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Soup for Seniors: Serving the Community, Serving a Need

Volunteers packing canned goods at food drive

Those of us of a certain age likely remember the popular country song of the 1950s that Tennessee Ernie Ford once sang, "Sixteen Tons."  Memory of the song being sung by Ford’s booming baritone voice came to mind as volunteers in February unloaded non-perishable donations for the annual Soup for Seniors Drive in Roanoke.   

Now a long-standing tradition, the drive is held each year in February by the Local Office on Aging to address food insecurity faced by older adults throughout the Roanoke Valley.  The song came to mind again when some 2,900-plus red bags, donated by AARP Virginia to be used for the food distribution, were loaded into volunteers’ vehicles to be delivered to those in need.  The song became an earworm for the entire week of collection.

The Local Office on Aging in Roanoke is one of 25 area agencies on aging spread throughout the Commonwealth bringing resources and support to the areas and constituents they serve.  The LOA offers services of nearly every kind, but its food and nutritional services are among those filling a most critical need.  Perhaps most known for its daily Meals on Wheels program supported by scores of volunteers, it also has a senior food box program where 40-pound boxes of food are delivered monthly to low-income adults over age 60 designed to supplement their diets with nutritious USDA foods.

The annual Soup for Seniors Drive, which supplements the two larger programs, traces its beginnings back to a forerunner project that began in 2006 called the Make a Difference Day Project - originally part of the LOA’s Foster Grandparent and Senior Companion Programs.  The first year had very modest goals of serving people within those programs as well as Meals on Wheels recipients.  The initial project was so successful that enough soup and crackers were collected that the LOA was able to serve not only its planned clientele, but also older adults in neighboring communities.  In 2011 the LOA took over the project as an agency-wide event to service the entire Fifth Planning District.  It was then that the LOA joined forces with AARP Virginia.  It was decided to have the drive in February to serve the senior population during their most vulnerable part of the winter.

And so, the drive began in earnest.  Still, the initial goals were somewhat modest with totals in 2012 of 24,858 items collected. There had been discussion among the LOA staff, AARP Virginia staff and volunteers for the two groups about how to market the event.  Two of the AARP volunteers having retired from the Roanoke County School System decided to reach out to the school system’s leadership to ask if it would endorse giving schools the option to participate in this community-wide service project.  The RCPS superintendent at the time embraced the opportunity as have all her successors, including the current superintendent.

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Courtesy of Local Office on Aging

The first year Roanoke County Schools collected 2,262 items or 9 percent of the total collected.  The following year RCPS’s percentage increased to 23 percent and though it has fluctuated somewhat over time, increased to a high of 35 percent in 2019 of the nearly 47,000 items collected.  The balance of the donations has come from the many churches, businesses, and civic organizations as well as individual donors who have been vital participants in the project. 

Dan Casey, a local columnist for the Roanoke Times, has over the years helped promote the event with his column, at one time appropriately pointing out that Soup for Seniors is a project with zero overhead expenses incurred.  It is all made possible by volunteers and contributions. This year, and for the past several years, the Church of St. Peter and St. Paul has provided the use of its facility as the main collection and distribution site for no charge.  Sam’s Club has loaned carts to move the donations through the process of unloading, weighing, date checking, sorting, bagging, and loading for distribution.  The multiple branches of First Bank and Vistar Eye Centers have provided off-site collection points.  Black Dog Salvage of DIY Network fame provided for off-site collection and one of their large trucks to transport donations. Security Scales of Roanoke donated a scale for the week to weigh donations. The Roanoke County Sheriff’s Department collaborated with RCPS to transport schools’ donations to the collection/distribution site.

When the Covid-19 pandemic struck the nation in 2020, it also struck Soup for Seniors, not completely decimating collections but certainly causing the food drive to take a hit.  This year’s collection and distribution was intended to be a rebuilding year.  Although the goal was set higher, many were hoping for at least 32,000 pounds, hence Tennessee Ernie’s song coming to mind. “Loading 16 tons, and what do you get?” - Scores of volunteers jumping for joy at the generosity of donors to the cause.

Volunteers were asked why they participated in the drive.  While responses varied somewhat, there was a convincingly positive theme.

“It’s fun.”

“I feel like I’m making a contribution and needy seniors are getting food, so for me it’s a win-win.”

“It’s great to see some of the same volunteers year after year.”

“It is a project our Jefferson High School Class of ’64 Women enjoy doing together.”

And a seventeen-year-old said, “I like to feel useful, and it looks good on my resume.” An honest answer but also true. 

Another benefit: Volunteering enables social connection and social connections contribute to brain health.  Dr. Sanjay Gupta says in his new book "Keep Sharp - Build a Better Brain at Any Age," that social connections are “the secret sauce to a long, sharp life."

Planning for 2023 is already underway with an eye to increasing the goal next year to approach pre-pandemic levels. The LOA and AARP Virginia thank all who contributed time, energy, products, facilities and transport to this worthy and impactful project.

Falling short of our goal this year by only a few pounds, monetary donations provided funds to supplement donated tonnage with the purchase of items needed to fill 2,914 bags of food to distribute to those in need.  This year’s collection totaled nearly 22 tons. “Loading 22 tons and what do you get,” just doesn’t have the same ring as 16 tons, but organizers were thrilled with the results as were the nearly 3,000 recipients of those red AARP bags filled with nutritious non-perishables that will help see them through the winter.

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