By Gil Klein
When Susan Wilson collects groceries outside the Daleville Kroger in Botetourt County during this month’s AARP food drive, she knows who will benefit.
Most people collecting food never see who gets it. But Wilson, who retired from General Electric in 1994, said she has friends and neighbors who desperately need this help.
“I know five or six people who go to our food pantry,” said Wilson, 68, of Fincastle. “They need that food to survive.
“Some of these people are living on less than $1,000 a month,” she added. “They worked hard. When they retired, that $1,000 was good money. But now they’re in their 80s and still have to survive on that.”
Last year, volunteers from Wilson’s church donated 101 hours of time to gather 2,187 pounds of food and $280 in cash donations. And it was a lot of fun, she said. They plan to be back out in force this year.
This month thousands of AARP volunteers are expected to turn out starting Sept. 11 for the 10-day annual food drive.
This year, the drive is longer than usual because AARP wants to include the Sept. 11 Day of Service as well as two weekends so church congregations can be involved, said Brian Jacks, who directs the Virginia campaign.
The goal, he said, is to collect 150,000 pounds of food.
More than 50 AARP chapters across Virginia are being asked to participate, he said. Many of them will take part in the annual Grocery Store Challenge, a friendly competition in which volunteers outside stores distribute flyers asking shoppers to buy needed products to donate on their way out.
In addition, Jacks said, Virginians can go to AARP’s Create the Good website ( createthegood.org) and type in their zip code to find out where they can donate food. During the drive, Virginians can also dial 211 to learn the closest food collection site.
“We would like all 1 million AARP members in Virginia to take part in some way,” Jacks said.
Even though the economy is stabilizing, the need for food donations is as great as ever, said Leslie Van Horn, executive director of the Federation of Virginia Food Banks.
Impact of recession
“We really felt in 2008 that it would take us to 2012 to see the lines shorten,” Van Horn said, after watching a line of people seeking assistance wrap around the block outside the food bank in Norfolk one recent Friday. “But the lines just continue.”
Many working people can’t make ends meet, she said, and people who lost jobs in the recession often don’t earn as much when they find new jobs.
In 2014, Virginia’s food banks distributed 142 million pounds of food to nearly 1.2 million people, she said. About 30 percent of those were children and 15 percent were 60 or older.
More than half had at least one working adult in the family, and 69 percent of those served had incomes below the federal poverty level.
The state’s food banks are more dependent than ever on the AARP food drive because grocery stores no longer have as much excess food to donate, Van Horn added. September is a crucial month for food banks because donations drop during the summer.
For Linda Leak, 76, who had retired from Bell Communications Research in New Jersey before moving to Boydton, the food drive offers an opportunity to bring her AARP chapter together with local sheriff’s deputies from TRIAD, a statewide crime prevention program for older Virginia residents.
In 2013, nearly 50 AARP volunteers gathered for a picnic at Centennial Park in South Hill, she said. They loaded about 2,000 pounds of food onto a Mecklenburg County Sheriff’s Office truck along with $525 in cash donations and drove it to local food banks.
“There’s a need for this food here,” Leak said. “When we delivered the food, the smiles on the people’s faces said everything.”
Gil Klein is a writer living in Arlington, VA.