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Area food banks gearing up for busy holiday season

As families across central Virginia prepare for an unusual Thanksgiving, Charlottesville area food banks and other similar charities are figuring out new ways to maintain the spirit of the holiday.

Wednesday afternoon, dozens of cars crowded the parking lot of the Loaves and Fishes Food Pantry in Albemarle County. According to Jane Colony Mills, the food pantry’s executive director, the crowd of more than 100 was about on par for an average Wednesday.

Since March, Mills said the number of individuals coming to them for food assistance has grown significantly, with the biggest spike hitting in the Spring following Gov. Ralph Northam’s shutdown orders.

Inside the Loaves and Fishes building, volunteers clad in masks and gloves hurried around, packing up carts of food to bring to the people gathered outside. The once large pool of volunteers has been necessarily condensed to prevent potential spread of COVID-19, Mills said.

“We’ve got a mighty group of volunteers and workers who have taken all the precautions needed to make sure our clients get the food safely,” she said.

The growth in need has come with its own set of challenges, namely how to provide people food while also maintaining social distancing. Whereas pre-pandemic, people would be able to browse the shelves and pick out their own food and produce, Mills said each family or individual is now provided with a set weight of goods that includes fresh produce, bread, dairy products, baked goods and frozen meat. On Wednesday, each cart contained more than 100 pounds of food, Mills said.

“While it does remove a lot of the choice folks were afforded before the pandemic I like to think that maybe we’re introducing people to some new foods and vegetables they wouldn’t have picked for themselves,” she said.

Ahead of Thanksgiving, Mills said the food pantry was anticipating a rise in demand as people started gathering materials for their holiday meals. Typically open on Wednesdays, Thursday and Saturdays for drive-up services, the food pantry would be altering its hours the week of Thanksgiving and remaining closed following its Wednesdays hours, which run from 2 to 4 p.m.

Additionally, this year Loaves and Fishes will not be providing turkeys, Mills said, though frozen chickens have been handed out.

As Loaves and Fishes has seen a growth in the need for its services, Mills said the pantry has also seen an influx in donations and financial support. The growth in goods has necessitated an approximate $250,000 expansion to the building that will add an additional freezer and refrigerator to store the goods.

“We’re extremely lucky to be part of such a generous and giving community,” Mills said. “Everyone is welcome to come to us for support, we have so much food that we could never give all of it away.”

Loaves and Fishes has no financial requirements and all are welcome so long as they arrive during the food pantry days and hours of operation, Mills said.

The Emergency Food Network, which serves residents of Charlottesville and Albemarle County, has also been preparing for a rise in need around the Thanksgiving holiday.

According to Alaina Schroeder, officer manager for the EFN, this year they’ve ordered extra produce, focusing on seasonal and relatively shelf-stable items like apples, potatoes, sweet potatoes, squash and onions.

Unlike some other food banks and services aimed at assisting food insecure individuals in the Charlottesville area, Schroeder said, they have not seen as significant an increase in need for their services. Much of this is likely due to the presence of other services in the area and the Network’s condensed hours operations, which are now available only on Monday and Fridays.

“We are really lucky in this area, because there are a lot of different food sources and certain organizations have stepped up and made a greater effort to fill that need,” Schroeder said. “We were expecting when we cut down to the two days a week that we would get more calls per day than we were able to handle and that didn’t happen, and we’ve never had to turn somebody away because we’ve reached our capacity for the day.”

Thanksgiving will also look different for the Salvation Army of Charlottesville, which will be giving holiday meals to go instead of hosting their regular dinner.

Salvation Army Corps Officer Major Walter Strong said the organization opted to offer to-go lunches instead of hosting a meal this year to reduce contact and potential spread. While this decision will lose some of the spirit of the holiday, Strong said it’s necessary to keep everyone healthy.

“I think one of the joys for the folks who eat Thanksgiving meal with us and other places like this, is that they eat every meal alone but normally here on Thanksgiving, they’re around other people,” he said. “Unfortunately I think a lot of people are going to miss that.”

The Salvation Army will be hosting a dinner for its approximately 60 residents but the general public will only be allowed to take to-go lunches. As always, Strong said everyone is welcome.

So far, the Salvation Army of Charlottesville has not had any COVID-19 cases in either its residence building or its store, Strong said. This is thanks in part to the cooperation of its residents and rules in place that residents who leave cannot return without a negative COVID-19 test.

Looking ahead to Christmas, Strong said the annual Angel Tree program has undergone some changes, allowing people to register to sponsor a child online and have gifts shipped to their office. Already toys and clothing gifted to children is being stored in one of their offices, he said, and more is expected to arrive soon.

“We’ve been very blessed already with donations and with the holiday season approaching we expect that generosity to grow,” he said.


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