The power to feed | Ruth Jones Nichols, Foodbank of Southeastern Virginia and the Eastern Shore

Dr. Ruth Jones Nichols, president and CEO of the Foodbank of Southeastern Virginia and the Eastern Shore, is passionate about eliminating the root causes of food insecurity because she grew up with it: “I’m thankful for my personal experiences because I can serve the community I grew up in better. … It’s important to be close to the work because, once, I was the work — and that drives me to do the very best for (those who need us.)”

A picture of Jones Nichols should be beside the word “proactive” in every dictionary. She anticipates and solves problems before they occur: “I literally approach every obstacle as an opportunity.” When the pandemic struck, Jones Nichols was prepared. “Leading change is especially challenging in environments used to incremental change — or slow change. But, with the pandemic — with hunger at the center of our work every day—change needs to be fast.” For instance, on March 13, she told her staff: “It is very likely that that government will shut down [many public buildings, including schools.] 3,400 kids will not have access to food over the weekend. We must pivot … to continue to serve as many people as we can as long and as safely as we can … It’s not impossible.” One week later, she and her team released its initial Covid-19 plan for the 4,745 square miles and 11 localities it covers.

Part of that plan involved new partners, like Senior Services of Southeastern Virginia, Mercy Chefs, and the YMCA of South Hampton Roads. The new partnerships worked extraordinarily well, and the Foodbank delivered 2,000 prepared meals each day from March through June of 2020. “These meals were primarily for seniors and children, two of the most vulnerable populations.”

Other changes included opening five new donation sites and four emergency food distribution sites in areas “food insecurity had already impacted and would further impact.” It instituted a client-choice model at various locations: Instead of being handed a bag of food, people could choose — in person or on line — food they needed. “People can experience dignity and self-worth when they seek assistance. They don’t need to feel ashamed. … No one should go hungry ever.” Additionally, some pick-up sites became “food hubs,” where people had access to nutritious food, health care, and opportunities to learn about government services (like SNAP) and higher-education.

After its initial Covid-19 effort, the Foodbank refreshed its strategic plan, focusing on closing “the meal gap by 2025 by providing 30 million meals each year. We have closed it by 50% every year.” The contacts Jones Nichols makes by serving on community boards, such as those of the YMCA, the Hampton Roads Workforce Council, the Mayor’s Committee for the St. Paul’s Area Transformation, and the Hampton Roads Chamber of Commerce, enable her to connect with people to help her realize this vision.

Jones Nichols wishes everyone would view society through an “equity lens … if we’re going to address inequality … [and] increase awareness about hunger and food insecurity — to see where food insecurity is the highest … to help the most underprivileged.”

One of her biggest frustrations is that many people do not understand the difference between hunger, which everyone experiences after missing a meal, and food insecurity, or “not having consistent access to healthy food.”

She says: “Feeding people alone will not eliminate hunger. We can feed people today, but that doesn’t mean they will food secure tomorrow. [We need to] understand [and address] the root causes of food insecurity.” For instance, if someone is in college or in the job market, that person might choose to go without food to buy textbooks or pay rent: “They have to make trade-offs every day that privileged people don’t have to worry about.”

Jones Nichols cites studies projecting that 42 million people will experience food insecurity, 13 million of those being children, in 2021 because of Covid-19 issues. African Americans, women, and people in rural areas are most likely to be impacted: 21% of African Americans experience food insecurity, compared with 11% of Caucasians. “Race, ethnicity, geography and gender impact the likelihood of individuals experiencing food insecurity.”

Individuals and retail partners represent 80% of the Foodbank’s food donations, and food drives produce more than 1 million pounds of food each year. While food donations are vital, financial donations are even better.

“For every $10, we can get $60 worth of grocery products. … We can stretch a dollar more than we can stretch a can of green beans.” Because the Foodbank has more than 6,000 volunteers, who combine to log more than 40,000 volunteer hours yearly, giving time is essential. Finally, “giving voice to the work we do every day and to promoting the federal nutritional programs” completes the puzzle.

“My position allows me to help. I don’t take that for granted. At the Foodbank, our work extends beyond ending hunger today — to nourishing hope for tomorrow.” All of us able to do good should be so aware and so committed.