Food insecurity: New initiatives to combat the issue
By: Justine Milner
RICHMOND, Va. - RVA Community Fridges, a group aimed at combating food insecurity in the Richmond area, plans to expand in June.
By the end of 2023, five new fridges and a kitchen will be available for the community to access, said Taylor Scott, the organization's founder. This would be in addition to 12 locations in Richmond and one in Petersburg.
RVA Community Fridges is one of many organizations in Richmond combating food insecurity, which the USDA defines as lacking nutritionally adequate food. More than 25,000 Richmond residents were food insecure in 2021–about 11% of the city's population, according to Feeding America, a nonprofit network of food banks.
Click the link below to locate some of these fridges.
Two of RVA Community Fridges new fridges will appear in Southside, Scott said. One will be across the street from the Dandelion Health Clinic on Hull Street.
Southside needs a new fridge since it’s been over a year since a fridge was removed in that same area, Scott said. The second location is unknown, as Studio Two Three is moving and hasn’t announced their new location, Scott said.
The third fridge will be at Starr Hill Brewery in Scott's Addition while the fourth fridge will be at Fonticello Food Forest in Southside Richmond. Fonticello Food Forest is a community garden which contributes fresh produce for the fridges, Scott said. The garden is open to the public and the fridge will be in the garden, according to Scott.
Starr Hill Brewery in Scott's Addition
Photo by: Justine Milner
RVA Community Fridges is currently working on opening a community kitchen and fridge located in Northside.The community kitchen will provide free food, and educational opportunities around food for the community.
“Hopefully … this kitchen is going to make immense changes,” Scott said.
A kitchen will help Scott and her team prepare pre-made meals to add to the fridges, Scott said. The fridges are popular but often run out of food, Scott said.
“I really think what’ll be great for us is more prepared meals,” Scott said.
Scott said the main challenges with running RVA Community Fridges are keeping the fridges stocked and cleaned. Some fridges are stocked up to five times a day depending on the volunteers' pick-up and drop-off times, but every fridge is stocked at least once a day and different partners drop food off three to five days out the week, Scott said.
In addition to Fonticello Food Forest, Scott said she partners with different nonprofits who partner with grocery stores, and these stores donate food for the fridges. Scott also partners with Duron Chavis, an urban farmer and founder of the Happily Natural Day festival occuring on Aug. 26. The festival focuses on cultural awareness, health, wellness and social change.
There’s a fridge located at Chavis' Sankofa Community Orchard in the Southside and RVA Community Fridges has a garden plot in Chavis' Broad Rock Community Garden, Scott said. Chavis did not respond to multiple attempts for an interview for this story.
Fulfilling a need
Scott said she communicates with her partners before each food drop to determine what’s needed and how much goes where. RVA Community Fridges does not monitor the amount of food people take, Scott said. However, Scott feels like this isn’t the reason the fridges run out of food.
“I personally don’t feel people are probably over-taking,” Scott said. “I do feel that we are probably under-providing.”
With assistance programs like The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program changing requirements and inflation, more people need food and the fridges empty within three hours of being stocked, Scott said. SNAP provides monthly funds that help low-income individuals and families put food on the table, according to the nonprofit group Virginia Poverty Law Center. Extra monthly benefits that individuals were receiving during the pandemic stopped in February 2023, VPLC stated on its website. SNAP has also reinstated age and work requirements. Some SNAP recipients' benefits decreased from $281 to $23 a month, VPLC said.
In the past year, Scott said she has worked on building more partnerships to help combat this issue. Scott said she has no intention of slowing down. With 13 current fridges and five coming, there are several ways the community can help, Scott said. That includes volunteering at community gardens that supply fridges with food, cleaning fridges and assisting with food pick-up and drop off.
The Community Fridge
The fridge that receives the most traffic is the Venable Street location in the East End, located outside of Fat Rabbit Bakery, according to Scott and Ellyn Hopper, the shop's owner.
Intersection of Venable Street
Photo by: Justine Milner
Hopper kept one of RVA Community Fridges refrigerators after she bought the building that houses Fat Rabbit. In the first few months of renovations, Hopper said she saw how much the fridge was being used and didn’t want to take it away from the community.
“Everything about this is good,” Hopper said.
Hopper said another reason she partnered with Scott is because Fat Rabbit is a no waste company and prides itself on connecting with the community.
“The fridge is actually a really tangible, and practical way to do that,” Hopper said. “So, besides the baked goods aspects of things, it’s my hope that we are also here for the community.”
Hopper encourages customers to donate to the fridge, and at the end of each day, Fat Rabbit donates leftover pastries, Hopper said. However, the fridge always needs more food, Hopper said. Bulks of produce may last for the majority of the day, but on a normal day, this location empties within an hour of being stocked, Hopper said.
“There are like you know a decent amount of times that we see folks walking down to check it out and then will walk back empty handed,” Hopper said.
In the next year or two, Hopper sees Fat Rabbit having a direct part in the fridge. Hopper spoke with Scott about implementing more initiatives that contribute more donations–like taking a percentage of sales from a food item and donating the money to the fridge.
A Big Green School Bus
RVA Community Fridges isn’t the only organization working to combat food insecurity. According to Rodrigo Arriaza, the public relations and marketing coordinator at Feed More, a nonprofit organization that collects, prepares and distributes food throughout Central Virginia. Feed More serves over 2 million people a year, according to Arriaza. Its network agency has more than 250 partners in pantries, soup kitchens, shelters and nonprofits across 34 different cities and counties throughout Central Virginia, Arriaza said.
By the end of this year, Feed More plans to launch a program to help food insecure students and their families, Arriaza said. Feed More bought a big green school bus and turned it into a mobile food market. Inside, are fridges and shelves that are stocked with fresh fruits, vegetables, drinks, canned goods and lean proteins, Arriaza said. The best part about this initiative is that the bus comes straight to community members–pulling up in neighborhoods and schools, Ariazza said.
The program doesn't have an official name yet. However, the organization launched a name contest on July 10 asking the community for suggestions and votes. The winning name will be announced the first week of August via Feed More’s website and social media, Arriaza said.
Last October, Feed More celebrated 10 million meal deliveries for its biggest program “Meals on Wheels.”
View this short video to learn more about the program
Feed More wants to eliminate as many barriers as possible by making nutritious food accessible, Arriaza said.
“Asking for help is not always the easiest thing to do,” Arriaza said. “We sort of recognize that and acknowledge that and want to … eliminate those barriers wherever we can.”
Feed More is always looking for help, Arriaza said. The public can help by donating food, funds or time. Arriaza anticipates an increase in food needs with SNAP recently changing their requirements.
“That is a challenge we feel will impact our neighborhood food pantries,” Arriaza said.
The government also has programs to help combat food insecurity. In 2020, The Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services launched the Virginia Food Access Investment Fund (VFAIF), a grant program that supports business development, rehabilitation, expansion of grocery stores, small food retailers and other projects that increase food access in underserved communities.
In 2021, 15 projects across the commonwealth received over $620,000 in grants, according to a VDACS press release. The grant recipients included the Northside Food Access Coalition, which was awarded $50,000 to convert a building into a cold storage facility and bring a new CSA program serving the more than 35,000 residents, the press release said. Richmond Food Justice Alliance and Shalom Farms also received $49,000 to help establish popup markets in the city's Mosby Court, Fairfield, and Creighton Court neighborhoods, according to the news release. Additionally, the funding will train residents around "community wealth-building and increased access to fresh food.
In August 2023, an announcement for the second round of the Local Food Purchase Assistance Program grants are expected to open; and in September 2023, the second round of the Virginia Farms to Virginia Families Food Box Program grants are expected to open, Michael Wallace, VDAC's director of Communications said in an email.
Urban and Sustainable Agriculture
While growing and eating food from a private garden sounds ideal, land options in the city are slim and expensive, said Leonard Githinji, professor at Virginia State University (VSU) who teaches urban and sustainable agriculture. He emphasizes being innovative to improve access to fresh produce in underserved communities.
VSU is currently using its own parking lot and newer technology such as a cropbox, also known as a shipping container, to grow produce, Githinji said. This is an intensive, in-door production system that doesn’t require soil, according to Githinji. This shipping container is converted into a farm, producing vegetables equivalent to 1 acre of land, Githinji said. VSU plans to utilize the cropbox in fall of this year.
The initial investment can cost around $70,000. Githinji knows this is expensive, which is why the department offers programs that demonstrate the in-door production process on a smaller scale such as hoop houses, raised bed gardens or row covers.
“The one at VSU is kinda proof of concept that if you can get together food resources, then you can grow enough for the community,” Githinji said.
Food deserts are a problem that must be solved from multiple aspects, Githinji said. Educating people on how to grow food is great but the picture is way bigger.
“How can you partner with the convenient stores so that they have the incentive of stocking healthy stuff?” Githinji said. “So, how can you talk to big grocery stores so that they can be attracted to go into low-income neighborhoods?”