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AARP and Ruritan Will Collect Food Donations on Sept. 11

Food banks struggle to keep up with growing demand in Virginia


  • Emergency food assistance given to more than 1 million Virginians.
  • Food banks can’t keep up with growing demand.
  • Mark your calendar to donate food on Sept. 11.


The regulars know to show up early. Michelle Jordan and her sister, Deborah Lewis, arrive at the church food pantry shortly after 6 a.m., four hours before the bags of free groceries are handed out.

Jordan, 63, and Lewis, 61, of Alexandria, go to the front of the line—only because Jordan’s husband, Terry, spent the night on the sidewalk to hold their place.

This is what it’s like to feel the despair of hunger in Virginia.

This year the Federation of Virginia Food Banks will distribute emergency food assistance to more than 1 million Virginians, an increase of 350,000 since 2006. Demand is rising as more people lose their jobs, said Leslie Van Horn of Norfolk, executive director of the federation, which distributed more than 70 million pounds of food last year.

“We never have enough food,” Van Horn said. Food donations, the traditional mainstay of food banks, can’t keep up. “We’ve got to purchase food more than we ever have.”

Last year, for the first time, the state gave the federation $1 million to buy food, and will do so again this year.

AARP Virginia is stepping in to help, asking its 1 million members to donate nonperishable foods on Sept. 11, the national day of community service. Food items can be delivered to local food banks or at Ruritan Club drop-off locations. Learn more at AARP’s

In a pilot project last year, AARP Virginia and Ruritan collected 40,000 pounds on one day in October. The goal is to collect more each year, culminating in 100,000 pounds in 2015, said Bill Kallio, AARP Virginia state director.

“We’ve learned that our members are willing to volunteer,” Kallio said. “They want a clear ‘ask,’ something easy they can do on their own time. They want to make a difference right where they live.”

These days food banks offer far more than canned goods. Pantries provide fresh, refrigerated and freezer items. They deliver to shut-ins and give children food backpacks for weekends. Income guidelines apply at some food pantries.

On a Saturday in spring, about 200 men, women and children of various ages and races speaking a multitude of languages lined up at the ALIVE! food pantry at the Church of the Resurrection in Alexandria. They rolled away collapsible carts filled with fresh chicken or ham, sausage, eggs, carrots, lettuce, spinach, potatoes, rolls, cereal, crackers, peanut butter, assorted canned goods, muffin mixes, spices and toilet paper.

“The food is good,” said Michelle Jordan, now disabled after working more than 30 years in a school cafeteria. “And the people are nice. They give us a lot.”

The food supplements $10 a month she receives from the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps. Many who get help from food banks receive no other food assistance.

Jeanie Stow, 44, never imagined she would need help with food. She’d always worked until she was laid off as an engineering firm office manager in May 2008. When her unemployment benefits ran out, Stow, who is divorced, first got help from family members. She dipped into her savings and retirement accounts. She sold her wedding and engagement rings and her condo timeshare in the Bahamas. Last October, she turned to the church food pantry.

“It’s been a humbling experience,” said Stow. “I’ve always had steady work—until now.”

The faces of hunger in Virginia are those of working people, children, older people—our neighbors, Van Horn said.

“Hunger is not someone standing over there somewhere or on a street corner. Now with this economy, it’s right next to you,” she said.

For more information on the Sept. 11 food drive in Virginia, visit the Create the Good website.

Marsha Mercer is a freelance journalist in Northern Virginia.

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