Williamsburg's Homeless & Indigent

P.O. Box 366, Lightfoot, VA 23090
Office: 757-561-3255
"Assisting people in re-gaining hope and a better way of life."

Monday, July 05, 2004

Caviar, steak on the menu at area food banks
Surprisingly fancy fare sometimes ends up in Williamsburg's donations. But clients seem to prefer downscale dishes.


Published July 4, 2004

Forget bologna sandwiches.

Some Williamsburg-area food bank patrons get gourmet fare beyond the budget of the average middle-class household. Caviar, $22 a pound steaks and loaves of sun-dried tomato and asiago focaccia have appeared.

It's not a scam, just an odd wrinkle created by the economics of operating food banks in an affluent area.

A Gift from Ben, the largest provider of free food for low-income people in the Williamsburg area, gets its supply from local upscale grocery stores that donate items approaching their sell dates. The food from Ukrop's, Fresh Market and Starbucks must be removed from the shelves anyway, so the stores have the choice of throwing it out or giving it to a good cause.

That means food bank patrons can pick up fancy fare, including expensive cuts of beef like Angus porterhouse and tenderloin steaks. Cooked rotisserie chickens, gourmet muffins, croissants and artisan breads are fairly common.

FISH is a food bank in upper York County that gets its donations primarily from churches and individuals. "Somebody brought us caviar once," remembers Bill Dickerson, president of FISH's board of directors. Probably well intentioned, but not the kind of snack most financially challenged people have developed a hankering for.

FISH requires that clients get a referral from the United Way, a church or some other social service organization to use its services. A Gift from Ben, however, does no screening and asks no questions. Clients are welcome to visit several times a week if they wish. A Gift from Ben even provides free grocery bags. Some of its patrons say they get all or most of their food there.

Could people who really aren't all that hard up be exploiting the situation, using the food bank as their grocery store?

Thumper Newman, who operates A Gift from Ben, says he doesn't see any evidence of that. It wouldn't be impossible, but he doesn't worry about it, he says.

"It is better to give and be deceived than not give and be mistaken," he says. "I know there's a small percentage that will take advantage of my program. That's probably the case in any charity anywhere."

He says his job is obtaining the food and then getting rid of it as quickly as he can. Trying to screen people would slow down the process and defeat that purpose, he says. He believes getting $30 to $50 worth of food free per visit makes a big difference in most clients' lives, allowing them to afford other necessities.

Steve Barth, associate director of the Foodbank of the Virginia Peninsula, said, "I'm a realist. When you give out something, there's going to be a line of people who are going to stand in line because they're going to get something for free."

On one recent afternoon, most patrons at A Gift from Ben didn't appear too interested in the more expensive or exotic products. People occasionally asked if they could get hot dogs or chicken or said they didn't eat pork. No one refused the steaks, but no one seemed to be specifically requesting them, either. Some clients asked what the exotic goods were, even though the packages were clearly labeled.

People were most vocal about the bread selection. The array spread out on the table included organic peasant rye, ciabatta, Portuguese multigrain and cinnamon raisin.

Many wanted to know if there was any white sandwich bread.


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