Local food pantries are getting an extra financial boost to improve their buildings and services, thanks to funding from the Blue Ridge Area Food Bank. The food bank recently awarded more than $2 million in grants to 120 of its partner agencies through the organization’s Agency Capacity Fund. The amount–totaling $2,037,582–is the largest annual total awarded since this donor-driven strategy began.
The grants were provided to help food pantries build or update their infrastructure, such as walk-in freezers and refrigerators, trucks and vans and building expansions and renovations. They were given to food pantries located across the region. The Blue Ridge Area Food Bank is partnered with over 200 food pantries across 25 counties and eight cities through distribution centers in Charlottesville, Lynchburg, Winchester and Verona.
Michael McKee, CEO of the Blue Ridge Area Food Bank, said the organization saw an increase in its clients as a direct result of the COVID-19 pandemic. The food bank’s coverage area saw an increase from 103,000 people in February of 2020 to a peak of 146,000 people in May of 2020.
“We knew that we could not solve the problem and meet that enormous spike in the need for food assistance by taking over food distribution centrally as a food bank. We had to have a strong pantry network that could stand up through the pandemic and beyond,” McKee said.
The Blue Ridge Area Food Bank assisted its partner food pantries in figuring out drive-thru and delivery systems and other methods of serving the community in a safe and socially distanced way. However, the organization quickly discovered they needed to do more to assist its partners after seeing the pandemic test the limits of the system.
“We realized just how critically important investing in infrastructure of our network really was, because we experienced the very limits of the charitable food assistance system,” McKee said. “We knew we had to help our partners increase their storage capacity, increase their efficiency and help them with bigger purchases more than we had before.”
The organization had recently received an outpouring of financial support from donors, so the food bank decided to solicit major infrastructure proposals from its partner food pantries to help improve operations. McKee said most of the donations came from individuals, with some coming from organizations such as the Manning Family Foundation in Charlottesville.
The Blue Ridge Area Food Bank awarded grants that were used purchase 96 computers, tablets and other technology enhancements, 80 coolers and freezers, 52 supplies and space improvements, 39 awards for shelving, pallet jacks and floor scales, 24 capital-improvement projects and expansions, 17 walk-in coolers and freezers and 4 trucks and vans.
Feeding Greene, a partner with Charlottesville’s center, received $50,000 to expand and renovate their building and $35,000 to purchase walk-in freezers and refrigerators. Rhonda Oliver, the director of the food pantry in Stanardsville, said the funding dramatically increased their ability to serve the community, especially as the pantry has seen an uptick in visitors due to the financial effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Oh my gosh, what a blessing it’s been,” Oliver said. “It’s doubled our space, it’s given us a stock room and the receiving area and it’s given us a really nice walk-in freezer and cooler. We’re able to store more food than ever and we’re open again.”
Oliver said earlier in the pandemic, Feeding Greene was strictly operating a delivery and drive-thru model due to their cramped building. Now, visitors to the food pantry can physically come into the building and make their own selections. The additions of walk-in freezers and coolers have also enabled the pantry to stock more fresh and healthy items, Oliver said.
“We’ve actually opened back up with full client choice, where it’s much like a normal grocery store experience. They get their own cart and do their own shopping and we log their visit and help them load their vehicles. At the same time we’re able to receive food in a different area of our building,” she said. “Families are loving it, they’re absolutely loving it. We couldn’t be happier right now.”
McKee said the food bank is dependent on its partner organizations to serve over 25 million meals a year to area families. While McKee is proud of the work the food bank has done, he said charities alone cannot fix the food insecurity crisis, and more needs to be done on a state and national level.
“That’s an enormous amount of responsibility that we share with our community partners. And so this effort was meant to be transformative. It was meant to be a way to quickly increase the physical capacity and infrastructure of our community partners,” he said. “But there’s a whole lot more that needs to be done in terms of sustaining the volunteer force and also really putting charitable food assistance in a greater context. Because charity alone cannot solve food insecurity, either in our community, in our state or in the country. And I think the crisis that we’ve been enduring with the pandemic has really illustrated that truth in a very profound way. Public investment and federal interventions are absolutely critical.”
Donations can be made to the Blue Ridge Area Food Bank by visiting www.brafb.org/give-now. Information about volunteering is available at www.brafb.org/volunteer.