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EMPATHY: Filling the Gap

Feed More and the Richmond Public Schools served millions of meals to the hungry last year, but will it continue to be enough?

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With over 420,000 dead and 50 million Americans – including 17 million children – facing hunger daily, it can be hard to fathom the ongoing human toll of the pandemic, the resulting recession and the shameful lack of government assistance. To work through our understandable anguish, Mr. Rogers would advise us to look for the helpers. Thankfully here in Richmond, helping hands aren’t hard to find.

Starting at 7 a.m. every weekday, the Richmond Public Schools’ fleet of buses trundles through the city making hundreds of stops to deliver meals to thousands of hungry students. For families with special-needs children, the drivers drop the food off right at their doors. Over winter break the school system provided its pupils with boxes of provisions to feed entire families.

Superintendent Jason Kamras says that it has been serving breakfast and lunch to students every day since the schools closed March 15.

“It speaks to the values our RPS staff holds so dear – the empathy to understand what it’s like for a kid to start their day hungry and be expected to learn through that,” Kamras says. “That’s why our folks work so hard to make sure something like this could occur.”

Shifting from stocking school cafeterias to catering to thousands of families across the entire city has been no easy logistical undertaking. Overnight, the system’s nutrition, transportation and procurement teams had to completely re-imagine the way they do their jobs to make sure the system’s many hungry kids, suddenly forced into virtual learning, had food to eat.

“The harsh reality is that for many families in Richmond there just isn’t enough money every month to pay rent, put food on the table and cover the other basic expenses of life,” Kamras explains. “These are hard-working folks, but when you’re earning minimum wage the money just isn’t enough. Without that source of food from RPS, kids will go hungry.”

Last year alone, the schools provided 2,456,398 meals to students, averaging out to around 8,711 meals every day for 282 days. With the pandemic only worsening despite rising vaccination rates, the good work is far from over.

“The heroes of this story are the nutrition workers, bus drivers and hundreds of volunteers who have put themselves in harm’s way to make this happen,” Kamras points out. “This program is so critical because this is the most basic need that we can address. Learning has to come after eating.”

The folks at Feed More, Central Virginia’s main hunger-relief organization, know the need well. In the year leading up to June they distributed 32 million pounds of food via 278 partner agencies across a service area stretching from South Side to the Northern Neck. By this summer they expect to have given out 44 million pounds of food.

“The need grew by 50% immediately so that we were serving 161,000 individuals in the spring, and then when the boost to unemployment insurance ran out we saw another 50% increase to 241,000 folks needing assistance,” says Doug Pick, Feed More’s chief executive, noting that it used to get 50 calls a week prepandemic and now gets over 200. “That’s one of the ways we know this is a real mess.”

Feed More hired seven additional chefs and five new drivers to supplement its already hundred-strong staff. Its kitchen now produces 20,000 ready-made meals a week mostly for seniors and the Meals on Wheels program. Every day 200 volunteers drive 96 routes to deliver meals for the week to a thousand seniors in the city and 800 more scattered around the region. With the pandemic’s daily death toll still astronomically high, Pick can’t imagine the need for assistance across Central Virginia decreasing anytime soon.

“Food banks are normally designed for just the worst emergencies, but now we’re being used for continual assistance and we’re not built for that,” he says. “The folks we serve are the first ones that fall into trouble and they’re the last ones to get out of economic trouble.”

In his estimation, the federal government needs to step up and help keep folks fed.

“We’ve been advocating for a 15% increase in Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits because that’s the only way to manage hunger at such a large scale,” Pick explains. “Food stamps average out to just $4.50 a day per person. I tell people all the time our clients don’t aspire to live off of SNAP. It can be done, but you have to buy stale bread, no produce, off-brand peanut butter.”

Until more assistance arrives for the average American, the Richmond Public Schools and Feed More will continue trying to fill the gap.

“This pandemic has made really clear the haves and have nots of our country,” Pick says. “We are a really well-run logistics business with a big heart, but hunger is not the problem – it’s poverty.”

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