Every Thursday morning, 40 to 45 people arrive at Bonsack Baptist Church in Roanoke to pick up free groceries: boxes of canned goods, bread, juice, cereal and produce.
Many are older individuals living on fixed incomes who have watched the prices of everything go up while their monthly Social Security or pension checks stay the same.
One of them is Virginia Allen, 88, of Vinton, whose granddaughter drives her to the church pantry once a month.
Allen needs the groceries because her $1,100 monthly income — from Social Security and her late husband's pension — doesn't always stretch far enough.
"I take what they give me, and it has been pretty good," she said.
The incomes of about 135,000 Virginians age 60 or older are low enough to make them eligible for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), the federal food assistance program formerly called food stamps.
"A lot of older people have just grossly underestimated what they need for retirement," said the Rev. Scot Finley, minister of senior adults at Bonsack Baptist Church. "They have to make decisions: 'Do I scrimp on medicine? Do I scrimp on food?' "
Bonsack Baptist is one of more than 370 nonprofit centers affiliated with Feeding America Southwest Virginia that are benefiting from the Drive to End Hunger campaign.
AARP and AARP Foundation have teamed with Hendrick Motorsports and NASCAR champ Jeff Gordon to raise money and awareness about hunger in America's 50-plus population.
AARP Virginia staged a food drive in Martinsville in conjunction with the April 3 Goody's Fast Relief 500 NASCAR race.
On a cold, rainy day in late March, 340 people turned out at a Kroger store in Roanoke to see Gordon's No. 24 Chevy and pose for pictures with the car and a life-size cutout of Gordon.
Volunteers distributed coupons that could be scanned at the checkout that would allow customers to donate either $5 or $10.75 to the food relief effort.
Ginger McDaniel, AARP Virginia communications director, said the campaign raised enough money, when combined with a $10,000 contribution from the AARP Foundation, to provide 75,000 meals for food banks in the 26 counties served by Feeding America Southwest Virginia.
Pamela Irvine, president and CEO of Feeding America Southwest Virginia, called the help "invaluable. We cannot find enough food and funds to help us meet our unmet needs."
Similar public events are planned for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race in Richmond on Sept. 10, when the AARP Foundation will give a $10,000 check to the Central Virginia Food Bank. The race coincides with AARP Virginia's annual statewide canned-good collection Sept. 9 and 10.
To find a list of food drop-off sites, visit createthegood.org.
Finley, who has coordinated his church's weekly pantry program for nearly 10 years, said the sagging economy has caused a spike in the number of food bank users.
"We've had probably a 40 to 50 percent increase over the last three years," he said. "We have a lot of single older people and elderly couples, and a good number of people on disability."
The church doesn't keep statistics about the people it helps, but Finley said many of the older people who come for extra groceries are grandparents who are raising their grandchildren.
"It is exhausting and also expensive," he said. "They have to come to us for help with food because, otherwise, they would not have money to pay the utilities."
Cheryl Arvidson is a writer living in Falls Church, Va.
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