Kids call her the Food Lady — appropriate, considering how she helps monitor and feed close to 4,000 hungry children every week.
Chetta Yonaitis is the kind of person who roots for the underdog. An energetic single mom, she started working in 2009 at FeedMore, a merger of Meals on Wheels and the Food Bank. She now manages its backpack program, after-school program, summer program and school pantry program.
“The statistics for food insecurity in Richmond are staggering,” she says, “and not just in the projects but in Henrico and Hanover counties, the suburbs.” In Richmond alone, 19.9 percent of the population is considered food insecure, or 40,020 people.
One of Yonaitis’ unique programs provides lunches on Saturdays for a bus ministry picking up 1,000 children 5 to 18 at the Richmond Outreach Center. “To say this population is at risk is an understatement; there are gang issues, security issues,” she says. “But I see the difference. I see their test scores going up, them attending more, because they’re eating! A basic human need.”
Yonaitis’ programs have increased capacity by 40 percent and become a model for the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Department of Health to use during training. Feed America also chose Yonaitis and her program for a nationwide training film teaching awareness, with video clips shown on domestic air flights.
Looking forward, she’s examining cross-generational data on whether the young people she feeds today are becoming the seniors who get fed tomorrow.
Her 7-year-old daughter, Caroline, often is by her side as well — whether it’s working with the hungry or saving local dogs through Virginia German Shepherd Rescue. “My grandmother always told me to try every day to be the best person you can be, and I tell my daughter that now,” she says. “She really gets it.”