Food bank ups fresh produce for area clients

Jarrett Tomalesky, branch manager for the Lord Fairfax Food Bank, stands inside facility's 10,000-square-foot warehouse in Winchester. The regional food bank is planning to expand its distribution capabilities. Rich Cooley/Daily

WINCHESTER — Area residents will have greater access to fresh produce due to recent efforts by the Blue Ridge Area Food Bank.

An expansion to its main distribution center in Verona, projected for this summer, will triple its refrigerated storage space to accommodate up to 75,000 pounds of produce — an addition that will also bring more fresh produce to the Northern Shenandoah Valley.

At the Lord Fairfax Area Food Bank distribution center in Winchester, the more donations of fresh produce sent from Verona, the better, said Branch Manager Jarret Tomalesky.

“We have the capacity,” he said, estimating the refrigeration unit could fit 10 pallets of produce from various sources, including grocery stores and local farms and orchards.

More donations to the food bank translate into more food distributed among the smaller food pantries it serves, but Tomalesky said so far the food bank’s impact on the community has seen a successful growth.

The first six months of the 2014-2015 fiscal year, the Winchester branch distributed almost 700,000 pounds of produce, said Tomalesky.

“That is an increase [from the previous year], and we’ve seen a continual steady increase,” he said.

During the 2013-2014 fiscal year, the local branch distributed 6.1 million pounds of food to Winchester and the counties of Frederick, Clarke, Warren, Shenandoah, Page, Fauquier and Loudoun.

“We’re moving a lot of food into the seven counties that we serve,” he said. “… We are on target to be [responsible for] well over a million pounds of produce this year.”

Improvements to the Verona distribution center, which reaches 114,000 clients in 25 counties every month, are part of an effort Blue Ridge has made to improving the quality of food it distributes through Verona and the other branch locations in Charlottesville, Lynchburg and Winchester.

Food bank clients often have to choose between buying food and paying for other necessities like rent or utilities, and buying unhealthy, inexpensive food is a common way Blue Ridge client households stretch their money, the organization reported that after receiving results from the “Hunger in America 2014” study commissioned by hunger relief charity Feeding America.

As a member food bank of Feeding America, Blue Ridge follows mandates for how it should supplement the nutrition of its clients, but Tomalesky said that’s not always easy.

“At least 85 percent of the food that goes out of here is [required to be] nutritional food, which can be a challenge,” he said.

Though intent on offering the best food possible, Blue Ridge relies on what it can get through donations, which can include everything from health food to sugar-coated cereal.

There are few restrictions on what type of food Blue Ridge will accept, said Communications Coordinator Maria Longley.

“We do rely heavily on donations,” she said. “… We’re always trying to strike a balance.”

At the Blue Ridge website, http://www.brafb.org, a summary of the most needed foods lists cereal, peanut butter, canned meats, canned soups and stews, canned fruits and vegetables, 100 percent juice, boxed macaroni and cheese, spaghetti sauce, pasta and rice, paper products and personal care items.

Bulk items will be divided into smaller portions, Longley said. Glass containers are discouraged.

The “Hunger in America” study found that including more fresh produce into the food donations would give food bank clients greater access to more nutritious foods — significant, considering it found a high prevalence of diet-related diseases among food bank clients. More than half of client households reported a family member with high blood pressure, and one-third reported a member with diabetes.

“Hopefully we’ll be able to give people more choices in terms of healthier foods,” Longley said.

More produce will help, but Tomalesky said the problem of nutrition is greater than that.

“It’s an educational thing, that people don’t know how to cook these days like they did 30 years ago,” he said.

The Lord Fairfax bank distributes recipes for food pantries to include with seasonal vegetables that clients might not know how to prepare. It also partners with the Virginia Cooperative Extension on on four- to six-week “Super Pantry” cooking courses.

Lord Fairfax provides the food, and the co-op provides the education.

Contact the Lord Fairfax Area Food Bank at 540-665-0770 or the Blue Ridge Area Food Bank at 540-248-6410 or “http://www.brafb.org” target=”_blank”>http://www.brafb.org. For a list of current food drives and most-needed items, choose the “Get Involved” tab and then choose “Events, food drives and fund drives.” Read the “Hunger in America” report at http://tinyurl.com/m6cx2j9.

Contact staff writer Josette Keelor at 540-465-5137 ext. 176, or jkeelor@nvdaily.com