Competing to feed the hungry

McDonnell challenges business groups to collect food bank donations

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Print this page by Heather B. Hayes

The number of Virginians deemed to be hungry or “food insecure” now tops more than 1 million, up 54 percent since 2008. As a result, the state’s seven regional food banks are struggling to “feed the line” at thousands of soup kitchens, food pantries and other food distribution outlets.

That task, however, always gets harder during the summer. Demand rises because children don’t have access during those months to government-supported meal programs at school, and the level of food bank donations drops dramatically.

“Summer is just not a time when hunger is in the forefront of most people’s minds,” says Leslie Van Horn, executive director of the Federation of Virginia Food Banks. “It’s a time to be on vacation, a time to be outside, and, as a result, our warehouses can get pretty bare.”

Gov. Bob McDonnell has challenged the business community to do its part to restock the shelves. He has created the Governor’s Bowl Food and Fund Drive in partnership with the Virginia Chamber of Commerce and the Virginia Association of Chamber of Commerce Executives (VACCE).  The five-week drive began after Memorial Day and will continue until Independence Day.

McDonnell has been a strong supporter of food banks for more than 20 years. After being
elected attorney general, he launched the Statewide Legal Food Frenzy in 2007. The annual event has delivered more than 7.2 million pounds of food to the food banks in its first five years.

“Our local food banks are an incredible resource to help Virginians in need of a good meal,” says McDonnell.  They are effective at “stretching every dollar they receive,”  he adds, getting resources to intended recipients and minimizing overhead and bureaucracy. “I’m trying to just do a small bit to help more people find out about them and encourage more people to support them.”

The Governor’s Bowl is intended to be a friendly competition among chambers of commerce, which will try to collect the most pounds of food (calculated according to the total of both food and money donations) and deliver them to their local food bank. Participating chambers, rated according to their membership numbers, compete within one of three categories: small, medium and large. McDonnell will award the winners in each category a Virginia-themed Governor’s Bowl created and donated by Green Bay, Va., potter Rick Erickson.

As of May 1, nearly half of the state’s 100-plus local chambers had signed up to participate, according to Maryann Crowder, director of VACCE and vice president of operations for the Virginia Chamber.  “We’ve gotten a lot of positive response, and we’re seeing a lot of enthusiasm towards this because this is something that they can do for their community. At the same time, they also feel like they’re part of something even bigger, a kind of ‘we’re all in this together’ kind of thing,” she says.

The food bank federation is providing a list of “food-raising” ideas to chambers, but it encourages them to be creative and use the competition as an opportunity to get employees, customers and other local organizations involved in food drives. “We love it when we see people really think outside of the box,” Van Horn says.

Pamela Irvine, president and CEO of Feeding America Southwest Virginia, says that anything the chambers can do to ramp up summer donations will be appreciated. Her organization serves 26 counties, including eight of Virginia’s 10 poorest. The food bank is able to feed an average of 120,000 people a month, but it never has enough supplies to serve all of the estimated 377,000-plus residents in her service area who need help.

She hopes the Governor’s Bowl will raise awareness that hunger is a pervasive problem in Virginia despite the relatively low statewide unemployment rate and high ranking on many economic indicators.

The event gives food banks an opportunity to build long-term relationships with new donors, she says. “Some of these companies may have never been involved in the charitable food distribution system, and we hope this will help them realize that this is a worthwhile project because it is really something special when you’re able to provide hungry people with food.”

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