Virginia’s agriculture industry partners with several organizations within the state to provide the most vital resource to those who need it – food.
One in 10 people struggles with hunger at some point throughout the year, with nearly 250,000 children who may not know where their next meal will come from. Food insecurity is an invisible problem in most states, including Virginia, with many consumers not realizing that their neighbor might be struggling to receive the necessary nutrition.
Eddie Oliver, executive director of the Federation of Virginia Food Banks, says that food insecurity is defined as the measure of an individual’s ability to afford enough nutritious food throughout the year. The Federation is comprised of the seven Feeding America food banks across Virginia, which deliver food with the help of more than 1,500 partner agencies, including soup kitchens, homeless shelters, churches and more. After-school meal programs, weekend food backpacks and school markets have been particularly successful. There are also programs that focus on underserved rural areas, as well as local hospital systems and health clinics.
Oliver says that to meet demand, working with the state’s agricultural producers is crucial. “We’ve built up great partnerships with growers in Virginia, and those who donate can receive a tax credit for the produce they donate,” he says. “Many donate even without taking advantage of the credit, purely because they see a need and want to make a difference.”
He adds that dairy products are one of the most in-demand and least-donated items. This past January, the Federation began the Milk for Good program in partnership with Marva Maid Dairy Cooperative and with support from the Dairy Alliance and Virginia’s Farm Credit institutions.
“We distributed 35,000 half gallons of milk in just the first six months,” Oliver says.
Another program connecting the food insecure with farmers is the Virginia Fresh Match program. This statewide nutrition incentive program is made up of a network of farmers markets and a few grocery stores across the state that accept SNAP benefits and double them for fresh fruits and vegetables.
“It’s a token system that’s used at farmers markets, so consumers get $20 in tokens if they spend $10,” says Maureen McNamara, director of strategic planning for the Local Environmental Agriculture Project. “It’s an alternative currency at the market without each farmer having to have a SNAP machine.”
She adds that those using SNAP benefits want to know where their food comes from and meet the people who grow it. They may not have been able to do that before because of the high cost of fresh food.
“It levels the playing field and allows people to be able to participate in the farmers market,” McNamara says.
As of late 2019, 65 farmers markets across the state participate in the program, and a map can be found at vfm.leapforlocalfood.org.