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Community members, legislators, academics work to eliminate food insecurity

Two Feed More food donation boxes are housed in the parking lot of the organization. Feed More...
Two Feed More food donation boxes are housed in the parking lot of the organization. Feed More serves food distribution organizations around the Richmond area, including Fonticello.(Grace Bost - Capital News Service)
Published: Apr. 28, 2022 at 5:53 PM EDT
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RICHMOND, Va. – The founders of Fonticello Food Forest bent down under the picnic table to pick edible chickweed leaves and lavender flowers. Moments later they were running to their neighbors’ aid – some of their chickens were loose.

Jameson Price and Laney Sullivan founded the outdoor space, which serves as a free source of fresh and perishable food for community members. The food is donated or grown on site, the pair said. The property is located in Carter Jones Park, south of the James River in Richmond.

“This is not charity work,” Price said. “This is just work.”

Price and Sullivan are part of a larger effort to mitigate food insecurity and food waste across Virginia.

Food insecurity means a household lacks access to enough food for a healthy lifestyle, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. An estimated 10% of Virginians were food insecure before the COVID-19 pandemic; that percentage increased to 22% between April and May 2020, according to the Virginia Department of Social Services.

Grassroots efforts

Nationally, food insecurity went unchanged at 10.5% between 2019 and 2020, according to the USDA. However, food pantry usage increased between those two years.

More than 4% of families used food pantries in 2019 and, almost 7% of families reported using a food pantry in 2020, according to USDA. The 2021 data was not available as of mid-April, according to USDA.

Food pantry usage is higher among those who experience food insecurity, according to USDA.

Local grocery stores and nonprofit organizations such as Feed More food bank provide food for the Fonticello Food Forest, Price and Sullivan said. They have built contacts with store employees to help acquire leftover food; one method also deployed by the food sharing organization Food Not Bombs where Sullivan also works.

“We’re trying to go and establish relationships and understanding of what we’re trying to do, and the impact that it’s giving to families and to folks that need the food,” Price said, “Especially as cost continues to rise but waste doesn’t seem to be decreasing.”

Over 816,000 tons of surplus food was sent to the landfill in Virginia in 2019, according to data from ReFED, a nonprofit dedicated to ending food loss and waste across the U.S. That includes food surplus from manufacturing, retail, food service, farming and residential sources. The food that Fonticello Food Forest saves from waste is a tiny piece of the billions of pounds of food thrown away every day, Sullivan said.

“This is not the better world,” Sullivan said. “This is better than it would be if it was all going in the trash, but it’s not the ideal.”

RVA Community Fridges works to increase access to fresh, locally-grown food, according to Taylor Scott, the mutual aid nonprofit’s founder. The program works to keep 10 established fridges in the Richmond area stocked with free food. Scott founded RVA Community Fridges in 2020 after wanting to redistribute surplus tomatoes she grew in her home garden.

Mutual aid is the principle of serving one’s community to meet the immediate needs of community members, according to GlobalGiving, a nonprofit organization that connects other nonprofits with donors and companies.

The goal is to add more fridges in food deserts, areas that are far from grocery stores and have limited access to affordable and fresh food.

The newest fridge was established at Ms. Girlee’s Kitchen—a restaurant in the Fulton Hill neighborhood—after community members highly requested it. The area is a food desert lacking basic infrastructure, according to Scott.

Providing food for the Fulton Hill community has been rewarding, Scott said. Over 60% of the neighborhood’s population is Black, and 10% are over age 65, according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau. Scott wants to add more fridges in communities of color. Black individuals make up 29% of the population of Richmond and Petersburg, but account for 48% of people experiencing poverty, according to United Way, an organization that funds nonprofits in the Richmond area. Latino individuals make up 6% of the population but account for 15% of individuals experiencing poverty, according to the same data.

Black Space Matters

The Institute for Contemporary Art at VCU in 2020 started a collaboration with Duron Chavis, an urban farmer and community activist, to highlight issues of food insecurity. Chavis grew food in the vacant lot outside the museum that was later distributed. The project also highlighted the importance of Black community spaces to have conversations about food justice.

People cannot discuss food insecurity without discussing the issue of land use, Chavis said, because those who do not have access to healthy food often don’t have access to land to grow that food.

“Our work is about reaching people’s dignity and their ability to be self-determining and to make decisions for themselves that increase their health and increase access to healthy food without hoping on some outside resources to come in and make everything better for them,” Chavis said.

Governments could create something like an office dedicated to urban agriculture, but Richmond hasn’t established such an office, Chavis said.

Mark Davis, founder of Real Roots Food Systems, also is working to expand access to locally-grown food. The organization’s goal is for people to know where their food comes from and experiment with ways to obtain food that doesn’t involve purchasing items.

“I think it’s a special thing to be in a cashless exchange in times like these, to create a resiliency in communities like this,” Davis said recently when interviewed for the “Black Space Matters” Season Two documentary series. 

Davis said that he grows food on land in Hanover County, owned by Richmond-based First Baptist Church. The church then donates the food to food pantries and other outlets. RealRoots wants to create less waste in landfills and meaningful collection of research around waste diversion.

Legislative action

Virginia legislators are also enacting laws to help support access to local agriculture. Del. Sam Rasoul, D-Roanoke, introduced House Bill 2068 in the 2021 Virginia General Assembly session to connect local farmers to local consumers, he said.

The bill, which was passed unanimously by both chambers in 2021, established the Local Food and Farming Infrastructure Grant Program. The program created grants to support infrastructure and other projects to support local farming. The grants are available on a competitive basis and award up to $25,000 per grant, according to the bill.

Some examples of ways the grants have been used include flash freezing produce, canning farmed food and transferring farmed food to wholesale markets, Rasoul said.

“So, it’s all about trying to get that local food from the farm to the market, and at the same time reducing our [carbon] footprint,” Rasoul said.

Rasoul introduced HB 323 this past session to double the program’s available grant money from $25,000 to $50,000. Both chambers in the General Assembly also passed this measure unanimously.

The grant program awarded eight grants in December 2021 to various food infrastructure projects. Two of the projects involve improving farmer’s markets, two involve meat processors and two involve upgrading local canning systems, according to the Virginia Department for Agriculture and Consumer Services.

Campus connections

Food insecurity worsened because of COVID-19, according to data from Feeding America. However, data suggest food insecurity was a problem among college students before the pandemic.

Youngmi Kim, associate professor of social work at Virginia Commonwealth University, researched food insecurity among college students before the onset of COVID-19. She found that 35% of VCU students experienced food insecurity.

This finding inspired environmental studies professor John Jones to dream up a miniature version of the main food pantry on campus, which began in 2014 and is located inside the University Student Commons at VCU.

Little Ram Pantries launched in October 2021 in various locations around campus. People can take however much of the nonperishable items they need and donate as much food as they can. Jones had the idea for the effort when he came across a small food pantry in the Church Hill neighborhood in Richmond, he said. The effort mirrors the “little free pantry” movement spawned from little free libraries seen in neighborhoods around the U.S.

One aspect preventing people from using the main food pantry on campus is the stigma associated with food pantries, according to Jones. He wanted to employ the Little Ram Pantries as a way to eliminate the stigma surrounding using resources, he said.

“Let’s try to make this so visible on campus that it fades into the background,” Jones said.

Jones received program funding from the Office of Community Engagement and VCU Service Learning, and has support from the school’s Institute for Inclusion, Inquiry, and Innovation. Each box has a sensor to track when the boxes are opened and closed for Jones’ research.

Jones found students interact with the Little Ram Pantries at over twice the rate they visit the main campus food pantry. The main food pantry on campus receives about 34 visits per week, Jones said, while the satellite version he launched receives about 75. This success led to him expanding the program by creating more locations.

“I think that the data that we have is very promising,” Jones said. “And I think that with some tweaking, I think the model could be very effective on other campuses.”

Professors from the University of Alabama and the University of West Georgia reached out to him about starting their own version of the program, Jones said. He wants to launch a website that details best practices for miniature food pantries, he said.

Despite the success of the Little Ram Pantries and other food pantry models, Jones said food pantries are not a solution to food insecurity.

“If our society wants to be serious about fixing the underlying issue as to why people are hungry, then we need to look at the issue of why people aren’t being paid enough,” Jones said.

Fonticello Food Forest founders Price and Sullivan helped round up the neighbor’s loose chickens and returned to finish the interview.

Efforts to combat food insecurity are notable, they said, but shouldn’t be necessary.

“In a truly just world and a truly reciprocal, mutual-aid world, there wouldn’t be this food waste to be redistributed and folks would be more connected to the food process,” Price said. “We understand that that’s not such an easy thing, to just suddenly flip a switch on, so you do what you do in the meantime.”

Capital News Service is a program of Virginia Commonwealth University’s Robertson School of Media and Culture. Students in the program provide state government coverage for a variety of media outlets in Virginia.

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