Partners in Feeding
“I’m 95, and I’m still pushing on.” Dorcas Hodges Nelson, a founding board member for the Foodbank of Southeastern Virginia and the Eastern Shore, is as determined as ever to feed individuals in her community. Right up until the COVID-19 pandemic reached our area, she volunteered weekly at The Pantry, a community outreach program she helped to launch at her church, Bank Street Memorial Baptist in Norfolk. The Pantry at Bank Street has been a Partner Agency with the Foodbank since 1997, serving approximately 300 households a month.
Since the Foodbank’s inception in 1981, Partner Agencies have been a vital component of our service delivery model. Within the first year of launching as STOP, Inc., the organization secured 400,000 pounds of food to be distributed to the community through 73 member agencies. That number has since grown to over 200 agencies, which include soup kitchens, food pantries, and emergency shelters, located throughout our service area.
Many of the Foodbank’s Partner Agencies are operated by seniors and have been forced to temporarily close their doors in order to protect the health and well-being of volunteers. Bank Street, which is operated by about 50 volunteers, is one of these agencies. “Most volunteers are middle aged, and several are old timers like me,” Dorcas chuckles.
In Virginia Beach, the pantry at Eastern Shore Chapel Episcopal Church, which regularly serves 2,000 individuals a month, closed for a month at the onset of the pandemic. Kay O’Reilly, director of the pantry at Eastern Shore Chapel and board member for the Foodbank, determined a way for operations to continue safely by launching a weekly drive-thru model.
Their organization requires approximately 70 volunteers to operate, and Kay estimates that up to half of their volunteers are older and have needed to remain at home for their safety. However, new volunteers have stepped up, allowing the organization to continue feeding.
It’s undetermined when additional Partner Agencies will be able to open their doors again. One certainty is, like every other aspect of life after COVID-19, things will need to change. “For the future, we’ll need to take safety more seriously as far as contact, social distancing, gloves, cleanliness,” Kay says. “There will be changes in how we operate.”
This is also the case at Bank Street. “We’re not going to have any trouble with people coming back to The Pantry,” Dorcas says. “The problem will be trying to serve people while keeping them at a distance.” She describes an area inside The Pantry where individuals take shelter during inclement weather, but it doesn’t promote the social distancing standards as recommended by health officials. This means that the organization’s entire service delivery model will need to be restructured. “For those of us who are elderly, this is a great change,” she says.
An aspect that won’t change is the need for Partner Agencies. Most are located in low-income communities to provide convenient access for people who need food assistance, including low-income seniors and disabled individuals. “We’re there in good times and bad,” Kay says. “We can ramp up and step up when something like this happens.”
2019-2020 Board of Directors
Kevin X. Jones, Dollar Tree, Inc.
Thomas G. Werner, Norfolk Southern (Retired)
David Chase, Wall, Einhorn & Chernitzer, P.C.
Shirley A. Barnes, Sentara Healthcare
Don Carey, III, Community Volunteer
Darius Davenport, Crenshaw, Ware & Martin, PLC
Keavy Dixson, Boys & Girls Clubs of Southeast VA
Larry W. Ebinger, Community Volunteer
Andre Elliott, YMCA of South Hampton Roads
Paul Finch, Community Volunteer
William Goings, Food Lion, Inc.
Carol Jarvis*, Community Volunteer
Jeremy Moss, Bondadventure Realty Group
Dorcas Hodges Nelson*, Community Volunteer
Kay O’Reilly, Eastern Shore Chapel
Dr. James Shaeffer, Eastern Shore Community College
Melissa Smith, A & N Electric Cooperative
Tonya Walley, Cox Communications
David Brown, CMAS, LLC
Bruce Holbrook, Dixon Hughes Goodman, LLP
Peter M. Huber, Willcox & Savage
Andy Kline, Payday Payroll
Susan Mayo, Community Volunteer
Marianne P. Scott, Community Volunteer
Marc Weiss, Wells Fargo Advisors, LLC
Ruth Jones Nichols, Ph.D.
Chief Executive Officer (ex-officio)
*Active Honorary Members
Dear Foodbank Friend,
During the last three months, we have faced unprecedented challenges due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Within a matter of days, food donations plummeted while our cost to provide a meal skyrocketed. Fundraising events and campaigns were postponed or canceled. Along with a decrease in food and funds, we experienced a surge in need. However, in the midst of everything, we learned something about ourselves: we were made for moments like this.
Our organization was shaped to continue the mission of leading the effort to eliminate hunger in our community — even during a pandemic. We have always believed that together, we can solve hunger, and the last few months have reaffirmed the strength of what “together” can do. When it was clear that our service delivery model would need to change, we knew that it would require more collaboration to continue leading this effort. We also understood that our mission was more critical than ever.
We identified three strategic partners to join together with us, ensuring that our most vulnerable neighbors would not have to miss meals. When we heard that the YMCA of South Hampton Roads needed to suspend operations and programs, we recognized that they could be an ideal partner in providing staff and facility resources to support food collections or distributions. Through a longstanding partnership with Mercy Chefs, we understood their capacity to prepare a limitless number of meals during a national emergency such as this. We also knew the importance of delivering meals safely to seniors, a vital task in which Senior Services of Southeastern Virginia has much experience. We put out a call to action, and each organization said yes without hesitation. Through these partnerships, our Foodbank was able to provide over 1.5 million meals to seniors, children and low-income families within the first six weeks of the pandemic.
The impact of solving hunger “together” was also demonstrated by unwavering support from organizations and individuals like you. Without this tremendous dedication, we would not have been able to provide food during a time of uncertainly. Thanks to your support, our mission has been strengthened during COVID-19 and beyond.
Together, we will get through this. Together, we will continue to solve hunger.
With sincerest gratitude,
Ruth Jones Nichols, PhD, Kevin X. Jones,
President & CEO Chair, Board of Directors
At the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Foodbank immediately faced a set of challenges that would impact the way we operate. Because of social distancing guidelines, we needed to suspend volunteer shifts, meaning that we could no longer rely on more than 6,000 volunteers to pack, sort and distribute food. In order to protect the safety of individuals distributing and receiving food, we suspended Friday USDA food distributions at our headquarters on Tidewater Drive.
Meanwhile, the YMCA of South Hampton Roads was experiencing challenges of a similar magnitude. The pandemic forced all facilities to close and all family programming to cease.
The Foodbank’s President & CEO, Dr. Ruth Jones Nichols, approached the YMCA leadership with the idea of a partnership for both organizations to leverage resources without duplicating efforts. Anthony Walters, President & CEO of the YMCA of South Hampton Roads, was on board with the idea from the get go. “We have the manpower, we have the staffing, and we have the facilities,” he says. The footprint of the YMCA of South Hampton Roads mirrors that of the Foodbank’s service area, covering over 4,000 square miles from the Eastern Shore to Western Tidewater. “It made sense for us to say, ‘We can walk alongside of you,’” Anthony says. “We were the best fit to help.”
Along with physical locations and a staff dedicated to serving their community, the YMCA was an ideal fit for a deeper rooted reason. Their organization is focused on promoting wellness and healthy living, and on a broader level, the Y is dedicated to working side-by-side with neighbors to address critical community needs to help kids develop into smart, resilient adults; for individuals to improve their health and build a sense of community; and for vulnerable young people to get the care and support they need.
“This has helped really to define our purpose,” Anthony says. “All of a sudden, we returned back to our roots, which is around a charitable cause-driven organization. It is my opinion that this is exactly what we’re supposed to be doing”
The Foodbank collaborated to establish four distribution and five food donation sites at local YMCA facilities to be co-operated by Foodbank and YMCA staff. The drivethru distributions are an adaptation of the Foodbank’s Mobile Pantry Program, aimed at practicing safe social distancing. Through this partnership, the YMCA continued employing several staffers who may have otherwise been furloughed due to the facility closures, and the Foodbank was able to safely continue operations despite a shortage in volunteers. “It’s harder to work in a silo,” Anthony describes. “We get more mileage and we help more people when we come together.”
Anthony likens serving during the pandemic to rushing into a burning building, and moments like this have motivated him to keep going. “It reminds you that there’s no hesitation when it’s time to run in,” he says. “There are some people who have to run in. That is their job, and that is what they’ve been called to do. That is my job right now, to help and ask others to come with me. We have work to do.”
Feeding the Need
“It’s just a zero,” Mercy Chefs Founder and President Gary LeBlanc says nonchalantly.
“The difference between 50 and 500 is just a zero, and zero has no value.” Gary explains that for his team of chefs, there is no limit to the number of meals they can prepare in a day; all they have to do is scale up. “We have the ability, technology, skill, experience and training to feed any number of people that need it,” he says. “We operate under the hallmark of whatever the question is, our answer will be yes.”
This limitless mindset is perhaps what initially inspired the partnership between Mercy Chefs and the Foodbank. Mercy Chefs brings over 14 years of knowledge and experience from serving nearly 2.5 million meals in the aftermath of natural disasters and national emergencies. “About five years ago, my wife challenged me to be busy in between disasters,” Gary laughs. So, they began partnering with organizations to address childhood hunger on a local level.
In 2018, Mercy Chefs began creating healthy dishes using the Foodbank’s fresh produce to offer cooking demonstrations and food tastings to families through the Foodbank’s Healthy Mobile Pantry and later on through the Healthy School Market Program. Families who were encouraged to try the dishes would then have the opportunity to take fresh ingredients with them to recreate the meals at home.
Having a solid understanding of Mercy Chefs’ ability to prepare high-quality meals at a limitless capacity, the Foodbank team knew that this organization would be vital for feeding people in need during the pandemic. Focusing on seniors and children specifically, Mercy Chefs began preparing healthy and delicious meals to be chilled, delivered and reheated as needed. Some favorite options among individuals receiving the meals have been corned beef and cabbage, prime rib and grilled chicken, each accompanied by fresh vegetables and sides.
“We can’t just think about the meals. We have to think about the people.”
Gary describes the feedback as being incredible. “We’ve had some seniors pick the phone up and call us or send handwritten notes, and they’re just so grateful,” he says. “These were at-risk people before COVID—people who were facing food insecurity, people who didn’t have transportation. They really didn’t know what they were going to do. Now they’re receiving these beautiful, chef prepared meals delivered right to their door.”
The Foodbank originally determined that in order to meet an immediate need, Mercy Chefs should prepare 2,000 meals a day. Pretty soon, however, it became clear that they would need to expand from 2,000 to 3,000. This was no problem for Mercy Chefs; all they had to do was scale up.
Even though numbers are just numbers to Gary, when it comes to meals, he puts careful consideration into each one because each meal equals a person. “Every meal that we package, we remind the volunteers who are here helping us package those meals—those are 3,000 faces.” With each meal, Gary considers the quality and asks himself if he would be proud to serve that meal to his own family for dinner. “That’s the level that we chase on every meal that we put in a package,” he says. “We can’t just think about the meals. We have to think about the people.”
“We are the place seniors call when they’re in need,” says Steve Zollos, CEO of Senior Services of Southeastern Virginia. “It could be for food or medical assistance or to keep their lights on.”
During regular operations, Senior Services provided direct support to over 10,000 seniors in a year. Within a 2,000-square-mile service area, their organization gives assistance through various programs that address needs in transportation, healthcare and wellness, and advance care planning as well as companion programs to keep seniors engaged and connected.
Food assistance is also a large component of the organization. Last year alone, Senior Services made over 100,000 Meals on Wheels deliveries and provided more than 50,000 meals in congregate settings. Those numbers are growing significantly with the COVID-19 pandemic. “If we stay on track for this year, we will triple what we did last year,” Steve estimates.
Along with needing to feed more individuals during the pandemic, Senior Services had to shift their service model in order to provide food safely. “When we came to the social isolation mandate and we recognized it was no longer safe to bring seniors to the centers for socialization, we shifted our thinking,” Steve explains. “We asked ourselves, ‘How can we keep these seniors fed; how can we keep them engaged?’” Their model would have to change from taking seniors to congregate feeding sites to bringing food directly to the seniors. “As we saw the demand rising, we started asking, ‘How do we navigate this thing?’” Steve recalls.
Meanwhile, the Foodbank was seeing an uptick in seniors who needed food assistance but didn’t have the resources or mobility to travel to a distribution site. Leaders of the two organizations began a conversation about getting food directly to seniors in need while maintaining their health and well-being. “We needed additional food but had the resources and ability to deliver,” Steve explains.
What resulted was a full partnership among the Foodbank, the YMCA of South Hampton Roads, Mercy Chefs and Senior Services of Southeastern Virginia. “The collaboration between nonprofits has been phenomenal because we were able to very quickly bring our talents and resources to the table,” Steve says. “With the Foodbank bringing in Mercy Chefs and the YMCAs for pickup and drop-off sites, we got way ahead of the curve on being able to meet the increasing demand for food in the community.”
The drivers who were typically picking seniors up and transporting them to feeding sites are now picking up meals and delivering them where they’re needed. It sounds simple enough, but Steve explains that meal deliveries are not just transactional. “Our drivers build relationships with people they serve,” he notes. Now that the drivers need to avoid face-to-face interactions, they cannot go in seniors’ homes to place the meals directly in their freezer. Instead, they drop the meals off using a safe, no-touch delivery model, and then make a follow-up call. “We’ll let them know that the meals are there, ask them how they’re doing, ask if they have any other needs that we should to be aware of.” Steve says that for some seniors, this is the only contact they have each day. “Our drivers are more than just dropping something off,” he says. “They are a contact point; they are a friend.”
In This Together
Just as our partnerships during COVID-19 have enabled us to continue our mission of leading the effort to eliminate hunger in our community, these accomplishments would not be possible without support from organizations and individuals like you who invested in our COVID-19 response efforts.
Your support has strengthened our organization, allowing us serve over 1.5 million meals to seniors, children and low-income families at risk of missing meals during a time of great uncertainty. In just the first six weeks of the pandemic, our Foodbank distributed food to over 18,000 households, including over 13,000 children and over 5,000 seniors who were in need of food assistance for the first time.
Without your help, parents would have skipped meals to provide for their children. Kids would have become familiar with the unbearable feeling of going to bed hungry. Seniors would have faced difficult decisions such as choosing between buying groceries or paying for medical care.
Thank you for helping us keep meals on the tables of our neighbors who need it most. Your support makes it possible for us to continue serving in our community during this time of tremendous need. We’re all in this together, and together, we will continue to solve hunger.
As we continue to look toward our vision for a hunger free community, we realize that it will take time to evaluate the after-effects of the pandemic. “Nobody’s going to throw a switch and we’ll be back to normal,” notes Gary LeBlanc from Mercy Chefs. “But, let’s all work together to find this new normal.”
The journey forward is especially critical as we consider the after-effects of COVID-19 on individuals we serve, especially those who were unjustly impacted by food insecurity and health disparities before the pandemic. “We know that there are communities in our service area in which residents are living in food deserts, experiencing food insecurity and disproportionately battling chronic health issues,” says Dr. Ruth Jones Nichols, President and CEO of the Foodbank. “Our work before the pandemic focused on addressing these issues holistically, and we know that in the months following the pandemic, our sustainable model of devoting efforts to root causes will be more vital than ever.”
This holistic model of addressing food insecurity aligns with the Transform Pillar of the Foodbank’s strategic plan. “We’ve made tremendous progress in this realm by understanding and addressing the root causes of food insecurity, which include lack of access to housing, higher education, workforce, healthcare and financial literacy,” says Ruth. “We know that our work to ‘feed the line’ and ‘end the line’ must go hand-in-hand in order to move individuals toward economic self-sufficiency.”
The Transform pillar is also focused on building relationships with community partners to implement programs that help clients achieve economic selfsufficiency. The pandemic propelled the Foodbank forward in this way, as we have started to leverage even more key strategic partnerships that lead to transformative results.
“We know that our work to ‘feed the line’ and ‘end the line’ must go hand-in-hand in order to move individuals toward economic self-sufficiency.”
In the next phase of our COVID-19 response, we are working with Senior Services of Southeastern Virginia to identify seniors in need of food assistance and arrange for volunteers to delivery Mercy Chefs meals directly to them while maintaining social distancing and safety measures.
Leaders at the Foodbank and YMCA of South Hampton Roads are also collaborating to launch virtual wellness programs to individuals participating in existing Foodbank programming. Through this effort, low-income families as well as individuals experiencing food insecurity combined with chronic health conditions can stay virtually engaged on a path toward healthy eating, fitness and wellness, while remaining socially connected. We will continue to initiate new partnerships and work with existing Partner Agencies to continue making transformational changes in our community.
Before COVID-19 impacted our service area, we couldn’t imagine what life would look like during a pandemic. Now as we continue to adapt to this “new normal,” it’s difficult to imagine what life will look like once this is all over.
What we do know is that our work is not done.
“The pandemic has created awareness of just how vital we are to the community,” says Kay O’Reilly from Eastern Shore Chapel. “We can have an impact and be a force for good.”