By Becca Boehringer
When the two biggest colleges in the Rockbridge area serve food at events for hundreds of people, they often have many trays of leftovers. Through two local agencies, much of this food is brought to the tables of individuals and families who might otherwise go without.
Rockbridge Area Relief Association (RARA) and Washington & Lee’s Campus Kitchen are addressing two problems at the same time: food waste and the increasing need for food among struggling families in the county. RARA’s director, Kitty Brown, said the number of families coming in for food aid over the past three years has increased by about 100 families every month. RARA tries to meet this increased demand by giving out nine meals for each person in the family when families come to the food pantry.
In 2013, RARA served 1,486 unique households and 3,961 individuals. People are allowed to come in once a month, and RARA last year served these individuals 17,626 times. Last October, the latest month for which numbers are available, Campus Kitchen served 5,993 meals and each week filled 700 backpacks with healthy weekend snacks for local children who need them.
RARA receives a large portion of its food from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, so the individuals helped by RARA must qualify for federal aid. To qualify, households must meet an income eligibility that is one and a half times the annual federal poverty guidelines. Yet, because of local donations, RARA is also able to extend food to those who may not meet these strict qualifications but are still in need, explained Brown.
RARA and Campus Kitchen accept food from various local food suppliers. Generally, the unused food comes not from the smaller restaurants around Lexington, but from grocery stories and campus dining halls.
Retailers donate to RARA
The Bistro’s manager, Judy Cain, explained that her restaurant doesn’t end up with a lot of extra food. Restaurants like Bistro cook to serve and when there is a little extra food at the end of the night it is given away to employees, she said. Bistro’s food scraps that return on plates to the kitchen are given to a local farmer for composting.
Grocery stores and larger dining halls have more food to handle and more meals to prepare, making for a larger amount of potential food waste that can be donated, explained Ellen Wiencek, a member of Campus Kitchen’s student leadership team.
For example, Kroger and Food Lion give RARA day-old bakery goods, items that are going out of date, and items whose packaging may be scratched and dented.
Kroger Manager Scott Leonard said Kroger used to donate meat but will not anymore because of the liability involved in donating this product.
Other retailers, such as Food Lion and Wal-Mart, donate meat to RARA and Campus Kitchens, respectively. Connie Roberts, grocery receiver and reclamations clerk at Wal-Mart, said that its meats are put in the freezer a day before their expiration date in order to be donated to Campus Kitchen on its weekly Tuesday food pickups.
Roberts, like other food donors, mentioned the possibility for lawsuits because of the nature of donated food. Roberts explained that Wal-Mart had a long history of donating goods but stopped making food donations several years ago because of lawsuits against other companies where food donations became liabilities.
W&L Campus Kitchen helps community
Wal-Mart resumed its old ways of donating a few years ago. Roberts said this decision came from a national policy where individual Wal-Mart stores were told to find local places to donate their food.
Wal-Mart in Rockbridge County paired with W&L’s Campus Kitchen, which is part of the national Campus Kitchen program based in Washington D.C. This program is unlike RARA in that it accepts both prepared and unprepared food. Campus Kitchen receives food from W&L’s Dining Services, Virginia Military Institute’s Aramark Services, Stonewall Jackson Hospital, and local farmers markets, in addition to Wal-Mart.
Campus Kitchen and RARA offer different services. “We cannot accept food that is not packaged,” said Brown. “We do not have facilities to accept cooked food.”
Campus Kitchen, in contrast, has provided prepared meals since its start. It also delivers meals to seven agencies, instead of having individuals come to collect food.
Paige Missel, a Campus Kitchen Outreach Coordinator, said those agencies include The Manor at Natural Bridge, Rockbridge Area Occupational Center, and Habitat for Humanity Homes in Rockbridge County. For some partnerships, Campus Kitchen delivers only frozen and packaged foods. At others it serves hot meals.
Unfortunately, during the serving of hot meals some food gets thrown away. Wiencek, who has been involved in Campus Kitchens for four years, explained that they work hard to allocate meals based on previous numbers of people.
“It’s all trial and error,” said Wiencek. “Sometimes the amount of people you expect do not show up and so you will have extra food.” Because of regulations this preheated and uneaten food must be thrown away.
Campus Kitchen, as a member of a national program, is protected under the Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Food Donation Act of 1996. However, it must still follow many regulations to ensure safety.
Brown said that RARA, like Campus Kitchen, feels a responsibility and checks the food it offers very carefully.
“God’s been with us,” said Brown. “We’ve had no problems and never had anyone get sick.”