Local food pantry sees needs grow, donations drop

By Jin Ni

The local pantry has switched to a drive-through model to encourage social distancing while meeting growing need in the community.

Volunteers at Rockbridge Area Relief Association are cleaning up for the day, but stop when they see a gray SUV pull up to the door. A volunteer asks the driver a few questions about family size and what food they need.

Kathy Fravel, a RARA volunteer, quickly gathers bread, meat and produce.The food box offers less variety these days because donations to RARA have dropped as the recession lingers and clients’ needs grow.

“We received generous support from the community when COVID hit,” Programs Manager Lindsey Perez said in a phone interview. “But donations are still important, since we anticipate an ongoing economic impact with more people needing our services over the next year.”

RARA has been a crucial part of Lexington and Rockbridge County since 1972. Food insecurity rates have nearly doubled during the pandemic. According to the Food Research and Action Center, 29 million, or 11 percent of adults in America did not have enough to eat in July 2020, compared to 8 million adults, or 4 percent, in 2018.

In Rockbridge County, one in 10 families experience food insecurity, although Perez said the number may have gone up because of the economic recession.

Jim Zimmerman, one of the Brownsburg Gardeners, drops off fresh produce at RARA every Thursday afternoon.

To limit contact, RARA no longer allows patrons entry to shop in the food pantry. “We pick a variety, but it might not be what they would necessarily choose if they were in the pantry,” Perez said.

“We’re actually on track to distribute 300 tons of food by the end of this year,” Perez said. That has been a goal for RARA for nearly two years, compared to the 284 tons donated last year.

Local farmers and gardeners are contributing more fresh vegetables to feed the area’s neediest families.

Jim Zimmerman is one of 18 growers in Brownsburg Gardeners, who has donated produce for seven years after becoming a volunteer at RARA.

“I began to realize how much people appreciate the locally-grown vegetable,” Zimmerman said in a phone interview. “Then I started asking myself: there are a lot of gardeners in the Brownsburg area… how can we coordinate those gardeners so everyone has an opportunity to share their extra vegetables?”

Since the group was founded in 2015, the Gardeners have donated 6,780 pounds of vegetables. The group also donates health and hygiene products and hosts children’s book drives.