With less than a week to go before Thanksgiving, it’s easy to take a big dinner with family and friends around the dining room table for granted. But for many in Williamsburg struggling to make ends meet, feeding their families during the holiday season isn’t a given.
These families make up Williamsburg’s food insecure population, which the U.S Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service defines as those with uncertain access to adequate food due to household-level economic and social conditions. These families cover the spectrum from the area’s unsheltered homeless population, to those staying in area motels and the working poor.
Several area nonprofits and food banks work to make sure needy families have access to basic essentials, such as canned goods, year-round. For Thanksgiving, many will supply those families with turkeys and all the fixings.
“Everybody assumes that we’re a well-to-do community, and we are, but food insecurity happens at all levels,” said Stephanie Slocum with the Greater Williamsburg Outreach Mission. “People would be surprised, but when (community members) realize that there’s an issue here and there’s an opportunity to serve or to give, they step up, and I think that’s amazing.”
Many local nonprofit groups buy fresh and canned foods from the Virginia Peninsula Foodbank in Hampton. The regional food bank supplies nonprofit agencies across Hampton, Newport News, Williamsburg, Gloucester, York, Matthews, Surry and James City County.
Robyn Robertson, its chief development officer, said Williamsburg and Hampton have the highest number of food insecure residents across the food bank’s coverage area.
She said there are more than 8,100 people in Williamsburg living with food insecurity. According to a study by Chicago-based nonprofit Feeding America, 15.7 percent of the city’s total population lacks easy access to food.
A growing number of children in Williamsburg are food insecure as well, Robertson said, with many relying on their school’s free or reduced-price lunch programs as their only steady meal. She said 14.6 percent of the city’s children are food insecure.
“It’s a pretty sobering number, because for anyone that has a ‘get up and help yourself’ mentality — kids can’t help themselves,” Robertson said. “Food is really the first school supply that kids need, and a lot of them go to school hungry.”
Services around the area to feed the hungry range from weekly lunches to regular food distributions and a shelter that gives the homeless a warm place to stay during the day, along with breakfast and lunch.
Before she moved to Williamsburg, Slocum volunteered at her local soup kitchen in Maine. She said she’s always been drawn to feeding the less fortunate. Last year, Slocum started the Greater Williamsburg Community Kitchen, a weekly program that provides lunch and dessert to those in need.
The community kitchen program at the Williamsburg United Methodist Church on Jamestown Road is part of the Greater Williamsburg Outreach Mission, a coalition of 22 area faith-based groups that helps the homeless and those at risk of becoming homeless.
“Food is my thing, I always know that there’s a need out there,” she said. “Whoever comes is served, that’s the mindset here. If we have 25 people, that’s OK, and if we have 45 or 50 people, that’s OK, too.”
Giving elderly, at-risk residents a chance to socialize and make new friends has become an equally important aspect of the weekly community kitchen program, Slocum said.
“It’s had a double purpose. I didn’t think a lot about the socialization, but it’s been great for them to come out of their homes and meet new people,” she said. “Last week, you would’ve thought there was a big party going on here for the Thanksgiving meal.”
Joseph and Agnes Cascuna live in Newport News, but said they’re regulars at the community kitchen.
“This is very important. This is something that we look forward to as retired people every Friday,” Joseph Cascuna said.
Rosemary Vaticano, another regular community kitchen attendee, said the weekly meal has helped her become more active and make new friends.
“As a senior, it gets us out and helps us socialize,” she said. “Money-wise, we don’t get to do as much as we would like to, so this helps us get out and meet other people.”
Shannon Woloszynowski is the executive director of House of Mercy, a local nonprofit that offers a range of services, including food assistance, job search and budget counseling, child care and others.
The agency operates out of a space on Harrison Avenue donated by St. Bede Catholic Church, and Woloszynowski said she and a team of volunteers do all they can to help the local homeless population find work and stable housing.
“We’re trying to pick people along that continuum from homelessness to housed, and all along the way, there are all kinds of things, like diapers and food and hygiene items, transportation assistance, medical co-pays — the things that make families become unstable financially,” she said. “We’re trying to help bridge the gap and provide a framework within which families can become stable again.”
The center operates a number of food distribution programs, including a twice-monthly Mobile Food Bank, an emergency food pantry stocked with non-perishable goods and The Harbor, a day-shelter for the homeless that provides a warm place to spend the day and hot meals for breakfast and lunch.
The Harbor opened in 2015 after the area was hit with a major blizzard, Woloszynowski said, with an average of 50 people regularly visiting the shelter each month. She said The Harbor had 338 visits in October, and serves between 700 and 800 meals each month.
Volunteers with the Mobile Food Pantry program distribute food every first Friday of the month at the House of Mercy headquarters, and again the following Monday at Stone House Presbyterian Church. Woloszynowski said the program feeds as many as 950 people each month.
At next week’s food distribution, House of Mercy will give away grocery bags filled with turkey, chicken, green beans, mashed potatoes and other Thanksgiving essentials to about 350 families, she said.
“The people that are using the Mobile Food Pantry are the food insecure, those are your working poor, the people who are on food stamps or disability, they have houses,” Woloszynowski said. “In order to even qualify to go into The Harbor, they have to be homeless. It’s interesting to see that there is such a huge need just for food, but in different ways.”
Food and and housing-insecure individuals in the community can also rely on FISH, a volunteer-run nonprofit organization that supplies fresh and canned food and other essentials.
At-risk individuals are referred to FISH by local agencies, including The Salvation Army and United Way of the Virginia Peninsula. Once there, they can receive food from its food pantry, along with clean clothes and housewares.
Last year, FISH gave out more than 165,000 meals to those in need, volunteer Billie Johnston said.
Every third Thursday, the local food bank gives out bags of food at the Life Church in James City County. This month’s food distribution was one of the most popular of the year, volunteer coordinator Jill Holroyd said, with about 30 volunteers giving away 88 turkeys, along with chicken cutlets and canned and boxed goods.
Susan Riley, a local retiree and volunteer with FISH, said she has helped with the monthly food distribution program regularly the past five years. She said the thought of seeing children go hungry is what inspired her to dedicate her time to the food bank.
“It’s great that they bring this to the community,” said Vashon Stewart, who attended the Thanksgiving food distribution. “We have bills and other things to worry about, so this is a blessing.”
Want to help?
- House of Mercy: 757-229-3700, williamsburghouseofmercy.org.
- Greater Williamsburg Outreach Center: 757-345-2960
- Williamsburg United Methodist Church (Community Kitchen): bit.ly/2AW7onE
- FISH: 757-220-9379, williamsburgfish.weebly.com
- United Way of the Virginia Peninsula: 757-229-2222, uwvp.org
- Virginia Peninsula Foodbank: 757-596-7188, hrfoodbank.org
Arriaza can be reached at 757-790-9313 or on Twitter @rodrigoarriaza0.