Helping Hands at the Blue Ridge Area Food Bank

It might surprise some people in Charlottesville to learn to that over 1 in 10 people in the Blue Ridge region cannot take their next meal for granted. Founded in 1981, the Blue Ridge Area Food Bank (BRAFB) is the largest organization alleviating hunger in Western and Central Virginia. BRAFB is an emergency food assistance agency that serves more than 114,000 people each month through a network of 234 food pantries, soup kitchens, schools, churches and nonprofit groups. Last year, BRAFB distributed 18 million meals across the Blue Ridge to the most vulnerable in our community: children, the elderly, struggling families, the working poor, people with disabilities and the homeless.

This semester, Madison House sends 9 volunteers every week to the BRAFB’s Charlottesville distribution center as part of Hoos Assisting with Life Obstacles (HALO). HALO is a Madison House program that seeks to address the issues of hunger, homelessness, unemployment and other life obstacles in Charlottesville through seven different partnerships with local organizations like BRAFB. At the Food Bank, Madison House volunteers help to sort salvaged food, serve customers in the food relief room, and build emergency food boxes. They also are needed to make Person-in-Need Boxes, staff the Drop In Food Assistance Center, aid with Food Stamp Applications, plan food drives and solicit donations.

Volunteering through Madison House helps build a bridge between the University community and the wider Charlottesville community. Sara Surface, a member of the Class of 2016 at the University of Virginia studying Global Development Studies & Women, Gender, and Sexuality, is the Madison House program director for BRAFB. Sara says, “I began volunteering at the Food Bank my first year because I wanted to become more involved with service in the Charlottesville community. I had heard a lot about the ‘UVA bubble’ and wanted to do my best to break it down. Even now, I continue to see the ways that UVA students are unexposed to the hardships facing the community around us. Being a program director has given me the opportunity to help others to break down this barrier in their lives, as well.”

Anna, a second year student at the University majoring in Economics and Media Studies, offers her perspective: “Volunteering with BRAFB is meaningful to me because it puts things in perspective to see that even small things can go a long way. One day a woman came in and mentioned that she needed food for her kids, so we threw a couple extra juice boxes and more kid friendly snacks into the bags. When the woman noticed this gesture she was so thankful. The people who come to the food bank don’t have many other options and it is humbling to see them have the courage to ask for help. Even if we are just sorting food or arranging bags, all of the work at the BRAFB is necessary in order to give as many people as possible the quality help they deserve.”

Marian, a fourth year Biology major at the University, says “I love meeting the variety of people who come through its doors, and getting a feel for the larger Charlottesville community outside of UVA. I think a lot of people who come in are nervous or ashamed when they arrive and I really enjoy making them feel welcome and comfortable, talking with them about their families, and making sure they don’t need to worry about their meals for the rest of the week. This kind of volunteering has been an excellent experience that I plan to continue elsewhere after graduation.”

Madison House simultaneously builds up the capacity of local organizations and provides meaningful service opportunities for University of Virginia students. Joe, the branch manager at the Charlottesville distribution center for BRAFB, says “I particularly like the “can do” spirit Madison House volunteers bring to the Food Bank; they are up for any task, and once accomplishing those tasks, they are eager for more. Keeping in mind that volunteers contribute 90% of the work that is require to run the BRAFB, Madison House volunteers are vital in helping us help those in need in our community.  Madison House volunteers help individuals directly through our PIN program (People In Need), and they sort and salvage food that goes directly to individuals and families in need throughout our entire service area.”