Since opening its doors 40 years ago, the Blue Ridge Area Food Bank has evolved and sought to move its relationship with the people it serves from a transactional one to a transformative one.
For Joe Kreiter, who works with food pantries in the Charlottesville area and surrounding counties, that includes providing more-nutritious food, ensuring community members have access to other resources that they need, such as health care, and advocating for long-term solutions to address food insecurity.
“We’re finding that relationship-building is really the key to implementing strong programs that really meet people’s needs,” he said, adding that that means providing culturally appropriate food or options that match people’s dietary requirements.
“But so this deep relational work takes a lot of time, and it takes a lot of energy and being in rooms and working with folks who maybe you might not normally look to work with.”
As part of that evolution, the food bank’s focus has shifted from how many pounds of food go out the door to the nutritional quality of the food in an effort to ensure people have access to life-sustaining meals. The food bank also has become more intentional in its distribution efforts as it seeks to reduce disparities in access to healthful foods.
“We’re moving from, going back 20 years ago, largely a pounds in-pounds out organization focused exclusively on the distribution of food in a way that was responding to the needs and requests of our partners to a food bank that is really using data to understand disparities in food access,” said Michael McKee, CEO of the Blue Ridge Area Food Bank.
The organization is marking its 40th anniversary during a time of increased demand for its services as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to wreak havoc on people’s lives. A weeklong food drive and fundraiser seeking enough money and donations to serve 400,000 meals wrapped up Saturday.
Before the pandemic, the Blue Ridge Area Food Bank was serving about 103,000 people per month throughout its 25-county service area. By May 2020, the number had jumped to 140,000, which was the peak for the food bank. About 118,000 people per month currently rely on the food bank.
McKee expects that number to increase during the fall as federal aid, such as enhanced unemployment benefits, expire.
“Yes, the economy has improved, but not so much for the lowest quintile of wage earners in retail, hospitality and food service,” he said.
Before the Great Recession, about 70,000 people per month were using the food bank. The level of need has never gone back to pre-recession levels.
The Thomas Jefferson branch of the food bank includes the city of Charlottesville and the counties of Albemarle, Buckingham, Culpeper, Fluvanna, Greene, Madison and Orange. In the recent fiscal year, about 22,860 people were served a month in the branch, according to a food bank fact sheet. That’s up slightly from 22,189 per month in fiscal year 2020.
In 2019, about 8.6% of Albemarle County residents and 12.4% of Charlottesville residents faced food insecurity, according to Feeding America. About 9.4% of Virginia residents were considered food insecure.
Feeding America expects that in 2021, the insecurity rate will increase to 9.6% in Albemarle and 13.8% in Charlottesville.
The Blue Ridge Area Food Bank, which is based in Verona, distributes food to people via a network of pantries and organizations. In the Charlottesville area, the Thomas Jefferson branch of the food bank works with 40 agencies to hand out food.
Kreiter, the partner engagement manager for the Thomas Jefferson branch, worked with those agencies to help them adapt to the pandemic, such as moving to parking lot distributions or home delivery. The food bank also adjusted its practices, ending fees for food and offering funding to boost services.
McKee said the BRAFB was fortunate that the network of partner agencies didn’t collapse during the pandemic. In fact, only 8% of local partner agencies closed, whereas 40% to 50% did so across the country.
“We shifted very quickly and arranged for tens of thousands of pre-packed boxes of food so that the pantries could do this work with very few volunteers suddenly,” McKee said.
Overall, the Blue Ridge Area Food Bank has spent $7 million responding to the pandemic, nearly $5 million of which has gone to buying food items. Previously, the food bank received shipments from the federal government and food manufacturers.
“Donations really fell off the cliff,” McKee said. “You remember what grocery store shelves looked like? That also meant there wasn’t any excess to donate to food banks.”
Typically, food pantries and organizations pay about 75 cents for every dollar spent on food, but the food bank has provided it for free during the pandemic.
“So they wouldn’t have to worry about any costs whatsoever in getting the food they needed to provide for their neighbors,” McKee said.
Over the last 40 years, the organization has evolved from an emergency source of food to people’s regular source for food. A survey of clients from a few years ago, 60% of respondents said they considered the food pantry a primary source of food.
“That’s alarming,” McKee said. “That should never be the case.”
McKee said it’s more efficient for people to use benefits through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, which allows recipients to shop on their own schedules, as opposed to the resources that go into getting food to and from a food bank and then to the pantries and into the hands of people who need it.
“That’s a huge undertaking, which makes a whole lot of sense to fill in gaps, but no sense at all to be the primary way we try to solve food insecurity in this country,” McKee said.
Kreiter said that in this area, the food pantries and organizations he works with saw an increase in Spanish-speaking families seeking assistance, as well as others in the immigrant and refugee communities.
Part of the pandemic response, then, entailed updating and translating forms and other resources.
For Kreiter, meeting people where they are doesn’t just mean finding a gap and rushing to fill it.
“It’s really a lot of learning, and working with those communities and what can we take back,” he said. “What insights do we bring back that help us to adapt our programming going forward?”
One thing they’ve learned is that a lot of people served by the food bank’s network are looking for fresh produce, meat and dairy. Most of the food typically provided by the food bank is shelf-stable, but he said they are working to increase the availability of those fresh items.
“Throughout the pandemic, it was really emphasized to all of us in our community building and community engagement that those are the kinds of items that we need to be sourcing and providing,” Kreiter said.
McKee added that the food bank has made a long-term commitment to improving access to fresh produce. When he joined the organization 12 years ago, it distributed about 1 million pounds of fresh produce. Last year, the food bank distributed 8 million pounds of fresh produce.
“It’s a recognition that in the United States, food security is really nutrition insecurity, and that if we’re going to really make a full contribution to the lives of those we serve, we really need to be mindful about the nutritional quality of the food that we’re providing,” he said.
That’s a long way from when the food bank started in 1981 and one of the first shipments contained taco shells, chocolate sauce and several pallets of USDA cheese.
“Now, with nearly a third of the food we’re distributing consisting of fresh produce and increased supplies of meat and dairy, the warehouse looks much different than it did 40 years ago,” McKee said.