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September 08, 2010

Volunteer Farm Feeds the Hungry

Virginia farm supplies tons of fresh produce to area food banks

Hunger in the United States is nothing compared to hunger in some parts of the world.  Nevertheless, 10 million American households report that they do not always know where they will find their next meal according to "Hunger in America 2010."

The report by Feeding America, the largest domestic hunger-relief charity in the U.S., also says that each week, more than 5.5 million Americans turn to emergency food sources such as food pantries.  Most of what they find in these charitable dispensaries is bottled, canned or dry goods.

But at a farm in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, fresh food is being harvested to feed the hungry.  

Volunteer farm

It looks like a lot of other produce farms, with rows of pepper, tomato and cucumber plants.

But nothing harvested here goes to market. Retired government worker Bob Blair owns the 26 hectares of land, but leases it to the Volunteer Farm of Shenandoah for $1 a year. "I woke up one morning and there was the idea firmly implanted in my head with all of the details, including the name, Volunteer Farm," he says.

A manager and a volunteer coordinator are the farm's only paid staff. As its name suggests, the farm relies on volunteers to weed, plant and harvest. Blair says in the seven years the farm has operated, it has had over 10,000 volunteers. They have come from nearly every U.S. state and 26 foreign countries.

One a recent day, a group from Tinkling Springs Presbyterian Church drove more than 100 kilometers to collect potatoes from a field. The majority of the volunteers, more than 50, were children.

Lesson learned

Harriet Thompson, one of the church leaders, says that after a few hours working in the sun, "the children go to bed extra tired, but they know in a very physical and tangible way that they have made a difference."  She says the church has been volunteering at the farm for a few years. "There are many individuals within our community that would not have enough to sustain them or their family throughout the week if it wasn't for this farm."

Produce from the Volunteer Farm is distributed through large food banks - warehouses where representatives of smaller, community agencies, like soup kitchens and pantries, get food for their clients.

"We received last year, approximately 71,000 pounds of fresh produce from the Volunteer Farm," says Teresa Yates, Operations Director of the Blue Ridge Area Food Bank Network.

She says the fruits and vegetables are important for proper nutrition. "We have so many issues with obesity now. Fresh produce is the way to go, especially for our children. It's healthier, so much better for their bodies and we are able to provide so much with the Volunteer Farm."

Free and fresh

Yates says the food bank has seen an increase in demand for assistance over the past four years, from 65,000 clients a month seeking food for their families to nearly 100,000.  

Even in Middleburg, Virginia, an affluent community of about 600 people surrounded by manicured estates and prosperous farms, some people rely on the Seven Loaves food pantry to help feed their families.

"We have a number of elderly who may have worked on those farms or in labor-type jobs who are retired and trying to get by on a relatively low social security income," says George Lengauer, president of the ecumenical faith-based, volunteer organization.

The food Seven Loaves distributes comes from many sources, but most is in cans or boxes. Lengauer says the Volunteer Farm's contributions are special.  

"We do have supermarkets in the area who contribute to us and some of them give us the gleanings off their produce aisle, which is good and nice. But any time you can get farm fresh produce, it is a real treat."

So far this year, the Volunteer Farm has harvested 5,500 kilograms of vegetables and the food will keep coming until the middle of October.