Extravagant meals spent in the company of loved ones serve as a highlight of the holiday season for many in the community. But for others, dinner doesn’t make it to the table so easily.
“There are a lot of needs in this community,” said Stephanie Slocum. “I think there’s a lack of knowledge of those needs.”
Slocum has started a community kitchen program through Greater Williamsburg Outreach Mission, a coalition of 22 faith groups. The program hosts a lunch at Slocum’s church, Williamsburg United Methodist, every Friday. Anyone who is hungry is welcome, no questions asked.
“I’ve always had a passion to help those who are food insecure,” she said. “You can’t imagine what you get out of that. They’re always so appreciative.”
According to a study conducted by nonprofit organization Feeding America, 16.4 percent of Williamsburg’s population faces food insecurity — a lack of consistent access to food necessary for a healthy lifestyle. That number exceeds the 13.4 percent national average. Among the city’s children, the number rises to 17.5 percent, higher than any other locality the Virginia Peninsula Foodbank serves.
Slocum’s community kitchen receives perishable food donations from the Sentara Williamsburg-based Erase the Need Center and nonperishable ones from FISH, a volunteer-run nonprofit organization that helps get food, clothing and housewares into the hands of people who need them.
The kitchen has served hundreds of meals since it launched in March. The busiest day so far saw 43 people turn out; the November average sits at 35 guests served. More than 100 volunteers have signed up to help since its inception.
For Thanksgiving, the kitchen will prepare and distribute 375 meals throughout the community. On Friday, volunteers brought in trays of green beans, salads and other sides to complement the main turkey dish. But a hot meal is only part of the experience.
“It’s so much more,” Slocum said. “This is a place of conversation and socialization. We really enjoy seeing them.”
Guests make friends and sit with them during subsequent visits, laughing and sharing stories in good company. The volunteers join in the camaraderie as well.
Slocum said opportunities to help aren’t always obvious, but they’re worth seeking out.
“There are many different opportunities within this community,” she said.
An array of opportunities
Karin Wrot lost her job earlier this year, and at certain times since, finding her next meal has proved challenging. But she found hope through her parish, Life Church, which recently teamed with the United Way of Greater Williamsburg to help distribute food to those in need.
“I think it’s wonderful,” Wrot said. “They never turn anybody away.”
Wrot brought a chair out to the United Way’s food drive at the church Thursday afternoon. She sat with a group of others in similar situations and with unique stories of their own, enjoying the conversation while volunteers prepared to give out food.
“People get desperate,” she said, giving an example of someone stealing from a 7-Eleven out of desperation. Such food drives offer hope where there might otherwise be none. “It gives people fellowship.”
The United Way of Greater Williamsburg works with other agencies, such as the Erase the Need Center, to help cover costs and accrue volunteers for the food banks, held on the third Thursday each month. For November, the organization teamed up with Busch Gardens and Water Country USA. The Virginia Peninsula Foodbank provides the food.
Charvalla West, the organization’s community resource center manager, said the food bank serves nearly 100 households a month.
“I recognized how much grace I’ve had in my life, and it’s my mission in life to help others experience that same kind of grace,” West said.
A community issue
November’s United Way food drive focused on Thanksgiving, with the organization giving out turkeys to people who signed up in advance. Families got the full experience, as they were able to cook the turkeys themselves.
The organization also draws volunteers from FISH. Next year, FISH will become the local United Way’s lead agency for distribution.
“When people come in during this time, we make a special effort because we feel like it’s a special season,” said FISH President Gene Bruss. “The holidays are a special time for friends, and you want to make sure everyone can have a full stomach and enjoy the holidays like the rest of us can.”
In 2016, FISH served more than 150,000 meals to 10,000 recipients throughout the Williamsburg area. More than 200 volunteers contribute and help with extra efforts, such as the community kitchen at Williamsburg United Methodist.
The organization is constantly seeking new volunteers. It accepts nonperishable food donations and monetary contributions.
“You’re also impacting the local community, which I also think is important to a lot of people,” Bruss said.
On the College of William and Mary’s campus, a student organization is also working to help the larger Williamsburg community.
Each Tuesday and Friday throughout the school year, the student members of the Campus Kitchen program head to Williamsburg Presbyterian Church to cook food donated by the Williamsburg Farmers Market and Trader Joe’s to disperse throughout impoverished neighborhoods around the area, such as Grove in James City County. The organization’s Turkeypalooza initiative delivers fresh turkeys and hundreds of canned sides to these areas.
Thomeka Watkins, a junior studying economics at the college and co-coordinator of the Campus Kitchen, said many of the service industry and tourism-based jobs in the area don’t pay well enough to live, and other opportunities are hard to find.
Karen Joyner, CEO of the Virginia Peninsula Foodbank, echoed that sentiment. She added that many are reluctant to seek help, even in times of desperation.
“People are very proud and very likely to hide when they need help,” Joyner said.
All of these initiatives work to fight society’s stigma toward those in need of assistance, whose adversity ripples throughout the community.
“Food insecurity isn’t just an issue for people who are suffering from it,” Watkins said. “It’s an issue for the community as a whole.”
Want to help or donate?
Erase the Need Center: 903-1394, bit.ly/2iqQkP1
FISH: 220-9379, williamsburgfish.weebly.com
Grove Christian Outreach Center: 887-1100, groveoutreach.com
United Way of Greater Williamsburg: 229-2222, uwgw.org
Virginia Peninsula Foodbank: 596-7188, hrfoodbank.org
William and Mary Campus Kitchen: campuskitchenwm.org
Williamsburg United Methodist Church Community Kitchen: bit.ly/2AW7onE
Birkenmeyer can be reached by phone at 757-790-3029.