New council focuses on hunger

A new statewide council, Bridging the Nutritional Divide, has been created to battle hunger.

Gov. Terry McAuliffe announced the council’s formation last week and first lady Dorothy McAuliffe will be its chairwoman.

Spencer Neale, director of commodity marketing for the Virginia Farm Bureau, said the new Commonwealth Council on Bridging the Nutritional Divide is an “attempt to bring a statewide focus to the effort” of battling hunger.

Neale said the council will include many members of statewide agencies such as the Virginia Food Bank, the Virginia Farm Bureau as well as local industries, that have been battling statewide hunger for a long time. The question, Neale said, is “How do we all come together and work together to get solutions that are meaning?”

The council will — among many objectives, such as making food more accessible to more people — seek to end childhood hunger.

“Children should not have to go hungry in this day and age,” Neale said.

Michael McKee, chief executive officer of the Blue Ridge Area Food Bank, said they are “delighted and encouraged” with the announcement as well as the plan’s focus.

“We are seeing ongoing, high levels of need for food assistance,” McKee said.

As of 2012, the website for Feeding America reports that the total of food-insecure people in Virginia is 993,530, or 12.1 percent of the state’s population.

“That means that [12.1 percent] of Virginians do not know where their next meal is going to come from,” McKee said.

For local counties, the amount of food insecurity for children ranges at significantly higher rates than the state average. According to Feeding America, Shenandoah County has a food insecurity rate of 20 percent for children.

That translates to roughly 1,850 children in the county. By comparison, Warren County has a rate of 16.3 percent (1,460 children), Frederick County has a rate of 14.6 percent (2,850 children) and Page County has a rate of 22.3 percent (1,150 children).

McKee added that the fight to end food hunger is also closely tied to enhancing economic development, health and education, as well as using the state’s agricultural resources.

One of the biggest hurdles for battling hunger is the state’s population in comparison to the number of farms, Neale said.

“We have to look at how to feed more and more people with a finite number of farmers,” Neale said.

The Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services estimates there are around 46,000 farms in the state of Virginia. The U.S. Census Bureau estimated in June 2013 that there are more than 8 million people in the state.

Because of numbers like that, Neale said Virginia will never be able to produce enough food for every person in the state.

One way the state can look at to help food-insecure homes is by providing more produce and other nutritionally dense food, McKee said.

This would mean increasing the fresh produce from the fields which, McKee said, is still an abundant resource for the food bank. This is important, added McKee, because the food bank is receiving less and less food from big manufacturing companies.

McKee said that people with food insecurity are often shopping on a budget that does not allow for healthy eating. He added this lack of healthy eating can lead to additional problems such has diabetes and obesity.

In regards to who will be on the council, Neale said “There is definitely an economic development angle to it.”

“We haven’t seen an increase in poverty, but [actually] a high level of underemployment. [We’re] serving more people who are working and need food assistance,” McKee said.

He said the long-term answer is in providing more full-time jobs with benefits to more people.

At the same time, McKee stressed the importance of using the state’s agricultural resources to battle hunger.

“[We need to] marry these efforts with economic and workforce developments so that Virginians can take care of themselves,” McKee said.

The new council will meet quarterly starting in the first quarter of 2014 and report back to the governor, Neale said.

The plan for the council expires in January 2018, whe McAuliffe’s term as governor ends.

However, Neale noted that efforts to fight hunger could extend well beyond that.

The first few years of this council will largely be focused on “laying the framework” for the future, Neale said.

Contact staff writer Kevin Green at 540-465-5137 ext. 155, or kgreen@nvdaily.com