Virginia Peninsula Foodbank: Working to ease community’s hunger

Karen Joyner, CEO of the Virginia Peninsula Foodbank (Photo by Kelli Caplan)

A full stomach is something many take for granted.

When hunger hits, most go running for the fridge. But what if the shelves are empty?

On the Virginia Peninsula, thousands face this everyday. In fact, 16.7 percent of Newport News residents, 17.8 percent of Hampton residents and 15.7 percent of Williamsburg residents are food insecure, which means they are not always able to access healthy food to fuel an active lifestyle, says Karen Joyner, chief executive officer of the Virginia Peninsula Foodbank. Of the people helped by the Foodbank, 25 percent are children.

The Virginia Peninsula has the highest rate of food insecurity of any of the other regions served by the six food banks in Virginia. The Virginia Peninsula Foodbank serves nine cities and counties.

“If you don’t eat, you can’t learn, you can’t play sports or learn to play an instrument,” Joyner says. “Everything depends on a full belly. If someone is concerned about their next meal, they can’t concentrate. It keeps people from reaching their potential.”

People who are food insecure are not the people you expect to be struggling.

“Even when the numbers say things are going better in the economy, there are always people who are going to need help,” Joyner says. “We are here to help people who are struggling on a daily basis or living paycheck to paycheck. If we can provide the basic need of food, then they can do what they need to do to keep a roof over their head. So many people are underemployed or unemployed.”

The Foodbank works tirelessly to try to remedy the problem. It depends heavily on the local businesses, grocery store chains and residents to donate money and food to help fill its shelves to feed the hungry in the community.

Based out of a 50,000-square-foot building in Hampton, the Foodbank has a menagerie of programs that feed people of all ages, “from cradle to grave,” Joyner says. It provides backpacks full of food to school children to eat when they do not have access to school meals, such as on weekends and during summer. It also is a major provider of food for 160 community organizations that feed residents in need, including homeless shelters, domestic abuse shelters, churches, food pantries and group homes.

The Foodbank distributes 80 percent of its food through these partner organizations. A small number of people do come directly to the Foodbank for emergency food and are given a supply and a referral card for a partner organization near their home that they can reach out to for food on a regular basis.

“We are the safety net. Food is such a basic need,” Joyner says. “It’s so personal. People are sometimes embarrassed to say they need help.”

The Foodbank is masterful when it comes to stretching a dollar and its food supply. For every $1 it receives, it can stretch it to $8 worth of food, Joyner says. That results in four meals being provided for every dollar collected. One meal is equal to 1.2 pounds of food.

The Foodbank, which has 35 employees and 6,900 different people volunteering each year, pays cents on the dollar to buy food, such as first-line produce for 17 cents a pound, and other food for 19 cents a pound. Its warehouse looks like a “big box” store, with well organized and well stocked high shelves.

As inventory starts to wane, Joyner and the staff begin ramping up efforts to ensure they are filled again quickly. When Farm Fresh recently announced its closure, Joyner was faced with making up for 977,000 pounds of food the grocery store chain donated annually to the Foodbank.

“We can’t afford to replace that food,” she says. “It’s added a lot of pressure on us. It keeps me awake at night.”

Joyner, who joined the Virginia Peninsula Foodbank in 2013, came from the Foodbank in Norfolk. She is passionate about her work, making sure Peninsula residents have access to food and continuing to keep the need in front of the community so that residents and businesses can help by donating money or food.

“The community has been so good to us,” Joyner says.

The Foodbank is always looking for innovative ways of engaging the community and getting the word out about the importance of its services.

“It’s on my mind 24 hours a day. I throw my whole self into it,” Joyner says. “My ultimate goal is to make meaningful progress towards ending hunger so that all individuals across the greater Virginia Peninsula have the opportunity to not just survive, but to thrive.”

Foodbank by the 2016–17 numbers

26 –  BackPack sites provide backpacks full of food for children

1,633 –  BackPacks provided weekly

293,397 – pounds of food distributed through the BackPack program

1,373,265 – pounds of USDA product distributed

3,357,695 – pounds of produce distributed

3,247,375 – pounds of food collected and distributed through the
Neighbor-to-Neighbor Food Rescue Program

6,900 – people volunteer at the Foodbank each year, contributing 27,000 volunteer hours

Virginia Peninsula Foodbank
Address: 2401 Aluminum Ave., Hampton, VA 23661
Contact: Karen Joyner, CEO
Phone: 757-596-7188 ext. 140

About Kelli Caplan 74 Articles
Kelli Caplan is mother of three children and a friend to all who know her. She use to spend a lot of time in her SUV, driving to schools and pediatricians, but her children have graduated from high schools. Now she can be found at WalMart and Harris Teeter, playing pickleball or cycling. She loves to try new recipes and new authors’ books. Her favorite foods are green (lettuce, broccoli, pickles). A former crime reporter for the Daily Press, Kelli has been writing for Oyster Pointer as long as she has been able to hold a pencil.

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