Skirt the Issue

Fraud, Food, and Friends

Learning about locals who are hungry reveals some surprising truths - and opportunities.

It's rare that I'm at a loss for words. That's what happens when you're what some people call "opinionated" (and others might label a certain "b" word.)

However, I fumbled for words twice when coordinating food drives. Both times, someone noted that people in cars nicer than theirs were asking for food. "Really? Did you actually see that?" I wanted to say. "Isn't that a silly urban myth?"

I put the comments in the same class as "People on food stamps always buy steaks. I can only afford hamburger." I just couldn't believe it. So what a shocker it was to hear Dani Ayers, grants and communications director of the Foodbank of Southeastern Virginia, say that both things do happen.


"You might see someone here with nice clothes or with a Louis Vuitton bag," she notes. "More often than not, that person was doing fine before the economy went south. What you're seeing is the last thing they're holding onto from before they got laid off." These days, the lines between "have" and "have not" are blurred at times. On Fridays, when the Foodbank distributes food from its warehouse to anyone who asks, the parking lot is filled. And Ayers can't tell who is donating food and who is collecting.

"It used to be that most people who asked for food never had a car, so they relied on public transportation," she says. "That's not the case now."

Ayers meets with the Foodbank's 300 partner agencies and has found a low incidence of fraud.

"It's hard to put your pride on the shelf and ask for food. It's embarrassing for people at first," she says. "You're not going to lie to get green beans. You're not getting something extravagant. You're getting the very basics."

Ayers had just hung up the phone with a woman who could fit into the newly struggling category. She had called to find out how to get food, something she probably never thought she'd do.

Ayers and the rest of the staff have answered many similar calls over the last two years.

Before 2009, the Foodbank served 250,000 people a year. They were up to 380,000 as 2010 ended. That's a 52 percent increase. Ayers has seen a significant spike in all types of people needing food—from the once-middle class to the homeless. Before the recession, about two percent of the Foodbank's clients were homeless. Today that number is 17 percent.

The increased need has led to new Foodbank initiatives, including a mobile pantry and "backpacks" for children. They've purchased a truck and, after handing out fliers and also spreading the word through churches, staff members drive into communities to distribute food directly to the hungry. On Fridays, they give the backpacks, filled with food, to children who get free or low-cost meals at school so that they have something to eat over the weekend. Sadly, many local children are hungry, and 30 percent of the people served by the Foodbank are kids.

Like its clients, the Foodbank is working to make ends meet. Ayers says they rely on three things—cash donations, volunteers and food donations— to keep their doors open.

Year after year, more donations come in during November and December, as the holiday spirit motivates people to give to family, friends and strangers alike. The generosity keeps the Foodbank's shelves somewhat filled into January, but not much longer.

"February and March are dangerously low," says Ayers.

She asks large corporations to hold food drives then or in the spring or summer to spread out the food collections. "Your donations always go far, but especially so in the warmer months," she notes.

Collecting food for the hungry is something I've done for years with little effort. Although I eat constantly (really, I rarely go more than two hours without something to munch on), I see more food around me. I selected the food and paid for it, but it might not appeal to me after awhile. It's still good, so why not share it?

Late last year, I noticed my pantry was almost always filled with items we "liked" two weeks ago, but not anymore. Instead of lamenting about my family's food fickleness, I decided to put it to good use. My neighborhood book group meets monthly, and I asked the 12 members to grab a few non-perishable items from their pantry before each meeting and take them along with their book to our host's house. One member delivers the goods to Farm Fresh after the meeting, and the supermarket adds them to their donations to the Foodbank, which stops by daily to collect them. We'd love to have you "like" us on Facebook (search "Read and Feed") to help spread the word and to join in our collections. If reading isn't your thing, maybe your Bunko group or garden club or wine-tasting comrades can regularly answer the call of the rumbling stomachs in our neighborhoods. After all, one in four people in Hampton Roads is hungry.

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