New food pantry model support healthy foods, dignity of choice

ROANOKE, Va. (WDBJ) – Many families in our hometowns are struggling to put food on the table. In Roanoke City more than 20 percent of our children don’t have enough to eat. That’s twice the state average.

Food pantries are working hard to meet the need, but they’re also working hard to deliver the wants.

That includes giving neighbors healthier food choices.

Reginald Banks is next in line for a new take on what it means to lend a helping hand.

“Hello – how we doing?” he says to the volunteers at Roanoke’s Community Solutions Center.

Banks is shopping for groceries. But here, he doesn’t have to spend a dime.

“Lemme grab one of these,” he said, pulling a bundle of sprouts from the refrigerated section.

This is the Healthy Choice Food Pantry.

“[I] think what I’ve just learned is that everyone kind of needs the same think,” said Kevin Wood, the Healthy Pantry Coordinator.

He leads a team of volunteers who open the pantry up to the community twice a week. Unlike the traditional pantry format where guests are given a box of predetermined food – visitors here get a choice in what they take home.

Fresh produce, meat and dairy products are always available.

“It doesn’t matter if people are in other kinds of government benefits,” Wood said. “Like, everyone has different sort of needs, and we want to be flexible and be able to handle everyone.”

Banks said he’s not currently working and was there to see if he could get a little helping hand. Total Action for Progress in Roanoke referred him to both the Community Solutions Center’s pantry and it’s network of resources to help his find a new job.

“It’s a good thing for the neighborhood, that if you need that helping hand – which everybody does every once in a while – to come down and do this,” he said.

The Health Choice pantry opened in November, just in time to support the 20 percent more people needing assistance after the SNAP emergency benefits ended in February.

“And we’re seeing between January and March of this year about a 10% to 15% increase in neighbors that are coming in to utilize our services here,” said Allison McGee, Feeding Southwest Virginia’s Chief Strategy Officer.

She says as the network sees an increase in need, they’re working to provide foods with a decrease in sodium, sugar and fat.

“If you talk to neighbors, the neighbors will tell you that they want healthier foods,” McGee said.

Since opening, the healthy food pantry has served more than 1,300 people. On an average open day, they’ll support more than 27 households.

“We also see a lot less waste because when neighbors are selecting what they want, then they’re getting to take the items home with them that they’re choosing,” McGee explained, “versus if you’re handed a box, and you can’t [eat] or don’t want some of those items, sometimes we would see those outside or discarded.”

Feeding southwest Virginia is working statewide to support more pantries with this model.

“So really shifting our focus of what determines health and providing funding and deepening our emphasis in those areas can truly have a great impact on on the populations health overall,” said Meaghan Butler, Health Equity Director for the Federation of Virginia Food Banks.

She said the pandemic highlighted known gaps in the healthcare system and the benefits of a healthy lifestyle.

Virginia’s seven food banks came together for an overhaul in the health equity approach.

“In practice, it looks like receiving referrals from health care partners, so that people are connected to food resources earlier when they need them,” she explained. “It also looks like food banks intentionally sourcing and distributing healthier foods, actually using tools to rank the nutritional quality of foods to make sure that they have a good variety of healthy food options. It also looks like supporting our network of over 1000 pantries with tools and resources so that they can better support the health of our neighbors who are facing hunger.”

To make the program successful, McGee says Feeding Southwest Virginia could use more greenery on the shelves and in the bank.

“Well, we can always use more money,” she said laughing.

Donations continue to be a big need and volunteers are essential.

“And it’s, you know, it’s like actually building kind of a relationship there,” Wood explained. “It’s not just, you know, like, handing a box out a window kind of thing, and it’s not transactional. So I think that’s like, kind of the thing is just how much this space can be a source of community, and not just like a, you know, a program.”

The federation is hoping to take the model in Roanoke and expand it across the Commonwealth over the next three years, giving neighbors across Virginia more agency in how they feed their families.

“And that’s one of the greatest benefits to this pantry is it gives our neighbors the dignity to come in and have a choice and choose what they want for their family,” said McGee.

Banks says as he looks for his next job, he appreciates the helping hand.

“It was good, it was good,” he said, walking to his car with two full grocery bags. “You can get what you need quickly, and they help you out with the vitamins. I’ll be back.”

To utilize the healthy choice pantry, you can go to the Community Solutions Center at 2328 Melrose Ave NW.

It’s open Tuesdays and Thursdays from 10 a.m. to noon.

There are currently no existing qualifications.

Guests are able to fill up two grocery bags to take home.