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

Food banks ease stress, up comfort
For many in Williamsburg, donations provide a regular income supplement.


Published July 4, 2004

WILLIAMSBURG -- The women stood inside the small, dark foyer of the Rev. Mary Ellis' food pantry, waiting for a bag of food to get them through the week.

There was Jeannie, a mother of two, dressed in a white T-shirt and tight jeans. She cradled a stray kitten and hoped for yogurt. No dairy products today, a volunteer told her, handing her a bag of meat, canned vegetables, doughnuts, white bread and corn chips.

Marian Barnett was thankful for free chicken. Barnett, who is 56, earns about $700 a month as a private-duty nurse. Most goes to pay for medications for her diabetes, her car payment, insurance and rent. Little is left to buy food for herself and her grandchildren.

"You really just have to skimp on everything. They got chicken so high, $8 a pack just for a family pack," she said. Her doctor tells her she's not supposed to eat starchy foods, but pasta is cheaper than chicken and "you've got to try to eat it."

The women are like many food bank patrons in the Williamsburg area: They earn too much for government help but not enough to make ends meet. Some are hungry, but most are needy. They do not face an immediate crisis but face difficult choices. Food pantries often provide a regular income supplement, filling the gap before hunger sets in.

"Can you get away with paying only 50 percent of your rent? Can you get away with paying 75 percent of the gas bill?" said Steve Terveer, director of the Foodbank of the Virginia Peninsula. "You can do that with your food. You have discretion over what you buy."

The Williamsburg area's food banks at once reflect the community's affluence and its underlying poverty. Other food banks in Virginia are struggling with their supplies because the economy is creating greater need but is also squeezing stores and restaurants to sell more food and give away less. But in Williamsburg, no matter how long the lines are, the food doesn't seem to run out at the largest pantries.

It's a picture tourists and residents of gated communities rarely see: 164 families passing through Thumper Newman's pantry at the James City Community Church and toting away more than 1,300 pounds of food. Across town at the Grove Christian Outreach Center in James City County, people form a line through the parking lot an hour before Bread Day begins and carry empty shopping bags, baby strollers and wheelchairs to fill with food.

The city of Williamsburg has the highest poverty rate on the Peninsula, and one in five households in the city - 19.2 percent - earn less than $15,000 a year, according to the 2000 Census.

A recent study by a graduate of the College of William and Mary found that those people are many who use the Williamsburg food banks. Twenty-six percent of Williamsburg food bank patrons surveyed said they earn less than $10,000 a year. Another 22 percent earn between $10,000 and $14,999 annually.

About the same percentage of people reported that they experience hunger in Williamsburg as in the rest of the country, but they visit food banks more frequently, according to John Gibney, the W&M graduate who researched area food banks and their patrons last year for his senior honors thesis.

Gibney gave questionnaires to 100 patrons of three of the largest local food banks and compared the surveys to census figures on income in the Williamsburg area and national statistics about food bank users.

The affluence of this tourist and retirement community allows it to give away an impressive quantity and quality of food. The food comes from area supermarkets such as Ukrops and Farm Fresh. Several pantries also buy food from the Food Bank of the Virginia Peninsula.

There is so much food that people come from Newport News, Hampton, Charles City and King and Queen County to partake. The Grove ministry had to start turning away people from outside the area in January because the lines were so long that local residents had stopped coming.

Families walk away with fresh blueberries, bagels, Starbucks pastries, crabcakes, even some steak and cooked rotisserie chickens.

Kay Thorington especially appreciates the fresh lemons, limes and oranges, which her family uses to make their own juice. Thorington had to stop working 18 months ago because of back problems from an accident while working in a warehouse years ago.

She struggles to support herself and her 17-year-old son on $158 in workers' compensation and child support payments each week. She does get $91 a month in food stamps. Her boyfriend, who lives with them, gets $272 in food stamps and government relief, but she said it's not enough to sustain even himself, and he doesn't contribute to the family's support.

She and her son get most of their food from Newman's weekly visits to their trailer park in the Five Forks section of James City County.

"My child would starve if we had to live on what I made," Thorington said.

Thorington, like many of the food bank users Gibney surveyed, relies regularly on donated food. Gibney found that 63 percent of Williamsburg food bank users visited the charities almost every month, compared to just 20 percent of food bank users nationally. In Williamsburg the patrons are frequently black single mothers who are not on welfare and rely more on food banks, friends and relatives to supplement their food budgets.

They are people like Deborah Jackson, who stopped working as a nurse's aide when she began to go blind. Now she stretches her disability payments by accepting groceries each week from the Grove center. Jackson, 50, said she is able to cut her food bill in half by collecting frozen meats, vegetables and bread from the center's weekly bread line, where she also volunteers.

In most cases, the food banks have no restrictions on who gets food. Some ask that people come only once a month. Ellis's pantry off Merrimac Trail asks patrons for their age and size of household and then selects the groceries for them. At the weekly Bread Day in Grove, volunteers stack food on tables and let patrons choose. People must have referrals to get food from FISH in upper York County.

Churches run most of the pantries. In Grove, volunteers and patrons join hands and form a circle to pray. Ellis holds private sessions in her house with patrons who want spiritual guidance.

"People come and find life in a different way," Jackson said. "There is a relationship there."

Terry Bales, community services coordinator at the city's Blayton Building for the low-income elderly, said most of the residents there would probably get by without Newman's Tuesday food delivery - but just barely.

"They would have food, but with nothing left over. They wouldn't be eating the way they are now," she said.

With the food delivery, the Blayton residents enjoy an abundance that allows them to share, giving food to their families and cooking for each other. Many of them were poor all of their lives and remember going days without eating. Food is a way of expressing love in Southern culture, Bales said, and having extra food makes the residents feel rich.

Some food bank patrons in Williamsburg use the money they save on food to fill up their gas tanks. Other people can afford extras. One woman was relieved when Newman's truck showed up in her Highland Park neighborhood. She had two graduations the next day and wanted to get her hair done, she said.

"We're not in Ethiopia, where people are starving," said Newman, the director of A Gift From Ben, where many clients are repeat customers. "We're reducing their financial stress."

Jackson's savings allowed her to pay for her recent associate's degree in theology. Her mentally disabled daughter, who also visits the center's weekly bread line, saves her paychecks from a part-time job at Pizza Hut to buy a house.

Those are unusual cases, said Pat McCormick, director of the Grove outreach center. But she wishes there were more of them.

"Let's say I can save a lady 50 dollars a month, and she can take that 50 dollars and invest it in her future. I think that's great. At some point in time, that's going to take her to a place where she doesn't need this anymore," McCormick said. "Whatever it frees up the money for them to do, then that's a blessing."


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