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Food pantries work to keep up with exploding need / May 20, 2020
Rising unemployment coupled with increased food costs are forcing more families to seek help from local food pantries to fend off food insecurity.

In the past six weeks, Mecklenburg County’s jobless rate jumped more than 4 percent, from 4.8 percent in March to 9 percent by May 9, according to data from the Virginia Employment Commission. The VEC weekly claims data showed 1,103 of the county’s 12,218 available workers filed new or continuing unemployment claims for the week ending May 9.

Mecklenburg County last saw unemployment numbers at this level in 2008 when the Great Recession took hold of the local and national economy.

On Tuesday, The Washington Post reported that grocery prices saw their sharpest monthly increase in nearly 50 years. On average consumers nationwide paid 4.3 percent more in April for meats, poultry, fish and eggs, 1.5 percent more for fruits and vegetables, and 2.9 percent more for cereals and bakery products, according the U.S. Department of Labor.

The bleak picture is expected to continue. Experts predict these price increases will remain in effect for several more months due to supply chain disruptions. On the employment side, while new claims continued their downward trend, there is no drop-off in continuing claims, which are still on the rise.

Between April 4 and May 9, weekly initial unemployment claims in Mecklenburg County fell from a high of 286 to 114. During that same period, continuing claims rose from 390 on April 4 to 989 on May 9.

The combination of rising food prices and rising unemployment is pushing more families toward food insecurity. This is especially challenging for families in Mecklenburg County, where even before the pandemic at least 60 percent of the students in the school division qualified for free or reduced lunch because of their family’s financial circumstances.

With nowhere else to turn, many families are looking to local food banks for help.

Robert Thaxton, who heads the food pantry in Clarksville, said, ”We’re seeing more new people pick up food” from the pantry located in the Clarksville Community Center at 103 Woodland Drive. Prior to April, “We averaged about 19 people per day. Since the beginning of April, we now see on average 25 people per day.”

The Clarksville food pantry is open every Wednesday and Saturday between 9 a.m.-noon

Thaxton praised the community, which has stepped up its support of the pantry since the pandemic began. “We had our biggest month ever in donations,” said Thaxton. Not only did the nonprofit group receive large monetary contributions from Jim Moody and his company, V.E.T.S., but also “we received a large contribution from the [Clarksville] Ruritans and I deposited over 80 [smaller] checks. We’re also receiving more food donations. The community has just poured out their hearts.”

Because of the affiliation with Feed More, the Richmond-based organization that collects and distributed food to a network of agencies, the Clarksville pantry receives between 100 and 200 pounds of fresh food from the local Food Lion grocery store each week, said Thaxton. The pantry can purchase additional food items from the store at a greatly reduced price per pound.

“We have increased not only the frequency for people to take advantage of the pantry’s food offerings, but the amount of food families can receive,” he said.

Families in need of food can get a 45- to 50-pound box of packaged food one time per month and an additional 25-pound mix of produce and fresh food every other week.

Bill Moore, who along with Yvonne Alexander and Alice Williams runs the South Hill Senior Center, said the number of people accessing its Emergency Food Assistance Program has jumped up by more than 30 in the past month. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, Moore said the Senior Center provided emergency food rations to between 260 and 280 families per month. Last month they fed 308 families.

The Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP) is administered by the USDA and provides emergency food assistance to low income families at no cost. Moore said it is one of three programs the Senior Center runs locally. The other two are the Brown Bag program and CSFP, or Commodity Supplemental Food Program.

Moore said the number of participants in the Brown Bag and CSFP programs has remained static, in part because participants must first qualify by age — for Brown Bag, age 55 and above and for CSFP, age 60 and above — and income status. Moore also believes the $6 per month payment required to participate in the Brown Bag program deters some from taking part.

“They may not have the money, or they don’t realize they get so much more than $6 in food,” Moore explained.

On average, the South Hill Senior Center feeds another 620 families per month through the CSFP and Brown Bag programs, according to Moore.

Senior citizens who need food on an emergency basis are encouraged to call the center in South Hill even if not currently enrolled in one of their programs. Moore said the number is (434) 447-4359. He stressed that everyone, whether an existing client or someone needing food on an emergency basis, must first call for an appointment. The center is not open for walk-in service.

Moore said as more people access the programs offered through the South Hill Senior Center, “We can always use more volunteers to help distribute the food.” He also encouraged those interested in donating food or money to the Center to contact him at the Center. Donations are tax deductible.

Dana Debaets, who runs the Bread Box Food Pantry in South Hill, said they have seen a slight decline in the number of people coming for food since the pandemic began. Debaets attributes that to age and fear. “Most of our people are elderly and I think they are worried about getting sick.”

The Bread Box typically serves 100-125 families per month. Another 20 or so families have food delivered to them. Debaets said many of the home-bound clients are referred to the Bread Box by Lake Country Area Agency on Aging or by hospice.

When the pandemic began, Debaets said he tried to open the Bread Box to anyone in need. “They were coming in by the carload.” Food supplies began to dwindle, Debaets said, as their food supplier was having trouble getting food.

Even though the pantry selves are stocked for now, Debaets said the Bread Box needs to be certain there is enough food supply to meet the needs of their existing clientele. “We decided to limit our food offerings to those we normally serve.”

Last week the Virginia Department of Social Services announced plans to issue EBT benefits (formerly known as food stamps) to families of school-age children who no longer have access to free or reduced-price school meals due to public school closures.

Eligible households will receive $5.70 per eligible student, per day, up to a maximum of 66 days of school closure for a total benefit of $376 per eligible student. Those benefits are not available for senior citizens or low-income households with no school-age children.

As families continue to struggle with rising food costs, and burgeoning unemployment, the local food pantries say they will continue to do the best they can to keep Mecklenburg residents fed.

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