Today may be Thanksgiving, but there are many of your neighbors who have been scratching their heads and trying to figure out how they’re going to put meals on their tables this year — not just our traditional turkey and dressing.
A study published in May by Feeding America Southwest Virginia revealed that food insecurity exists in every county serviced by that nonprofit organization. In Henry County, the population is 13.9% food insecure, compared to neighboring Patrick County at 11.9%. The study did not reveal separate numbers for the city of Martinsville.
The issue especially presents itself with the big holiday meals of Thanksgiving and Christmas.
Not only are families left scrambling to come up with a few extra dollars for cranberry sauce, stuffing and ingredients for their great-aunt’s famous green bean casserole, but many are also trying to figure out how to pay the heating bill, keep the lights on and keep the water running.
To try to alleviate these stresses local nonprofit organizations and churches often help an increased number of community members around the holidays.
At the Community Storehouse, the amount of food that leaves the building skyrockets.
“Just before Thanksgiving, we hand out an average of 9,000 pounds more food than during a typical month in the year,” said Travis Adkins, executive director of the Community Storehouse. “The need for food is a combination of individuals seeking out food who might not otherwise do so, and more people buying food in the grocery stores – for family gatherings, et cetera – leaving our Food Rescue program with less food leftover in the grocery stores than a typical month in the year. We try to combat that with in-store and community-wide food drives.”
A person’s unique circumstance often doesn’t deter him or her from wanting a festive holiday with all the trimmings, but for many, it’s not as simple as driving to the store.
“Most people who live in poverty still like to enjoy the simple pleasures people who aren’t in poverty take for granted, such as having family and friends over – Thanksgiving, Christmas breakfast, etc. — and strive for a level of normalcy, especially with their children come this time of year,” Adkins said. “People who are food insecure also face a sense of urgency most of us know nothing about, but I could compare it to an incoming snowstorm.
“Most of us run to the grocery store and stock up on what we may need, whereas for someone in poverty, this simple act would take much longer and would utilize several resources, including depleting their own funds to do so.”
That’s where the increased need for food banks and pantries arises around the holidays.
The Community Fellowship, a local church, stocks a pantry for those in need. Anita Hobbs, who assists with the pantry and is a member of the church, said that the pantry tends to deplete more quickly during the holidays.
“The Christmas season can make financial burdens more prevalent, and the children are out of school a lot during this time,” Hobbs said.
Without the free meals offered at schools, families tend to purchase more food items.
A different kind of need
At Grace Network, a local nonprofit, executive director Tracy Hinchcliff noted that the need her organization sees around the holidays doesn’t fluctuate drastically. However, contributing factors sometimes play a role.
“Our needs during the holidays are actually not much higher than in the other months. The families that are in need don’t really change whether it’s summer or winter,” Hinchcliff said. “But the consistency of the donations is what is so important. We are always needing donations because we have clients in need every day of the year.
“However, with the cooling temperatures, many people are set back with heating costs and money is tighter than with the summer months, so that can be a factor as to how much is needed during the winter. Our food partners and groups that want to have food drives are desperately needed any time during the year.”
Those in need of food or services are typically people who are hardworking but simply down on their luck because of extenuating circumstances.
“Since we are a crisis center, we serve those that are in a crisis of losing their homes to eviction, losing their utilities or cannot feed their family due to a dire situation,” Hinchcliff said. “Most of our families work and have some sort of income. However, if something like their car breaks down or their heating goes out, it will start a spiral of debt that they cannot overcome. They will rob Peter to pay Paul until they are at risk of losing everything. That’s when Grace Network can help.
“Through our extensive interview process, we can determine the needs of those seeking assistance and help them get through their bump in the road or we can refer them to other resources that may can help. We pride ourselves with being a caring, listening ear, and we try our best to help those that are seeking honest assistance. We have built relationships with many other agencies in our area, so if we are not able to help, we usually can connect our clients to other resources that can.”
At the Community Storehouse, eligibility is based on household income versus the number of people in the home. The Storehouse follows the Federal Poverty Guidelines to determine that threshold and also takes into consideration whether those seeking assistance are unemployed, disabled, unable to work, a senior citizen or are facing other issues.
“Individuals who are unemployed but able to work would be given short-term assistance and directed to local businesses hiring, whereas someone who’s a senior citizen on a fixed income without those choices would receive more long term support from us,” Adkins said. “We do everything we can to ensure that we are a help, not a hinder for families – and thus the community – to not enable, but offer case-based support for individuals and families in need.”
At the Community Fellowship, those in need fill out an application that’s kept on file at the church.
“We also put the information in the MHC Assistance Network for tracking usage of local services,” Hobbs said. “A person or family that we serve may come once monthly to obtain food from the pantry. We also help a lot of families when a crisis occurs. We want families to feel the love of Jesus, and we want to help them avoid hunger.”
Centers have needs, too
Each center has its own needs at this time of year. The Community Fellowship accepts donations of non-perishable food items, canned vegetables and meats, pop-top foods, bagged beans, cereal, juice, spaghetti noodles and marinara sauce, ramen noodles, crackers and peanut butter and jelly and other items. The church also creates hygiene bags and accepts items like deodorant, shampoo, soap, lotion and toothbrushes for those.
“We also assist with clothing and homelessness as well as our food pantry,” Hobbs said.
At Grace Network, needed items include canned veggies, fruits and meat, cereal, oatmeal and potato products. Peanut butter and jelly are also staples, as well as grits and boxed dinners like Hamburger Helper, macaroni and cheese and chicken noodle soup.
Community Storehouse officials say they are thankful for whatever people can give.
“Everything! We have the capacity to accept perishable, as well as nonperishable foods,” Adkins said. “Anything that’s edible, we can put to good use.”
And then of course money. Adkins said that’s the biggest need.
“Money can be earmarked to utilize for everything from sponsoring a local child, which costs $200 per year, all the way down to helping us purchase fuel for our box truck that does daily pickups at grocery stores in town,” Adkins said. “We currently do not have enough child sponsors at Albert Harris Elementary, especially, but we recognize that some people feel more comfortable with a hands-on approach rather than giving money. So, if you want something to go to our Food for Kids program, anything child-friendly and nutritious would be perfect.”
Needed items for children include cereal, shelf stable milk, crackers, tuna kits and fruit cups.
Better yet, take a free approach to donating and give from what’s already in the house.
“If you want something to go to our pantry, clean out yours,” Adkins said. “Everyone has some boxed and canned items they won’t miss. Or just remember us when you go grocery shopping and see a buy one, get one sign.”
Sometimes those who want to give to others are a little hesitant to donate to organizations because they don’t know where their products or money may end up. At the Community Storehouse, the Community Fellowship and Grace Network, donated goods and money go right back into the community.
“When you donate to the Community Storehouse your donations – whether of food or funds – stays local. Our client focus is on residents of Martinsville and Henry County,” Adkins said. “We utilize monies mainly to purchase food for our Food for Kids: School Backpack Program. As you know, small bags of chips, individually wrapped cereals, et cetera, are more expensive than larger items. Much of what we rescue or gets donated to our pantry is too big or just not applicable for that program, so usually when money is donated, we earmark that to sponsor children in our backpack program.”
Hinchcliff talks about how Grace Network is a volunteer-led organization, with one paid executive director and a part-time bookkeeper. The board of directors consists of 15 volunteers.
“Grace Network has built a relationship with our community for over 13 years,” he said. “The donations that come to Grace are used for the purpose of helping those in our community and providing the space for our clients to come. We have been supported by over 125 churches in the area and are proud partners of the United Way, not to mention over 75 businesses, organizations and countless individuals. We serve Martinsville and Henry County, so the donations go to help our community right here at home.”
Amie Knowles can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org