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Emptier shelves loom

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Volunteer Jessie Simmons places soup cans in a bin at the Blue Ridge Area Food Bank in Winchester. Both food manufacturers and the federal government are expected to provide less food to food pantries. Dennis Grundman/Daily

Food pantries face loss of supply

By Joe Beck -- jbeck@nvdaily.com

Food pantries across the Northern Shenandoah Valley are approaching the new year with the threat of sharply reduced food donations looming over them and their clients.

Bad news for the region's hungry and needy arrived last week when the Blue Ridge Area Food Bank announced that it was expecting to lose 10 percent of its supply -- more than 2 million pounds of food -- within the next two months.

"I can say we are at a unique place," said Ruth Jones, director of communications for the Verona-based organization. "We have a perfect storm of challenges that we haven't quite dealt with before."

The food bank provides a sizable majority of the products that many local food pantries distribute to needy clients. When the Blue Ridge Area Food Bank has trouble obtaining enough donations, the effects ripple across the region to local pantries.

"This is going to affect our operation tremendously," said John Nadzan, food chairman and vice president of operations for C-CAP of Winchester.

"Whatever food we do get, we get from the [Blue Ridge] food bank," said Elsie Rogers, who runs the Bread of Life Food Pantry in Woodstock.

"We rely more on them than individual donations," said Megan Perrero, manager of the Loaves and Fishes pantry in Front Royal.

"When you sign up to be a food pantry, you sign up with them," she added.

The anticipated drop in donations stems from two issues, Jones said.

The one-two punch started when food manufacturers, which are the agency's main suppliers, told the nonprofit's executives recently that technological advancements are about to reduce the supply of surplus food they will have available for donations.

"Now a lot of that stuff they either cut back on producing it or a lot of that is being sold to dollar discount stores so they are still making a profit," Jones said. "That means there's less food coming to us."

The second blow came with the increased possibility of a major decline in food available from the federal government through the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Moreover, another 300,000 pounds of food could be lost as a result of budget cuts in Congress, according to the food bank.

"This is very concerning to us because we're serving more people than ever in our 30-year history," Jones said.

The food bank, founded in 1981, covers 25 counties in central and western Virginia. It distributes food from four centers in Winchester, Verona, Lynchburg and Charlottesville to a network of 300 pantries, schools, churches and other nonprofit organizations. The agency estimates it serves a total of 33,300 people from its Winchester branch.

The impending drop in donations comes at a time when demand is spiking at food pantries. Nadzan said his agency is passing out food to 110 families a day, compared to 80 or 90 under better economic conditions.

"In fact, we have lowered the amount we are giving to our clients because the demand is so great," Nadzan said. He added that clients are "still going out with a lot of food," but he worries that donations from individuals and businesses will fall off after the Christmas season.

In Front Royal, the Loaves and Fishes food pantry has counted 11,092 individuals served since it opened its doors on March 9 through November, Perrero said.

Blue Ridge needs people from throughout its service area to fill the gap being left by the food manufacturers and perhaps the federal government. Food drives and cash donations are the best ways to make up a shortfall in donations, Jones said.

Those interested in organizing a food drive can find information on the agency's website at www.brafb.org. Donations can also be made on the site or mailed to Blue Ridge Area Food Bank, P.O. Box 937, Verona, VA 24482.

Blue Ridge also is planning several initiatives of its own to lessen the effects of the expected loss in donations.

One part of the plan is to buy 3.2 million more pounds of produce from the estimated 6 billion pounds that is left in farm fields.

"The food is there for taking. We just have to buy it and pay freight costs," Jones said.
The food bank is also going to try to step up donations from local grocers and large community food drives as well as buy other kinds of food in addition to the produce purchases.

In the news release issued by the agency, Larry Zippin, Blue Ridge Area Food Bank CEO, said the agency will also be working with other food banks to mount a cooperative purchasing program "that will allow us to get more food for every dollar we spend."

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