‘They’re people you know’
Posted: December 7, 2012
Rocktown Weekly, Dec. 7-13, 2012
According to Ruth Jones, director of communication at the Blue Ridge Area Food Bank, food insecurity means individuals “don’t have the resources at some point in the year to have a nutritious meal,” she said, “and so they can’t maintain a healthy and active lifestyle.”
It’s a description fitting one in 10 individuals in the Central Shenandoah Valley — and one in five nationwide.
Pastor Sam Montanez, who helped found Hope Distributed, a food and clothing assistance nonprofit in Harrisonburg, invites us to look around — at coworkers, friends and neighbors. The odds are high that someone you know struggles with food insecurity.
The students of James Madison University professor Corinne Diop’s “Photograph as Document” class did look around — through the lenses of their cameras — as they completed an assignment to capture hunger around them.
They were startled by what they saw.
When students shared with friends about the project they were working on, the eight were met with some confusion. Often, their peers’ idea of “poor” and “hungry” meant not having enough cash for a study snack.
Senior Victoria Hall said her peers told her they’d never seen someone “on the street.”
“But they’re not just on the street,” she said. “They’re people that live in houses — and that you might know — that can’t afford food.”
The “working poor,” says Jones, are among the newest faces coming to the Blue Ridge Area Food Bank for help.
“They’re working really hard, but making a little too much to qualify for federal aid, and too little to sustain themselves. That’s where the food bank comes in,” she said. “They’re making really tough choices between paying for basic utilities, rent and mortgage and buying food.”
Because Harrisonburg wasn’t hit as hard in the economic downturn as many areas of the country, Diop pointed out, it’s even harder to see the underserved around us.
Like her students, Montanez also found the statistics on hunger hard to swallow when Hope Distributed began in 2004 — years before the national economy even began to dive.
Hope Distributed now delivers between 80 and 110 pounds of food to as many families in Harrisonburg, Rockingham County and beyond, as well as partners with city schools and takes food trucks to neighborhoods at or below the poverty line.
The BRAFB also hauls its share of food — 21 million pounds per year, on average — and serves an estimated 37,000 people in the Central Valley per month.
Understanding the issue
The battle between bills and a balanced meal can come as suddenly as a layoff or illness, those involved in relief efforts say. And the stigmas associated with food assistance are so pervasive, even those in the middle of a tough situation often feel the need to apologize in the food pantry line, says Jones. “It’s humbling.”
The stereotypes about hunger are often linked with homelessness, she said. “Only 11 percent of those who receive food assistance [from the BRAFB] are homeless.”
Unexpected situations can take a financially secure middle-class individual into poverty. “We’ve heard people tell us that, previously, they were donors, but now they’re clients; that’s tough to hear them say, ‘I was the one helping, now I need the help.’ ”
Montanez helps train Hope Distributed volunteers on not judging, but welcoming, no matter what the situation. Those who’ve never dealt with food insecurity may feel that assistance is “taking advantage of the system,” he said. “They don’t understand the barriers ... the other more rooted issues that come along with poverty.”
Language barriers, fewer opportunities for employment, and one’s environment all contribute to feeling hopeless, he said. “They resign to, ‘This is all I know, and all I’m going to be.’ ”
He reminds outsiders that there may be more to each person’s situation than is evident at the pantry.