Bridging the gaps

Louisa County native Jodie Johnson is disabled and can’t drive because of her health problems. She depends on other family members to help her pick up groceries at the Louisa County Resource Council, but they aren’t always available.

“Even if I get someone to take me, sometimes they give us so much food that I can’t even carry it all in the house,” she said. “I don’t want to sound ungrateful, though. The food bank is a life-saver.” 

Over the past year, the resource council has been looking at ways to better address the county’s food insecurity and help more people get what they need. Making it easier for residents to obtain food supplies from the council is a priority.

Transportation emerged as one of several concerns in a study the University of Virginia’s Center for Survey Research completed for the council in January.

“We looked at this study to try and find the ways we could get more people fed, and get them to the things that they need, whether it’s transportation, food or even dental care,” Lloyd Runnett, the resource council’s director, said. 

Dr. Thomas Guterbock, Center for Survey Research academic director, said the research revealed that the problem of food insecurity in the county is greater than anyone realized.

“Our study shows far less food security in Louisa County than would be predicted by statistics from the federal government,” he said in an email.

Twelve percent of county residents live in households with incomes below the poverty line, and therefore are considered food-insecure, Runnett said. But another 10 percent are just above that line, one missed paycheck away.

The resource council previously created the Grocery Assistance Program to serve that additional 10 percent of the population. It’s available to residents who make more than 150 percent of the federal poverty level and don’t qualify for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP. The grocery assistance program covers people who make from 150 to 200 percent of poverty. 

Johnson, who lives with her daughter and two grandsons, receives SNAP benefits. 

“We got it to help with the boys when they came to live with us,” she said. “But even then, we were running out of resources before the end of the month. You’d be surprised how much two young boys can eat.”

The University of Virginia study showed a correlation between hunger and transportation needs. 

“The survey showed a disparity between the number of people in need and the number who get food from the food pantry,” Runnett said. “Fewer than 50 percent of people who qualify for our services are walking through our door. That disparity was greatest in the areas furthest away from the [resource council].”

To help accommodate people like Johnson with transportation issues, the resource council is opening up satellite food banks. The first one is now in service at Locust Creek Fire Department in Bumpass on the first Tuesday of each month from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m.  

A second site is open on the first and second Thursday of the month at Mechanicsville Baptist Church in the Gordonsville area. Next spring, Runnett hopes to bring a satellite food pantry to the Gum Spring area, as well. (Runnett said on Nov. 14 that the pantry will be at Gum Spring United Methodist Church from 4:30 to 7 p.m., beginning on Feb. 11.)

The resource council is not the only agency in the county trying to reduce the distance between needy citizens and fresh food. During the past two summers, Louisa County Public Schools has operated a mobile summer meal program to provide nutritious meals to students even when schools are closed. 

Two food trucks travel to six locations around the county to provide lunch. The meals are available free of charge. 

Last summer, the schools served 8,100 meals, according to Randy Herman, the schools’ nutrition director.

“We try to do everything we can to provide healthy, nutritious meals to the youth in this community,” she said.

Johnson said she’d taken advantage of the summer program, “when we could get transportation.”

Another challenge in addressing food insecurity is that “a lot of times, no one wants to come forward and say they need extra help,” Johnson said. Poverty, and hunger especially, carries a stigma.

Herman said she has taken this into account through the Breakfast in the Classroom program in all four elementary schools.

Breakfast is available to all elementary-aged students, regardless of economic status. This eliminates the stigma of only students from poorer families eating breakfast, and  has resulted in increased meal participation, Herman said.

Johnson said both of her grandchildren, currently enrolled in Moss-Nuckols Elementary School, take advantage of free breakfast and lunch. 

“Thank God,” she said. “When you got a house full of kids and grandkids, anything that helps you take something off the list of things you gotta do is a godsend.” 

Forty-six percent of students in Louisa public schools are from families with incomes low enough to qualify them for free or reduced-price meals, Herman said.

Runnett said his goal is to understand what obstacles people face in getting what they need, and find ways to remove those obstacles.

“Everything we do is to address hunger in Louisa County. If you come in hungry, we’re going to find a way to feed you.”

 People who are in need, or have questions about the satellite food pantry program can call the Louisa County Resource Council at (540) 967-1510.