Fredericksburg Free Lance-Star: Editorial: COVID has shown we can beat hunger

FREDERICKSBURG FREE LANCE-STAR, EDITORIAL BOARD

The pandemic has changed most everything about life in our area, not all of it for ill.

Beginning in March 2020, when COVID arrived on our shores, federal, state, and local governments, along with a vast array of nonprofit organizations and citizens of good will, coordinated to tackle hunger in a constructive and effective manner.

It’s a model for how government, the private sector, and citizens should be working together.

At the federal level, the United States Department of Agriculture in 2020 did away with means-testing students for the National School Lunch Program and granted a series of waivers that allowed schools to change the way food was distributed.

With this flexibility, public schools nationwide quickly shifted from delivering meals in-school, to becoming distributors of food for school children and their families.

In Stafford and Spotsylvania and Caroline counties, as well as others, it has become common to see lines of cars on select days of the week picking up milk, snacks, breakfast items, and food for other meals.

At the state level, outgoing Gov. Ralph Northam tapped pandemic-fueled concerns about food scarcity and launched the Virginia Roadmap to End Hunger in October 2021. It set 10 high, but achievable, goals for addressing hunger in the state.

Key to the roadmap’s success is the establishment of a Hunger Action Coalition in each Virginia region.

Under Northam, then-VDSA commissioner Duke Storen created the infrastructure to carry out the roadmap.

Gov. Glenn Youngkin and new VDSA commissioner Dr. Daniel Avula appear to be continuing this good work, as they should. Hunger is one issue that rightly stands above the political fray.

And at the local level, efforts to address food scarcity abound.

The Fredericksburg Regional Food Bank continues to do extraordinary work to meet the needs of the area’s citizens.

Dan Maher, food bank president and chief executive officer, tells The Free Lance–Star that prior to the pandemic, between 20,000 and 25,000 people in our region faced food security issues. Since the pandemic, that number has climbed to about 32,000.

The food bank has met this growing need by partnering with groups like faith communities to distribute food. It also partners with innovative programs like Treasure House, founded by Lisa Dolan and Michelle Patton Swisher, both social workers for Spotsylvania County Schools. Leveraging private donations and the food bank, it helps students and their families secure basic necessities.

Though hunger issues grew during the pandemic, it is reasonable to assume that the local, state, and federal efforts have had a lot to do with that number not climbing higher.

With life returning to something resembling normalcy, however, there is concern that those numbers are going to soar.

For openers, Congress has not, to date, renewed the funding for universal student meals. This means the distribution of free food administered by schools could end when the program ends June 30.

Rep. Abigail Spanberger of Virginia’s 7th District and Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick of Pennsylvania’s 1st District are co-sponsoring HR 6613, the Keeping School Meals Flexible Act, in an effort to keep this program going.

Even if that becomes law, however, other issues are going to keep pressure on families who struggle with food security. Checks that people were receiving as part of the extended child tax credit have dried up, as has most other aid.

And then there’s inflation, which has the cost of food at levels not seen in recent memory.

“We’re going to see those who felt some security from government checks, they’re going to get hammered not only by losing those checks but the higher costs of food,” says Maher. “This gives me pause to worry about the potential for longer lines” at the food bank.

The Fredericksburg Regional Food Bank has, along with other food banks across the nation, seen a significant surge of donor support over the past two years. With COVID waning, will that support continue?

In times of national crises, like the pandemic, Americans have a long history of rallying to those most in need. And hunger, says Maher, is one of those issues that most everyone has some level of empathy for.

However, “empathy at some point,” he continues, “must translate into public advocacy.”

We applaud Spanberger and Fitzpatrick for pushing to extend a USDA program that has more than proven its worth. We also applaud Youngkin for continuing Virginia’s roadmap to addressing hunger in the commonwealth. And we continue to celebrate the amazing work of the Fredericksburg Regional Food Bank, and organizations like Treasure House.

There is no reason anyone in our region should ever go hungry. Ensuring this happens is simply a matter of will.

The pandemic has shown us what government, alongside the nonprofit sector and the good will of everyday citizens, can do right.

Now is not the time to back away.

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