As the COVID-19 pandemic crippled Virginia, the Local Food Hub’s Fresh Farmacy program partnered with the University of Virginia to expand its operations — and served twice as many people in one week last month than the program did in all of 2019.
For the last six years, Local Food Hub has partnered with health departments to provide low-income patients with healthy food and produce via their Food Farmacy program. In previous years, individuals were referred to the program by the health clinics and were usually seeking to make lifestyle changes to combat health issues.
However, as COVID-19 — the disease caused by the novel coronavirus — spread throughout Central Virginia, disrupting jobs and causing more and more people to become food insecure, Laura Brown, director of community and policy for Local Food Hub, said the group knew it needed to expand its operation.
“Even before the pandemic there was a need for greater access to healthy foods and produce,” Brown said. “The pandemic has, of course, disrupted every portion of the community and has only exacerbated that need.”
Last year, Brown said Fresh Farmacy served 283 individuals and anticipated serving the same population this year. However, in just one week in May the program served nearly double that.
As part of this effort, Brown said the group reached out to UVa for assistance, knowing that the university had scaled back its own food services amid the pandemic and cancellation of in-person classes.
Denise Herndon, program director for economic development at UVa, said the university was happy to assist Local Food Hub and in just the first two weeks of May helped pack and distribute more than 500 bags of food.
Though the contents of the bags and the number of individuals they’re distributed change from week to week, UVa is on track to pack and distribute 500 bags a week.
“[UVA President Jim Ryan] has made it a clear priority to be a good neighbor to the community and to provide support when we can,” Herndon said. “This seemed like a great opportunity to help fill a need in the community.”
As part of their efforts, UVa Dining and Aramark workers pack paper grocery bags with produce and goods, all sourced from local farm partners, who according to Brown have also felt the economic impact of the pandemic.
“Our growers’ world changed overnight too, leading them to lose traditional sales from local restaurants and even UVa,” she said. “By expanding our operations we’ve been able to buy some of that produce and distribute it to people in need.”
Local Food Hub has also adapted its health-provider referral system to expand who receives food, now not only seeking to provide supplies to individuals with health-issues, such as diabetes or obesity.
“While encouraging better health remains the underlying focus of Fresh Farmacy, we’re also focused on expanding access to fresh foods and vegetables and supporting family farms,” Brown said. “UVa handling much of the logistical work we’re unable to has freed up a lot of time for us to focus on other things.”
According to Brown and Herndon, the partnership is expected to last until Aug. 1, around the time classes may resume, though both emphasized that the situation is fluid and may change before that date. Local Food Hub has secured other community partners to assist after August, according to Brown.
However, even after the pandemic passes, Brown said she expects the need for Fresh Farmacy’s expanded operations to exist.
“Food access issues existed before the pandemic and while we hope the barriers are lessened after it winds down, we know there are going to be lasting impacts,” she said.