Albemarle County in Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains is home to the estates of jazz rocker Dave Matthews, actress Sissy Spacek, author John Grisham and investment banker Ted Wechsler. Only Arlington County outside Washington, D.C., has more millionaires than Albemarle, ranked the 13th richest U.S. metropolitan area by Forbes Magazine.
But the county has another side. Twenty-one percent of the residents of the county seat, Charlottesville, have incomes less than half of the poverty level, which is about $22,050 a year for a family of four. The comparable figure for Virginia overall is 5 percent.
United Methodist Women members of local congregations have a number of outreach programs to impoverished communities in the area. Many involve food relief.
At Aldersgate United Methodist Church in Charlottesville, the food assistance program was spurred by the church’s homeless shelter. For one week each April, Aldersgate hosts a homeless shelter, which rotates its location among area churches. The local United Methodist Women cooks for the shelter.
“This led United Methodist Women to become aware of the problem of hunger in our community,” explained Deb Reynolds, a United Methodist Women member. “It is a part of Charlottesville that people don’t know about. Like the little girl who lives with her grandparents because both of her parents are in jail. Or the geologist who lost his job and ended up in the homeless shelter.”
Ms. Reynolds helped the church start a program in which schoolchildren receive backpacks filled with food every Friday to take home for the weekend.
They distribute the backpacks at Greer Elementary School, where 70 percent of the children receive free lunches and half of the children qualify for free school supplies. Children at the school come from 20 countries and speak 30 languages.
For the Morton family, the program has made the difference between squeaking through the weekend eating pasta and having nutritious meals.
“The backpack program has made a huge impact for us,” Sashi Morton said. “After I’ve paid the monthly bills, what is left goes to food. If there have been extra bills, we would just have to get by on bread and pasta. No meat. No veggies.”
Ms. Morton, 28, often works 15-hour days in her position as an administrative assistant at University of Virginia. A single mother with a 10-year-old son and an 11-year-old daughter, she is halfway through an undergraduate business administration program. Until recently, her unemployed sister, student brother and mother lived with them.
The packs they receive are stuffed with nutritious food sufficient for two breakfasts, lunches and dinners over the weekend. They contain protein, vegetables, fruit, juice, milk, breakfast items and snacks. An invitation to participate in the program is given to each of the 425 children in the school, and about 235 accept it.
The annual cost per child of $250 is paid by the Blue Ridge Area Food Bank. This is a great way to give back,” said Ms. Reynolds, a retired medical lab supervisor, mother of three and grandmother of seven.
The congregation’s participation in the backpack program is very strong. Of the 400 regular participants in church services, 80 volunteer with the backpack program.
In a more rural setting, Crozet United Methodist Church’s food pantry distributes groceries weekly from the church basement. The church is located in downtown Crozet, which has one gas station, a post office, a grocery store and a few restaurants. A farmers market sets up in its parking lot.
Crozet is a segmented town 20 miles from Charlottesville. Longtime residents are small-town folk, many living in houses more than 75 years old. Many are impoverished. But in recent years housing developments with “McMansions” have doubled the population from 2,585 in 2000 to 5,560 in 2010.
“On the surface, this area looks very prosperous, but you don’t have to look very far to find poverty,” said Judy Hoberg, president of Crozet United Methodist Women. “My husband was on the rescue squad until a few years ago. Often, they would arrive to houses that had dirt floors and no running water.”
And the need for food is increasing. In the past five years, there has been a 75 percent increase in the number of grocery boxes distributed. Crozet United Methodist Church’s food pantry is the largest in Crozet, but it is banding together with smaller churches in the area to serve the population more efficiently.
The church has 400 members with 250 regular attendees and 42 active United Methodist Women members. Twenty volunteers pack the more than 200 grocery boxes the church distributes through the pantry started by a United Methodist Women member more than 25 years ago.
Starting the pantry was the idea of Polly Sheets, 81, a United Methodist Women member. Initially, she wanted to open a soup kitchen, but that created issues with the church’s insurance carrier, so the plan changed to a food pantry.
“Back then, my husband and I would often see small groups of men sitting outside the drugstore,” Ms. Sheets said. “It was obvious they were not well fed. I just felt the need to do something. So, we got United Methodist Women involved.”
The food pantry’s clientele is constantly changing. For most, it’s a stopgap program: People come for a while, but they stop when they get a job. Many of the recipients are day laborers. For them, life is harder during the winter. Their expenses are higher, especially for heat, and they have less income because there is less work.
The initial distribution schedule was only on the third Saturday of each month. It was intended to give people food to last until the first of the month, when their food stamps arrive. Then it became twice a month. In July, it increased to weekly.
“You just don’t think about the conditions that people live in,” Ms. Sheets said. “Several recipients have asked for boxes that do not have anything cookable as they don’t have a stove.”
Over time, the congregation’s excitement with the food pantry led it to expand its volunteer roster to include any church member. United Methodist Women continues to play a leading role in the church’s primary social-service project.
Richard Lord is a photojournalist who lives in Ivy, Va., and a frequent contributor to response.