Virginia Food Bank Aims To Tackle Root Causes Of Hunger

May 23, 2017
Originally published on May 23, 2017 11:15 am
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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

President Trump's proposed budget is out today. His budget director, Mick Mulvaney, said the administration is no longer going to measure compassion by numbers of programs or numbers of people on programs. For one thing, the new budget calls to eliminate the $3 billion Community Development Block Grant Program. This is money used by communities to serve distressed neighborhoods. And let's visit one in Roanoke, Va. where there is a program to feed the hungry.

Now, because federal aid could be cut and also because surplus food donations are down, food banks like this one have been shifting their focus from just feeding people to tackling some of the root causes of hunger, like poverty, unemployment and poor health. Here's NPR's Pam Fessler.

PAM FESSLER, BYLINE: A nightclub in Roanoke, Va. called Ms. Choc's Lounge was a magnet for crime.

RICK MORRISON: One of the worst, most violent spots in the entire city of Roanoke.

FESSLER: Captain Rick Morrison recalls that night last summer when everything came to a head right before the place was shut down. He and other officers were in the parking lot when a guy ran past them into the crowded club and started stabbing people. Then the shooting began.

MORRISON: Then you have people scattering and running, cars peeling off, people getting in fights. You have rescue trying to come in. We're trying to control - it was...

FESSLER: It was a big mess, that's what it was. You might be asking yourself, what's that have to do with feeding people?

PAMELA IRVINE: It doesn't really look much like a kitchen now, but anyway...

FESSLER: Pamela Irvine hopes soon it will have a lot to do with it. She runs the Feeding America South West Virginia food bank, which just bought the building. She's showing a local businessman how they want to turn it into something optimistically called a Community Solutions Center.

IRVINE: All that's going to have to be gutted out 'cause it's really not - it doesn't have the space for a training kitchen.

FESSLER: The plan is to have a place for neighborhood meetings, crime prevention classes and a farmer's market to teach kids about healthy food. There will also be a kitchen, where Goodwill Industries can train people who need work how to be food handlers. The meals they prepare will be loaded onto a food truck to serve needy children in the area.

IRVINE: Nutritious hot meals - it only took us 36 years to get there. But - to get to that point.

FESSLER: They got to this point because Morrison, the police captain, approached Irvine to see if the food bank wanted to help turn around this crime-ridden neighborhood, one of those areas that the economic recovery has left behind.

MORRISON: A lot of people just feel abandoned. They feel what's the point? There's no hope, there's no jobs.

FESSLER: He made his appeal at a time when anti-poverty groups are thinking more about how to pool resources and that the problems of the poor are intertwined. You can't fix one without fixing the others. Irvine was interested but didn't have the money. Then the city kicked in half a million dollars in community development block grants. Private donors made up the rest. Irvine says they're all looking for more permanent solutions to hunger.

IRVINE: Why? Because we can't afford to continue to feed individuals on this ongoing basis. The resource that it takes to do that, we'd much rather have less individuals come into our programs.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Here's a little information from Wellmont.

FESSLER: So besides the project in Roanoke, the food bank's working with health care providers in other areas of South West Virginia. At a mobile food pantry in the coal mining town of Hurley, a representative of a nonprofit checks to see if everyone in line has health insurance.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: This is about a program for children. But if you need - an adult needs coverage, we can also help.

FESSLER: The thinking is that healthy people are less likely to have huge medical bills or to be unemployed and then less likely to need help with food.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: And I'll get you a loaf of bread just hang on.

FESSLER: As it is, more than half the households served nationally by Feeding America food banks have a member with high blood pressure. A third have someone with diabetes - people like Peggy Coleman, who also has cirrhosis of the liver. She uses a pantry not far from Hurley and says she eats whatever she gets, even sugary food that's bad for her because otherwise, she'd go hungry.

PEGGY COLEMAN: I've been there. I know what it's like. You go hungry. And when you do eat, you get sick 'cause you've been hungry for days.

FESSLER: Pamela Irvine says her food bank's also working to make sure clients get more fresh produce. They're doing other things too, like connecting those who sign up for food aid with job training and childcare. She'd also like to open more community solution centers if they can get the funds.

IRVINE: And talk to the people and see what their real needs are besides just food.

FESSLER: And maybe shorten some of those lines. Pam Fessler, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.