Food for Thought completed its first year in August 2019, distributing 105,650 meals. Over the next ten months, even with the disruption caused by the pandemic, 225,820 meals were provided, a 213% increase. That figure doesn't include over 3000 pounds of food donated to the city's two high school pantries and additional groceries for the pantry at the city's Department of Social Services.
Students were served at a total of 24 school locations, six community centers, and four colleges. Packing and distribution were made possible by 2882 volunteer hours. A local health professional provided 2600 hygiene kits to be included in the bags, and a grant from Centra Foundation provided milk. A grant from Kroger was used to purchase a van to expedite deliveries, but when we shifted to a new delivery strategy to apartment complexes and community centers, Kroger provided additional funds to purchase a second van. The Blue Ridge Area Food Bank provided extra food support prior to Thanksgiving and Christmas of 2020 so we could have more of an impact at each of the city's secondary schools' curbside pickup sites. This is continuing on the fourth Friday of each month through May 2021, as we distribute their 20-pound boxes of fresh produce and non-perishables at the curbside pickup sites for about 250 families.
Food for Families distributed 900,000 pounds of food in the past year with the help of 15,868 volunteer hours. Through a grant from the Blue Ridge Area Food Bank, supermarket-style shelving replaced the old racks for a more pleasing "shopping experience." The pantry program never stopped during the pandemic, although procedures were changed to bring food to neighbors waiting outside. In addition to multiple pickup runs per week to Walmart locations, a van travels to the Timberlake Kroger store three times a week to collect produce, bakery, dairy, and frozen meat products. To illustrate the size of the pantry operation, in the week before Thanksgiving, 2020, over 35,000 pounds of food were given away. During the week before Christmas, it was more than 30,000 pounds, and after conducting an inventory just after Christmas, 59,000 pounds of food was still on hand. To illustrate the size of the need, during the first six months of the pandemic, we served an average of 50 new families per month that had never before asked for help. During the most recent six months, we served an average of 71 new families per month.
Because of a generous grant from the Al Stroobants Foundation, a new gas stove and fire suppression hood were installed in the kitchen of the Park View Cafe. With help from churches and other local groups, the free Wednesday night meals resumed in the summer of 2020 after a four-month COVID-related hiatus. Even though the meals are now packaged for take-out only, the number of participants has returned to pre-pandemic levels.
While food is the most basic need, clothing is a close second, especially in winter. A few racks had always been off to one side of the community room so neighbors could browse while waiting to get food. In December 2019, the increase in both donations and demand meant relocating the clothing to a space in the Plaza, filling up a 1200 square-foot room inside the space recently acquired for the Life Skills Institute. In the three months that followed, until the pandemic hit, 20,000 pounds (TEN TONS) of clothing were given away. Although the program was curtailed for four months due to the pandemic, by year's end roughly 40,000 pounds of clothing had been donated. It was given the name, The Clothing Connection because it's another way to connect with our neighbors. It is now our sixth program, occupying a new location on the south side of the Plaza's lower level that is over four times the previous square footage.
The Community Resource Center opened in early 2019 and before the year's end, the traffic count during one month showed 275 people had interacted with the CRC. In 2020, efforts were coordinated to secure utility and rental assistance for 174 families. Collaborative partnerships have been established with several strategic partners in setting up mentoring and tutoring programs, help with emergency food, clothing, and housing. Activity shifted into overdrive when the economic impact of the coronavirus began to be felt. Many neighbors didn't feel safe in coming to Food for Families, but they wanted to still have groceries and make their own meals. An active partnership with Meals on Wheels of Greater Lynchburg has made it possible for some of these neighbors to continue receiving our food boxes. Collaborative partnerships were also forged in 2020 with Miriam's House, the YWCA of Central Virginia, the Bedford County Sheriff's Department, Heritage Baptist Church, and others.
2019 was the inaugural year for the Life Skills Institute, from which 58 adults completed the courses offered. More than one individual found meaningful employment because they now know how to use a computer. Others who were once threatened with eviction have remained in their homes because now they know how to keep them clean. Eleven thousand square feet of warehouse and classroom space was made available to accommodate the rapid expansion of our programs.
Classes have actually been offered at Park View for several years, thanks to the city and First National Bank, both of whom not only fund the classes but help teach them. First National's "Go Beyond Education" Program teaches both financial and basic job skills. Bank President and CEO Aubrey Hall say, "This helps individuals enhance their quality of life and move out of poverty. Our support is viewed as an investment in our community’s future.” Keith Cook, Workforce Operator at Virginia Career Works, also commented, “There is no other adult educational space available like Park View's.” Park View staff also actively serve on several of the nine “Bridges to Progress” task forces, working on specific aspects of the city's anti-poverty program.
The city has funded and taught the "Getting Ahead" classes, and recently added "Home Essentials," which answers a critical need for tenants to learn basic housekeeping and self-care skills to avoid eviction. Former mayor Treney Tweedy went with our staffers knocking on doors at a large public housing project because she considered it important to encourage the residents she met to sign up for the class.
She then issued this statement, speaking from first-hand experience: "Thank you to all of the community partners and businesses that support the Life Skills classes being taught through Park View Community Mission and their partners. The faith, non-profit, higher education, and business organizations in Lynchburg are helping residents grow in their life journey, pushing beyond their perceived limitations, to set higher expectations and goals for individuals and their families. Citizens are demonstrating that they are motivated and willing to seek out new learning opportunities. Working together we are making a difference!"
We are grateful to the hundreds of individuals, churches, businesses, government agencies, and other non-profits for partnering with us to indeed make a difference.