Southwest Food Bank Pushes Through Pandemic

By Amie Knowles

December 1, 2020

As the need increased, donations dropped in this part of Virginia.

SALEM – Even before the pandemic hit, thousands of Virginians struggled with hunger. Now it’s only gotten worse. According to Feeding America, 842,870 Virginians don’t know where their next meal will come from. Children make up 233,530 of that number.

During this winter, especially in the weeks leading up to Christmas, it’s harder for families to put food on the table with all of the extra financial requirements.

That’s where Feeding Southwest Virginia steps in.

“What food banks do, day in and day out, is we collect food from resources through Feeding America national companies working with U.S. agriculture. We pull down commodities from Farmville, so we distribute a lot of USDA commodities though the Virginia Department of Agriculture,” said Pamela Irvine, Feeding Southwest Virginia president and CEO. “We also work with retailers within the state, within southwest Virginia – we also work with farmers and other resources. So we collect food and then redistribute that food through a charitable food distribution system, a network.”

Irvine explained that the organization partners with 364 programs – like churches, homeless shelters and agencies – dedicated to feeding households with low incomes.

Helping in the health crisis

This year, COVID-19 placed an even harder burden on families. On top of the typical holiday hump, the economic constraints began in March, when the pandemic hit Virginia.

Feeding Southwest Virginia quickly jumped into action, changing the method, but not the mission. Still dedicated to feeding low-income individuals, the locally owned, independent Virginia food bank – one of seven in the commonwealth belonging to the Federation of Virginia Food Banks – got to work.

Among several other changes, Feeding Southwest Virginia altered their child feeding program. Rather than watch the children eat meals on site, kids took freshly prepared food back to their homes. The nonprofit organization also placed food boxes in the trunks of people’s cars, limiting contact.

The group also has a mobile food pantry, which goes to 12 communities once a month, feeding anywhere from 200 to 350 people.

“What’s different for us during COVID, is we found the need to direct resources straight into communities that are experiencing higher food insecurity numbers or higher unemployment numbers,” Irvine said. “We have directly taken shipments into 19 communities so far.”

During the pandemic, the special shipments fed approximately 19,000 people.

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Still a need

Even with the additional food distributed since March, the need still persists. Unfortunately, as the need increased, donations dropped off drastically.  

“We have a decrease in food donations of about 700,000,” Irvine said.

Since many groups haven’t met in person this year, they haven’t hosted food drives. Also, fundraising events haven’t looked the same, since large gatherings can’t take place. Oftentimes, large events bring in anywhere from 200,000 to 500,000 pounds of donations a year.

“We’re really missing those special event food drives that we’ve had,” Irvine said. “We have had and seen individuals come in and small companies that realized that people need groceries. One of the good things that came out of COVID was when individuals realized they couldn’t go to the grocery store and buy on demand. They began to understand the challenges that a lot of our neighbors face everyday, with the fact that they can’t always go to the store and get what they need.”

Amazingly, the decrease in donations didn’t stop the food bank from meeting the need. Feeding Southwest Virginia distributed as normal throughout the pandemic. The government helped make that possible with donated fresh food boxes through the CARES Act.

“We have distributed as normal and it’s went out as fast as it’s come in,” Irvine said.

As the holidays approach, the need is at especially high levels.

“We have noticed that more people are calling our switchboard looking for food. So we’re having more individuals calling our centers, even though we don’t directly distribute from our centers, except for our Community Solutions Center in Roanoke. And then we have a meal-to-go program in Abingdon,” Irvine said. “People that answer our phones are saying they’re getting multiple calls a day looking for food for Thanksgiving, which is over, and now for Christmas.”

RELATED: You Can’t End Hunger in Virginia Without Providing Options, Report Says

Making a donation

For those interested in making a financial donation, visit Feeding Southwest Virginia on the web at www.feedingswva.org. You can also call the office at (540) 342-3011.

Those interested in mailing a check may send it to 1025 Electric Rd, Salem, VA 24153.

“Every little bit helps and we believe that we can help our neighbors as we continue to fight through this,” Irvine said.

Amie Knowles reports for The Dogwood. You can reach her at [email protected]  

  • Amie Knowles

    Amie is Dogwood's community editor. She has been in journalism for several years, winning multiple awards from the Virginia Press Association for news and features content. A lifelong Virginia resident, her work has appeared in the Martinsville Bulletin, Danville Register & Bee and NWNC Magazine.

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