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How rural Virginia struggles with food insecurity, what’s being done to help

Updated: May. 20, 2021 at 5:31 PM EDT
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ROANOKE, Va. (WDBJ) - The pandemic forced us to do many new things, including sometimes, seeking alternate ways to get our groceries. But it also exposed inequities in our food system that came before COVID, inequities that remain, even as our lives inch closer to normal.

WDBJ7 and InvestigateTV have been analyzing food insecurity in the region and how COVID has forced creative solutions to feeding our friends, family and neighbors.

But let’s begin by understanding what food insecurity is. Being food insecure means not having enough resources to consistently put food on the table, food that contributes to a healthy and balanced diet.

Access to and availability of health food in our hometowns can vary greatly simply because of your zip code. But there are people in our region focused on bridging the gap.

We visited Fries, a small rural town in Grayson County, Virginia on a chilly spring in March.

Outside an old school parked a big delivery truck. Inside that old school, many hands made light work of a heavy task.

“Tell em you’re picking up three boxes,” says Tammie Lawson, tapping on the edge of a car door with her pen. “Pull ahead, y’all have a blessed day!”

Lawson does more than wish blessings upon the folks in this drive-through. She and fellow volunteers box them up and put them into the backseats of cars.

“Well, I do know that there was people here as early as 9 a.m. this morning waiting for a food box,” Lawson said. “So these people will sit in line sometimes for hours waiting to get food. So there is a need.”

Fries is home to a once-a-month food distribution program, where an efficient stream of volunteers prepares boxes of supplies like bread and canned vegetables.

“We have a lot of elderly folks and then we do see a lot of families with children,” said Lawson, who’s been volunteering about two years.

The effort is led by longtime locals Butch and Sandy Pickett.

“Well, I’m thankful we can offer the service,” said Mr. Pickett. “But it makes me sad, too, to think that people might be hungry.”

This distribution is supported by Feeding Southwest Virginia, which supplies pantries and charitable food distributors all over the region.

“So we have 26 counties, and 13 of those counties and 10 cities are the highest food-insecurity localities in the Commonwealth,” said CEO Pamela Irvine.

Irvine said feeding people during a pandemic was their toughest challenge yet. Last March, they feared they would run out of food in two weeks.

But an outpouring of support brought them more food in one year than the organization has ever seen. While things are leveling off, the organization still expects a 9 percent increase in need compared with early 2020. The rural and urban centers of southwest Virginia have been and remain especially hard hit, but just by the pandemic, but because, Irvine says, of years of disappearing jobs.

“If we would divide the Commonwealth into two states, I believe that far southwest Virginia would be one of the highest poverty and food-insecurity states in the country,” said Irvine.

It’s true for communities like Grayson County, the home of Fries, where locals say nothing significant replaced the mill that remained until the late ’80s.

Irvine agreed, saying many of the communities hardest hit during the pandemic were already economically distressed.

“A lot of these individuals feel forgotten,” said Irvine.

“They keep coming back, a lot of them do, month after month,” said Butch Pickett of the people in the line at the food distribution. “So the need must be there.”

Data predating the pandemic estimated 12 percent of the people in Grayson County were food-insecure.

And experts predict it’s only gotten worse.

“I think we’ll see the impact of COVID in our communities in many ways for years to come,” said Aaron Boush.

Boush is the Director of Carilion Clinic’s Community Health and Outreach.

He said surveys show about one in five people in the hospital’s coverage area say they’re food-insecure. But that number is closer to one in four for far rural communities and urban centers.

“Not putting proper nutrition in your body can cause multiple effects for long term,” said Boush. “Having access to healthy food and those healthy behaviors is just as important as going to your doctor.”

Before COVID, state leaders said 850,000 Virginians were food-insecure. They estimate that number grew by almost 450,000 Virginians during the pandemic.

But it’s not cost keeping healthy foods just out of reach.

Sometimes its accessibility.

PAMELA: “We have to factor in transportation. We know in our 26-county area there are multiple food deserts where people have to drive a considerable distance to be able to get affordable food.”

TAMMIE: “We have a Dollar General in Fries that’s about the only place that people have that they can go you know shop. Local to us would be Galax, about 30 minutes away. We do have a farmers’ market in Fries that operates in the summer months, but that’s about all that we have here. It would be nice to have a supermarket in Fries.”

In far rural communities like Buchanan County, an InvestigateTV analysis of recent USDA data reveals 31 stores there accept SNAP.

But just three of those 31 offer groceries, like fresh produce, meat and dairy.

Adding in a pandemic and disruptions to food supplies, said Boush, showed just how fragile the industrialized food system is.

“Our food banks and our food partners have really come together and worked collaboratively to bring food services and access to food to our community,” he said. “But I think that the pandemic really shows the need for a local food system.”

It’s why his department partners with LEAP for Local Foods, an organization that aims to improve equitable access to food while supporting local farmers.

“I think that the pandemic brought attention to a lot of the challenges that already existed in the food system,” said LEAP Executive Director Maureen Best, and kind of you know put additional attention and spotlight on how the food system was working for some but not for all people.”

Best believes the pandemic shows the value in a system like this, which saw a more than 250 percent increase in its farm share program over the last year.

Its mobile food market can be found weekly throughout various spots in the city, including Roanoke City’s northwest neighborhood. Best said it’s a recognized food desert, lacking an adequate number of grocery stores offering fresh, health options within walking distance of most residents.

“There is a disincentive a lot of times for grocery stores to be in areas that are low income,” she said. “And so people who live in areas that are overall lower income, it’s harder for them to get to the grocery stores. Especially if they don’t have transportation or if public transportation system isn’t oriented for easy access for bus trips to grocery stores.”

They’re hoping to fill the gap, along with a number of other local and regional organizations, to address the systemic issues leading to food insecurity.

Feeding Southwest Virginia is using what it’s learned in the past year to reshape its efforts, emphasizing distribution of culturally relevant foods, deploying their own mobile market and healthy eating programs.

“We’re looking at working together differently,” said Irvine, “and what does that look like so that we all can commit that every hungry person in our country means something to all of us.”

The organization’s Community Solutions Center is also working to get back to a normal schedule, including its Meal Production Training and Safe Serve Certification Program. Since inception, it’s graduated more than 25 people, several of whom have found employment - two of whom began their own food trucks.

They’ve also initiated a Food Farmacy, which is designed to help people suffering from dietary related illnesses. Irvine said it’s clear that poor health outcomes for many communities can be tied to food insecurity. Since restarting nutrition classes with the Food Farmacy in Roanoke, the program has hosted 24 participants and has handed out bags of produce and shelf-stable items at the Community Solutions Center.

The organization also adapted to COVID, by initiating a pop-up mobile food pantry which has served more than 25,000 people. The first Mobile Food Pantry in conjunction with the Mobile Marketplace will be 5/28/21 in Covington, Virginia. Feeding Southwest Virginia’s new Mobile Marketplace, launched in May, has also served almost 300 people and helped others fill out benefits paperwork, which the organization calls a great start.

In Roanoke’s southeast neighborhood, another food desert, Carilion has partnered with other local groups to establish an urban garden. Morningside Urban Farm was born out of a community health assessment in 2015. Boush reports many people in the southeast neighborhood do not live within walking distance of a food market and lack transportation. During its first full season in 2019, the garden harvested 1,200 pounds of produce, distributing to programs like the Boys and Girls Club, the Rescue Mission, the Presbyterian Community Center Food Pantry and other workshops and classes.

Carilion also began a Fresh Foods Rx program in partnership with several other organizations. According to Boush’s office, in one recent year, participants in the program weer able to significantly reduce their BMI, their body weight, HbgA1c, noting that 100 percent of participants increased the amount of fruits and vegetables they ate while in the program.

Work to bridge the gap continues. Leaders see the challenges for the rural communities, but also know that getting enough, healthy food is an equity issue.

Feeding America says because of the pandemic, they estimate more than 20 percent of the nation’s black community may have struggled, including one in four black children.

This week we learned Virginia launched what the Governor says is the nation’s first statewide equity dashboard, which will track recovery in our communities disproportionately affected by the pandemic.

They’re all attempts to help bridge the gap for people in southwest Virginia who still struggle to consistently access healthy foods.

But there are people committed to making that change.

“Just glad to be a volunteer for a community that I love and I’ve spent 50 years of my life here,” said Lawson. “So I’m just honored to be a part of something that is so giving.”

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