Buena Vista food pantry offers a 'Bridge to Hope'
In the first of a two-part series on food insecurity among children in the region, WMRA's Randi B. Hagi visits with a group of people in Buena Vista helping to keep their neighbors fed.
Outside an orange brick church building on Magnolia Avenue in Buena Vista, cars fill the small parking lot and line up along a side street. Individuals and families spill into the air conditioned sanctuary, waiting for their turn to grab a shopping cart and wheel through the stacks of fresh potatoes and carrots, canned beans, juice bottles, and snack cakes at the Bridge to Hope Food Pantry.
[sounds of shopping carts, people talking]
VOLUNTEER 1: … and get whatever cake you want, ma'am!
Last Wednesday marked their first evening open in this location. Director Cressia Sam Roberts showed me around.
[music playing, people talking]
CRESSIA SAM ROBERTS: Miss Shirley's over there. They're going to come through the double doors. They come in here and they sit. We didn't have heat or air in the other building we were in. So she'll give them a number, and they'll just hang out, socialize. Some of them don't really see a lot of other people all week long.
PASTOR: … Go ahead and see Barney there and he can direct you where to go.
WOMAN: Thank you.
A battalion of warm, friendly volunteers included young folks from the nearby Church of Latter-day Saints, those fulfilling community service requirements, and other local residents. They helped patrons maneuver their overflowing carts and unload the groceries.
LINDA RHODENIZER: We do have people coming out of Glasgow, Natural Bridge.
Linda Rhodenizer is the church's mission pastor and the vice president of the pantry.
RHODENIZER: We've had people come from Goshen. I think even over in the Covington area. We've had some from down, like Stuarts Draft.
Gladys Armstrong was there shopping for her and her husband.
GLADYS ARMSTRONG: It's a good place to come, like when you're running low on canned goods, and they always help you out.
Out back under the produce tent, volunteer Burton Martin told me he started helping out about three months ago.
BURTON MARTIN: The good Lord gave me this gift to be here … And it's just my pleasure to work with them, and I couldn't have met no better people.
He pointed to a box of bruised apples set to the side.
MARTIN: I got that over yonder against the wall … I cut them things, and I got three or four elderly people. Me and my wife will sit and slice them and put them in the deep freezer for about a week, and then she'll get them out and carry them to them. Run a little hot water over the plastic bag, you got your apples, put them in a frying pan and do what you want to do!
Courtney Pooley, from Buena Vista, was there with one of her children.
COURTNEY POOLEY: He will be four in July, I have a six year old, and then we also have a seven year old … It really helps out the community a lot, so I really appreciate everything that they do for us.
What the kids love most is –
POOLEY: Anything that they can grab ahold to real quick and eat while they're walking through here. [laughs] Little cakes, snacks, desserts are their favorite.
I finally got a few minutes to speak with the director, Sam Roberts, in between her checking in clients, helping people with their carts, and coordinating donation pickups. She said the church board started envisioning a food pantry years ago, so they could participate in a USDA program that none of the other local pantries were taking advantage of.
ROBERTS: And nobody had picked up the mantle. I wasn't the least bit interested in it at the time. I had a lot of other things going on. My day job was, I was a nurse, a home health nurse … well in 2017, it crossed the board table again, about the USDA, and God pressed on me for about a week. He said, "you need to do this. You've been where these people are, and you need to do this. You need to do this."
They started out in a classroom in the old church building. That year, Roberts' husband bought her a box truck for Valentine's Day to pick up food. As the pantry grew, they moved into a suite in an office building, then a big warehouse, and finally, to the new church building.
ROBERTS: So far, tonight, it seems to have worked well! [laughs]
She said nowadays they get 85 to 90% of their food from the Blue Ridge Area Food Bank.
ROBERTS: They are amazing. Amazing. We couldn't do this without them. Really, we couldn't.
Roberts also heaped praise on her volunteers.
ROBERTS: From the people who come and stock, to the people who help unload the truck, to the people who smile in the aisles and hand out numbers, there's absolutely no way that we could have ever done this without them being faithful, dedicated, and just absolutely, their heart is for this community.
The number of patrons varies from week to week based on how much stimulus money, food stamps, or other assistance people are receiving, but it's usually somewhere between 80 and 130 people.
ROBERTS: Some of them are on fixed incomes, and what they have is what they get. So you may have an elderly woman who lives alone, she may get $800 a month, and her food stamps may only be $15 a month. That person is going to come every week, and we want to encourage that.
She estimated that about 40% of those benefiting from the food are children. The adults include everyone from the elderly to young parents to those on disability.
ROBERTS: We don't care how much money you get on your paycheck. Your car might break down, you might need to pay $900 to a mechanic that week, you're struggling to figure out how you're going to feed your family and pay the house payment. We want to be that resource that allows people to not get so far behind that they're having to worry about their lights being turned off.
In our next installment, we'll talk with the Blue Ridge Area Food Bank's director, a pediatrician, and a WIC benefits coordinator about ensuring local kids get enough to eat. For WMRA News, I'm Randi B. Hagi.