BY MEG HUFFMAN
AND KAYLA SOMERS
THE CAPITAL NEWS SERVICE
Richmond was named the 2016 top destination for food travel by National Geographic, but just a few streets down from some of the finest restaurants in the city, there are thousands of people struggling to put food on the table.
Richmond has the 28th highest per capita income of all cities nationwide, but has an 11.8 percent food insecurity rate. This means that 912,790 people do not know where their next meal is coming from. Richmond’s poverty rate is the second highest in Virginia, with 1 in 4 residents living in poverty.
Thirty-nine percent of children in Richmond live below the poverty line, which is over twice the child poverty rate for the state. According to the Federation of Virginia Food Banks, the city would need at additional $406,935,780 to adequately feed the population.
While hunger is a pressing issue in the Capital City, there are organizations trying to solve the problem.
One of these organizations is the food bank FeedMore, a leader in central Virginia hunger relief. The organization’s community kitchen relies on daily volunteers to provide 3,000 meals per day to children, families and seniors through a several comprehensive programs.
In school zones where free and reduced meal eligibility is greater than 50 percent, FeedMore’s Kids Cafe Program works through a network of after school programs and community centers to provide a snack or hot evening meal to children. The program also offers mentoring, tutoring, cultural enrichment, and social opportunities. For weekends and school vacations, FeedMore has the Backpack Program. Backpacks with healthy, easy to prepare meals are distributed every Friday and the day before school vacations to ensure children are fed over breaks when families are struggling. The Summer Food Service Program extends FeedMore’s help further and provides thousands of meals to Richmond children during the summer.
Individuals and families can rely on FeedMore’s Distribution Center and Mobile Pantry throughout the year. Jessica Howe, the marketing and communications manager at FeedMore, explained many neighborhoods in Richmond are considered “food deserts,” meaning they have no access to a grocery store for healthy food. The mobile pantry combats this problem by going to these food deserts and providing each household 35 pounds of food.
FeedMore helps senior citizens and homebound individuals maintain independence through their Meals on Wheels program. The community kitchen prepares fresh meals from scratch and delivers them throughout Richmond and the surrounding counties.
Overall, the organization distributes 19 million meals each year. In all of their programs, FeedMore works to maintain the dignity of the people they serve. Citizens struggling with hunger are referred to as neighbors, and the organization aims to provide a home cooked meal experience. The Mobile Pantry program is meant to emulate a grocery shopping experience and allows people to choose their food.
FeedMore operates solely on donations from partners and individuals, and the Richmond community is ready and willing to help.
“Pretty much every grocery store you see around town makes a donation or contributes to our hunger fighting efforts,” said Howe, “and then we have a great community of supporters so your individuals donors so just like you or I, the people who come out and donate five bucks ten bucks or even more to help support our mission.”
Howe is grateful for the support from the Richmond community in recognizing FeedMore’s goals as an organization and helping to combat the hunger issue in Richmond. One of the FeedMore’s greatest supporters is Aline Reitzer, creator of Richmond Restaurant Week.
Sixteen years ago, Reitzer gathered nine restaurants including her own, Acacia Mid-Town, to participate in the first Richmond Restaurant Week.
Restaurant Week has evolved into a biannual weeklong event in which 40 to 50 restaurants prepare a three course meal that costs $29.17 and donates $4.17 of every purchase to FeedMore. In their first year, Reitzer’s program raised $5000. This past year, the event raised $130,000.
Reitzer says that as a restaurant owner she is able to provide people with a dining experience every day but, “knowing that our neighbors in the close vicinity don’t have that opportunity much less the opportunity to have food in their homes” is what motivated her to work with FeedMore.
FeedMore greatly appreciates all the donations from Richmond Restaurant Week. Although food donations are appreciated, Howe explained that, “We can stretch your dollar pretty far here.” What an individual can buy at a grocery store to donate is very little compared to the amount FeedMore can obtain through their community partnerships. One dollar buys four meals, and Howe says that Reitzer’s events have allowed FeedMore to “provide millions of meals through the donations we’ve received.”
Not only does Restaurant Week boost FeedMore’s distribution capacity, it helps bridge the gap between those who are able to dine at upscale restaurants and those who struggle to keep their pantries stocked. The event raises awareness amongst the wealthier population for the issue of hunger in Richmond.
Reitzer says that the event causes customers to have the, “understanding that there are a fair amount of people in our community that are less fortunate than us.” These Richmonders can then donate or volunteer throughout the year, a vital part of FeedMore’s operation.
Tess Perry, a resident of Richmond, said, “Restaurant Week made me more aware of what was going on in Richmond. It opened my eyes about the hungry in the city, and it made me feel good about going out to eat because I knew I was helping the community at the same time.”
Howe wants to “keep [hunger] top of mind for people so people aren’t just thinking about it during the holidays.”