While some prepare for family gatherings around a Thanksgiving table piled high with holiday fare, others in the Fredericksburg area are working to make sure everyone has something to eat.
Putting food on the table has been particularly difficult in recent years as rising costs eat into wages at every turn.
“Really, register prices everywhere are killing people,” said Lee Chaney, executive director of SERVE of Stafford County. “Your working poor families are affected by everything that’s going on in the political landscape: when gas prices go up, when inflation goes up, when unemployment is high, when food costs go up.”
In recent months, numbers at SERVE, Stafford’s largest and oldest independent food pantry, have jumped 400 percent, Cheney said. Part of the increase is due to expanded reach, efforts to provide more fresh produce and working more closely with schools to identify and support families.
People also read…
But another reason for the jump — from about 750 people a month in July to 2,200 people in each of the past two months — comes from opposite ends of the spectrum. There has been a “huge” increase in requests for regular food boxes from white senior citizens and young military families at Marine Corps Base Quantico, Cheney said.
Other food-related groups in Fredericksburg are facing similar increases that mirror trends across the state and nation. The number of families struggling to make ends meet rose to 12.8 percent nationwide in 2022, according to a USDA report. This is 3.5 million more families than in 2021.
The Fredericksburg Regional Food Bank is receiving 25 percent more requests this year than last, said Dan Maher, president and CEO. And that’s on top of unprecedented spikes in 2021, which he says were 64% higher than the year before.
“We’ve just seen this steady climb and growth,” he said. “It’s the ongoing inflation and the sticker shock of going to the grocery store, trying to get those dollars to stretch even further.” For some, this is impossible. It’s a very sad situation that there is such a great need in this area.”
Terri Rees has lived in the Fredericksburg area her entire life, has been involved in various community efforts, and has never seen a need on this level. She works with Elisa Bonilla at Ristorante Renato’s in Fredericksburg to deliver hot meals on Thanksgiving.
Four years ago, the Bonilla family, including Elisa’s mother, Teresa, and father, Jose, who passed away earlier this year, started the tradition. Staff, waiters and volunteers cook hundreds of pounds of turkey breast, add all the trimmings and deliver hot meals to people’s doors.
Last year, Renato’s team served 365 meals.
This year, Rees had to cut requests last week when the total reached 900 meals — only because the group couldn’t cook more than that.
“It’s heartbreaking, absolutely heartbreaking,” Rees said, describing situations people have told her when they’ve asked for food. “I will cry when I think about their stories. There are adults, alone, people in shelters, veterans and their families, children.
Part of the increased demand may be because additional food aid tied to the pandemic ended this year, Maher said. But there’s no denying the impact of sticker shock, Elisa Bonilla said.
“You can’t rent an apartment downtown for less than $1,500,” she said. “You understand how it came about, we’re growing fast, but at the same time people are falling on hard times because everything has become so expensive.”
Buy food or pay bills?
Kim Castillo knows all about it. The Spotsylvania County woman and her husband, Hector, qualified for SNAP benefits, formerly called food stamps, after they both lost their jobs this year. He later found a job as a general manager of a restaurant, and she delivered groceries through a private company.
They no longer qualify for government assistance because of their income.
Around the same time the job changed, a doctor recommended their oldest son go on a gluten-free diet because he wasn’t growing at the normal rate. He is 11 and also has Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder. His two younger brothers, 9 and 7, are on the autism spectrum.
Around the time of the gluten-free water heater recommendation, the family water heater failed and the Castillos waited weeks to have it fixed. They still haven’t fixed the front end of her Chevrolet Suburban since it was damaged five years ago; they just don’t have the money.
“I think everybody struggles with (food prices) in general,” she said. “When you have to pay for other things, it’s like, do I get food or do I pay this bill?”
That’s especially difficult, she said, for those who need special diets because of the added cost. Gluten-free bread can cost $8.50, she said, and is smaller than the average loaf. She is thrilled when regular boxes from the Food Bank include gluten-free items.
“I’m excited because it really takes the pressure off a little bit,” Castillo said. “I really don’t think I could have fed my family if we didn’t have the help from the food bank and pantries.”
Lisa and Mike Haas of Stafford are SERVE volunteers and board members, and last week they participated in their favorite activity of the year: handing out food bags and frozen meat for Thanksgiving meals.
He used his 21-year enlistment in the Marine Corps as he climbed into the back of trucks and unloaded turkeys and hams. She weighed everything that was offered and congratulated people who were grateful for the help.
“It’s a blessing, let me put it this way,” Lucille McDowell said after gingerly limping over to the table to pick up her food.
Robert Chapman stopped by SERVE after his job as a package delivery man.
“It helps me, my kids and my wife. I’ve been down and out for the last few months,” he said.
Lisa Haas said one lady literally cried on her shoulder because she didn’t think she would be able to feed her family Thanksgiving.
“People are very appreciative,” Mike Haas said. “It was humbling.”
As a food pantry board member, he realized that an increase in demand correlated with a decrease in donations. The Food Bank’s Maher said the same. About half the revenue comes from donations from October to December.
“We know that over the last year or so, financial giving has declined because many of our major donors are feeling the pinch themselves,” Maher said. “What was a pillow is no more.”
But just as Reese noted the overwhelming need for Thanksgiving meals, she also saw Renato’s patrons come in with donations, everything from cash to sodas and pumpkin pies.
“I found heroic angels that we actually have in this city,” she said. “God bless them for what they do.”
More information about the Fredericksburg Regional Food Bank is available online at fredfood.org. The website for Stafford’s pantry, SERVE, is serve-helps.org.
Kathy Dyson: 540/374-5425