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Statewide Food Drive

Help restock food banks where your hungry neighbors go to get free groceries

Sally Anna Stapleton knows exactly why she's spending her free time posting flyers and corralling volunteers as part of the statewide community food drive organized by AARP Virginia.

See also: Your guide to public assistance.

It's for the single unemployed dad in his 30s who was new in town and whose ex-wife had just died, leaving him with a young daughter to care for.

Stapleton saw the man come through a Christiansburg food bank where she volunteers.

"It touched my heart," she said. "He really, really wanted to be supportive of this role he found himself in and do the right thing and be a good dad."

Stapleton, 65, of Radford, retired from Xerox, is one of about 500 volunteers who will collect food throughout the state Sept. 9 to 15 to stock food banks still reeling from the economic downturn.

The goal is to collect 100,000 pounds of food. That's more than 83,000 meals, said Leslie Van Horn, executive director of the Federation of Virginia Food Banks, which will receive donations from the drive and distribute the food to pantries, where people in need go for groceries.

Stapleton organizes about 30 volunteers in the New River Valley, where last year's drive brought in 5,000 pounds of nonperishable food.

"The need over the last couple years has been huge," she said. "There have been times the food banks have been empty."

More than 143,000 Virginians age 55 and older live in poverty, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

The number of people needing help in Virginia has jumped 54 percent since 2006, according to Federation of Virginia Food Banks statistics.

Some of the food bank clients, Van Horn said, are people 50 and older who lost jobs. They used to donate to the food banks but now need help themselves.

As the need increased, some of the reliable donors had less to give. For instance, corporations that donated products like cans with upside down labels or cranberry sauce left over in January have become more efficient and don't have extras to donate, she said.

Meanwhile, the need mounts.

Next: Some still can't afford to put a meal on the table. »

Lisa Heidemann can see it by the increase in the number of churches and service groups that pick up food from the Capital Area Food Bank in Lorton where she volunteers.

She said the AARP Virginia food drive comes after the summer season when donations slow to a trickle, leaving food bank shelves bare.

"That there are still people who can't afford to put a meal on the table bothers me," said Heidemann, 55, of Woodbridge.

Service groups can organize collections outside markets and ask shoppers to buy an extra jar of peanut butter, can of tuna or bag of dried beans.

"Small groups of people can collect 1,000 pounds using this method," said Brian Jacks, AARP Virginia associate state director for community outreach. "The food banks come pick it up with their trucks, and it's a win-win."

One person, big results

Wahed Hossaini, 75, of Springfield, illustrates how one person's effort can yield big results.

When he started a food donation drive in his neighborhood three years ago, he was initially not very successful.

Hossaini, who grew up in Bangladesh, then turned to the Bangladeshi community in the Washington area, and money and food poured in. Last year he collected $1,200 and 17 bags of food for a Springfield pantry.

Hossaini started his effort after an AARP Virginia training dinner for the Create the Good program. He listened that night as a speaker — during grace — talked about appreciating the meal while knowing that others were hungry.

"I realized how lucky I am, so why not help however I can?" said the retired software engineer.

"If we all do it in a small way, it will be a big thing."

To volunteer or to set up a collection drive, call 1-866-542-8164 toll-free. To find drop-off locations near you, visit the Create the Good website and enter your ZIP code.

Tamara Lytle is a freelance writer in the Washington, D.C., area.

Also of interest: People not getting enough to eat.