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."

Tuesday, July 06, 2004

Feeding the hungry is a mission for this man
Hundreds of families depend on Thumper Newman for sustenance. But his food bank is losing its home, and he must find a new location.


Published July 5, 2004

People are already waiting as Thumper Newman pulls into the trailer park off Ironbound Road, gently tapping the horn of his truck a few times to make sure everyone knows he's there.

He comes by about 9:45 a.m. every Tuesday, after stopping in Williamsburg's Highland Park community but before ending his route at the Blayton Building, a senior housing project nearby. He does similar tours of low-income neighborhoods throughout Williamsburg, James City County and upper York County seven days a week, bringing free food to hundreds of households.

"There you go, sweetheart," he says to one client this morning.

"All right, darling, take care," he tells another.

Male clients get dubbed "buddy" or "sir" or "my friend."

No one is turned away, let alone asked to prove their need or income.

"We would have starved without him," says Kay Thorington, one of the trailer park residents.

Newman is the largest provider of free food in the Williamsburg area. He says he gave away 472,000 pounds of food last year. This year, he expects it to top 500,000 pounds.

A good Samaritan law protects grocery stores from liability for food given away to food banks, but some grocery stores are still reluctant to do it, Newman says. He estimates that he's been able to recoup only about half of what local grocery stores get rid of every day.

Every day begins before 6 a.m. with rounds to pick up food at Ukrop's, Fresh Market, Big Apple Bagel, Starbucks and three local Food Lion branches. He receives meat, fish, chicken, produce, canned goods, bread and other bakery goods that are approaching their sell-by dates and must be removed from the shelves soon. Instead of throwing it away, the stores give it to Newman for free.

Grief and a renewed faith in God led him to retire from a successful marketing career a couple of years ago, while still in his early 40s, and devote his time instead to feeding the hungry.

He calls his new vocation "A Gift from Ben" - named for his 14-year-old son, who died in a vehicle collision at the intersection of Monticello Avenue and Centerville Road the day after Christmas in 2001.

Newman believes divine providence led him to this mission. Now he's hoping divine providence will open a path to where he goes next.

He has been using the James City Community Church in the Monticello Shopping Center as his base of operations. In addition to his daily deliveries to feed people who might lack transportation, Newman also runs a food bank at the church from 4-6 p.m. three afternoons a week.

But the church told him in early June that it needs the space back by the end of July, Newman says. He has been borrowing space the church uses as a coffeehouse, and now the church wants to expand the hours the coffeehouse is open to try to reach a larger audience, he says.

"I wish it was different, but I understand," he says. "I greatly appreciate the support that the church has given me over this two-year period."

Pastor Sam Goins says the food bank was "hindering us from reaching our target audience," which he described as family-oriented, highly educated people between 25 and 45. He says the church wanted to offer more activities during the day, which wasn't possible with the food bank taking up so much room. Although the food bank takes up only a fraction of the church's total space three afternoons a week, it is space at the front of the church. Newman also uses storage space in the church's kitchen.

He notes that hundreds of people come through three times a week and some patrons begin to camp out hours before the doors even open.

Goins says he also has personal reasons for asking the food bank to leave but refuses to elaborate.

Most of Newman's customers start lining up 15 to 30 minutes before the food bank is scheduled to open. The first ones inside get the best pick. Everyone has their preferences - such as one recent visitor, a diabetic man who wanted a sugar-free pie.

Sister Berenice Eltz -who used to run a food bank at St. Bede's Church but is now retired and helps out at A Gift from Ben - pointed out some sugar-free chocolate chip cookies.

But the man persisted: "Don't you have pie?"

Sister Berenice checked the boxes that hadn't been unpacked yet and brought him a sugar-free cherry pie.

"Don't you have apple?" the man asked. When Sister Berenice said there didn't appear to be any, the man shrugged and put the cherry pie in his grocery bag, which the food bank also supplies for free.

Patrons are welcome to come to the food bank as often as they want, and many visit at least twice a week. Despite the fact that so many are regulars, little socializing goes on among them. All seem intent on the task before them and leave promptly once it's accomplished.

Newman says he is optimistic that he will find another space. He's looking for a large room, roughly 1,000 square feet, centrally located in Williamsburg and close to a bus route, with electricity and plumbing and a sizable parking lot. He has his own refrigerators and freezers.

"I have a number of leads but nothing definite," he says. He says he is currently in discussions with five churches and several government agencies.

If he doesn't find a place, he will encourage his food bank clients to get food from his delivery routes, he says, but he worries that might not be possible for the ones who work mornings. He can't do deliveries later in the day because grocery stores require him to pick up the food early.

Even items like bread and fruit would start to age quickly in the truck over several hours in the summer heat, he says.


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