Policy: Entitlements

Virginia food banks gearing up for rising demand

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Virginia,Associated Press,Entitlements,Food Stamps,Poverty

NORFOLK, Va. — The Foodbank of Southeastern Virginia and the Eastern Shore doesn't like it when business goes up, but recently the region's largest supplier for charity agencies has seen a troubling boom.

The number of people served by the Foodbank the past several months has jumped 24 percent from the same period last year.

Other Hampton Roads agencies have similar stories and say they are experiencing growing demand for food.

The Foodbank supplies fresh produce, meat and other food through more than 400 partner agencies and programs in South Hampton Roads, Western Tidewater and the Eastern Shore.

Cash and food donations have not kept up with demand at the Foodbank and other charities.

Jo-Anne Roisen, director of Oasis Social Ministry, the largest relief organization in Portsmouth, said officials don't know exactly why demand has grown. But charity workers and coordinators point to several factors:

— A slow economic recovery in the region that has many people under- or unemployed.

— Sequestration-related cuts that have decreased defense spending vital to the region. An Old Dominion University study this year estimated the area would lose about 12,000 jobs and $2 billion due to the decreased spending.

— And, to an unknown extent, the Nov. 1 federal cut to food stamps. The decreases from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, known as SNAP, cuts monthly benefits by about 5 percent.

In Virginia, the cuts affect 211,000 households with children, totaling $68 million in annual benefits, according to an analysis from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. Another 160,000 homes with elderly or disabled people will lose $18 million. Roughly 35,000 veterans in the commonwealth will see benefits drop, according to the estimate.

Joanne Batson, the chief executive officer for the Foodbank, said the responsibility for feeding the poor is falling more on private donations.

"We've shifted it from being a safety net to a charitable effort," she said.

Service numbers have grown since last year for the Norfolk-based Foodbank. Comparing a four-month span, July through October, the number of new households eligible for one federal food program jumped about 21 percent, according to the organization. That equates to about 400 new homes.

The organization is serving slightly more clients in the program this year. Most of them are new.

Batson said the Foodbank and the agencies it supports still provide aid to families in deep or generational poverty. But newer clients are more likely to be older, and some are stepping into a food pantry for the first time, she said.

The job market has displaced many older workers, she said. Wage cuts on jobs tied to the defense industry also squeeze workers, she said.

"If you're just making it, how are you going to fill that in?" Batson said.

Peggy Homesly, development director at the Judeo-Christian Outreach Center in Virginia Beach, said she's seen more families and working poor in food lines.

"Virginia Beach has food lines," she said. "Yup, they do."

The past six months have brought an increase in customers, she said. In October, for example, the center served 171 households, nearly triple the amount from the year before. A fire in November limited the center's distribution to two weeks, but it still served as many homes as it did in November 2012.

Homesly said many families make a difficult choice: "Do I pay my rent on time, or do I buy food?"

Outside the subsidized senior apartments at Tucker House on Dec. 6, about 100 residents lined up for a Foodbank mobile pantry — technically, a white-box truck filled with several pallets of fresh produce, canned fruits and vegetables, pastries and meats.

The complex near Wards Corner gets regular visits. Residents said it helps.

"Thank God for them," said Claudia Montgomery, a 69-year-old retired hotel worker. Montgomery gets fresh produce from the pantry to supplement her $30 monthly grocery budget. She was first in line and collected fresh collard greens, sweet potato pie and canned goods.

Doug Griffin was there, too. The 70-year-old retired supervisor from American Sheet Metal in Norfolk picked up a box of fresh greens.

Sherry Estes, known to friends as Tinkerbell, collects disability and food stamps. Estes, 64, saw her food stamp payments cut by about $20 last month.

"You have to stretch your money," she said.

By 11:30 a.m., nearly two tons of food was gone.

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