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While surge of need recedes from 2020, Blue Ridge food bank remains on alert

Boxes of food are stacked and ready for distribution at one of the Blue Ridge Area Food Bank’s food pantries. (File photo)

By Isabela Gladston, contributor

After handling a steep surge in demand in 2020, the number of people relying on the Blue Ridge Area Food Bank has almost returned to pre-pandemic levels, according to the organization’s CEO. 

The food bank, which serves 25 counties and eight cities across central and western Virginia, served an average of 141,000 per month in 2020 up from 115,390 before the COVID-19 outbreak. This year, the level has receded, but is still above pre-pandemic levels, as an average of 118,300 people per month have come to the food bank, said Michael McKee, the organization’s CEO. 

In the Shenandoah Valley area, the Food Bank served an average of 26,968 individuals a month, McKee said. 

The Blue Ridge Area Food Bank works with around 203 community partners, including food pantries, soup kitchens, shelters and churches, which help distribute food to people in the Blue Ridge area.

In 2020, the food bank spent $5 million to buy food and gave it free to the community pantries across their service area. The food bank buys food from distributors, manufacturers and the wholesale marketplace, McKee said. 

“Demand in recent months has been stable and definitely somewhat lower than the earliest pandemic months,” McKee said, adding that food bank leaders continue to monitor trends closely. “Federal subsidies, eviction moratorium — those strategies expired recently.”

And employment — or underemployment — remains a key driver. 

“What drove the need for food assistance in the very early days of the pandemic was, of course, the sudden massive job losses,” McKee said. 

Because some people have struggled since the pandemic, McKee said the food bank is still seeing high numbers of people in need. He also said that the food bank is buying more food than ever. 

“Our food purchasing budget has more than doubled, maybe even tripled, during the course of the pandemic,” McKee said.

Food banks across the country and statewide also have faced other challenges, especially on the distribution end. Without community partners, food banks have no place to actually give their food to those who need it. 

The volunteers at the pantries were largely 65 and older — a segment of the population who are most at risk of serious effects of COVID-19, so the pantries lost many volunteers. Miles-long lines of cars in cities like San Antonio, Tampa, Pittsburgh and Dallas showed what happened when food pantry sites closed or access was restricted, McKee said.

The Blue Ridge Area Food Bank, however, only lost 8% of their local pantries. By the end of last summer, only 3% of the local food pantries were still shuttered.

The food bank helped the pantries during this time by pre-packaging food and ordering pre-packed boxes of food from vendors and the government.

“So instead of having people come into their buildings, wait in a lobby  and possibly move through the building to choose their food, the pantries instead had people drive up, not get out of the car, pop their trunk open, and the volunteers would place pre-packed boxes of food and bags of produce in the back of the car, closed the trunk and folks were on their way,” McKee said.

The Blue Ridge Area Food Bank still enforces mask wearing inside for both vaccinated and unvaccinated staff, volunteers and visitors. 

The Blue Ridge Food Bank Covid-19 webpage offers directions and advice for how to stay safe during the pandemic and also features a video of what they have learned and prioritized one year into the pandemic.


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