Across America, 48.8 million live in households that face hunger on a regular basis – 13 million of those people are children. Food insecurity can have a significant impact on the health and general well-being of the families affected by it – especially children, as limited access to nutritional food can stunt growth and critical brain development. Community organizations everywhere are taking action to find solutions to this public health crisis – Volunteer Alexandria, a Points of Light affiliate, is one of these organizations.
A 2014 report conducted by the Alexandria Childhood Obesity Action Network revealed that of the more than 139,000 residents of Alexandria, Virginia, 8.6 percent live below the poverty line. Of those residents, more than 13 percent are below the age of 18. To combat this, the Hunger Free Alexandria Coalition was formed and Volunteer Alexandria, an active member, is putting volunteers at the center of the solution.
“We believe, first of all, that we are better together,” said Marion Brunken, executive director of Volunteer Alexandria. ”We like to make connections that make sense to the community and to the group or individual seeking to get involved. In regards to the hunger issue, we support the fight against hunger by connecting people.”
The organization, positioning itself as the conduit for impassioned volunteers to connect with opportunities to address pressing causes in the Alexandria community, is doing this in a variety of ways.
Any organization, congregation, or community group can submit hunger-based projects to be posted on the Volunteer Alexandria website, where volunteers can click on the Hunger in Alexandria tab to find current opportunities. Opportunities include delivering meals and groceries to homebound people, gleaning left over products from local farmers markets, and handing out groceries at several locations throughout Alexandria. The organization has also launched a new effort that helps connect local companies that have extra food with the community in need.
When Marion heard from a community member that many students playing sports at T.C. Williams High School go home to barren cupboards, she saw an opportunity. Companies in the area could donate food and money to help make sandwiches, which the coaches would distribute to their players after practice.
Several companies have joined the cause, including a local Whole Foods that is donating food and gift cards, and Port City Brewery, which is helping to coordinate food drives at local grocery stories. And for one company, this project has been an inspiration to do even more.
For Megan Hurst, owner of The Great Harvest Bread Company, this project was an ideal opportunity to help her community. The company’s nationwide motto is “give generously to others,” and Megan’s Alexandria franchise lives up to these words by contributing 10 loafs of good quality bread per week to the Volunteer Alexandria program – enough to make about 70 to 80 sandwiches.
“It’s not an enormous expense for me to make some extra loaves of bread,” said Megan. “And if that’s a way that we can serve our community, serve kids, then that’s great.”
Megan hopes to use this program to engage more community members in volunteer service. She has reached out to church youth groups to recruit volunteers, using Volunteer Alexandria’s model of “make a sandwich for yourself, make a sandwich for a friend” approach. This fills two needs: helping feed hungry children who are not involved in the sports teams, and supporting Megan’s desire to serve more with her current resources.
There are “plenty of schools and kids in need locally, so we would like to be able to at least give them good bread,” said Megan. “I can’t do always do the rest of it, but [I can] give them good bread.”
Currently, more than 60 students are fed each day by this program and, through additional community support, Volunteer Alexandria will hopefully be able to serve more students soon.
Marion hopes to engage more volunteers by using a cause-first model, spreading news of social impact opportunities in addition to one-time volunteer projects. Through this model, she hopes to mobilize more youth volunteers, including other students at the high school, in making sandwiches to support their classmates.
By putting people at the center of the solution, Volunteer Alexandria is empowering citizens to take charge of the issues plaguing their communities. The result is a more resilient community, more willing and able to address the needs of their neighbors.