknowledged that that was something the group might look into.
“Maybe we could, and should,” he said. “That would be one way to get more food to more people.”
More than a year ago, Lexington’s Walmart offered its extra food to RARA, but an agreement could not be reached.
“Our policy is, ‘If I wouldn’t buy it off the shelf, why would I get it for clients?’ ” Bergen said. She was referring to items such as dented cans and food nearing sell-by dates.
Smaller pantries in Stuarts Draft, Craigsville and Natural Bridge-Glasgow now scramble to pick up the items from Walmart that RARA does not take.
“There might be a scratch on a box or a cracked egg in a carton,” said Wayne Hickman, owner of the Natural Bridge-Glasgow Food Pantry. “That’s why Walmart can’t sell it, but I use everything I can get.”
Hickman drives 30 miles to Walmart for donations every week. He stuffs his pickup truck with 500 to 1,000 pounds of food that volunteers from area churches help him sort and clean. That allows people to come to the pantry four or five times a month instead of once.
“If someone comes in and says he’s hungry, I’m giving him food,” Hickman said. “I’ve never turned anybody away.”
In the past two months, Walmart gave 5,652 pounds of food to the Craigsville pantry alone.
“What RARA refused was getting thrown away,” Camden said. “We had to resort to looking elsewhere.”
W&L’s Campus Kitchen project works with Walmart to get that leftover food into the community.
“We’re picking up and Glasgow’s picking up, but that’s it for in-county,” said Jennifer Davidson, Campus Kitchen’s coordinator. “Our Walmart would love for all of the food to stay in Rockbridge, but we only have so much storage space to keep food before it spoils.”
In October, RARA moved into Lexington’s former rescue squad building on Spotswood Drive, which provides much more storage, refrigerator, freezer and floor space than the organization had in its former location on North Main Street.
“I know there’s a lot of food [at Walmart] that we could get,” Honsinger said. “We just don’t have the volunteer labor and leadership available. That’s a management problem.”
Even with three colleges in the area, Honsinger and Bergen both said RARA would rather not take on student volunteers.
“We just don’t have a way to make use of students,” said Honsinger. “The bulk of our volunteers have to be people we can depend on.”
Bergen says taking on Walmart’s donations every week to expand the pantry’s recipient base isn’t worth the work involved.
“It doesn’t make sense to me to have more volunteers to give away this food,” she said. “We’re maintaining what we’ve been doing— a certain level of basic foods on a monthly basis.”
“The food pantry cannot provide for all the food needs for the clientele,” Bergen added. “This is supposed to be just supplemental.”
But after seeing the county’s latest food insecurity statistics, Honsinger said updating pantry procedures to accommodate this growing population is worth considering, especially given recent government cutbacks.
“That’s an avenue we’re keeping open for the future that we’d like to explore, but at the moment we just can’t do it.”