Stamping Out Hunger with Donna Tighe & Michele Benson

Written by Alison Johnson

Think you’re good at stretching a dollar? You’ve likely got nothing on the Virginia Peninsula Foodbank: it can provide four complete meals for that buck. So if you save a dollar a day to donate throughout September—Hunger Action Month nationwide—you could cover 120 meals for local families. 

Worried you’d be giving your money to a bunch of lazy people? In fact, many who rely on the Foodbank are hard-working parents living from paycheck to paycheck or momentarily thrown off by a hardship such as an illness or even a car breaking down. On average, Foodbank clients come for help just nine times a year—not every week. 

“A lot of people would be surprised by what the face of hunger looks like nowadays,” says Donna Tighe, food/fund drive manager for the Hampton-based organization. “It’s anybody: children, seniors and people who need help getting through tough times.”

For Hunger Action Month, the Foodbank has published a calendar with daily ideas for people who want to help (visit hrfoodbank.org). Orange is the month’s designated color, so wearing orange clothes or decorating businesses and other spaces with orange balloons and lights is a good move any day.  

Michele Benson

Michele Benson

Michele Benson, chief development officer for the Foodbank, would love to see as much orange in September as she sees pink during October’s Breast Cancer Awareness Month or red during February’s American Heart Month. “Our goal is to raise as much awareness about hunger as people have about other worthy causes,” Benson says. “People just don’t realize the need here. It’s tremendous.” 

The Peninsula bank serves a population with one of the state’s largest rates of food insecurity—defined as not having enough food to lead a normal healthy lifestyle. The collective rate for Hampton, Newport News, Poquoson, Williamsburg and Gloucester, James City, Mathews, York and Surry counties is 13.8 percent, compared to a state average of 11.9 percent.

Each year, more than 152,000 people—a quarter of them children—rely on the Foodbank and its partner agencies for help. The organization also fills backpacks with weekend food for schoolchildren, runs 28 community cafes with hot meals for kids and offers a free Culinary Training Program for adults that includes job skills such as time management, resume writing and interview techniques.  

Poor nutrition isn’t just about growling bellies, Benson notes. Hunger raises the risk of all illnesses, worsens common health conditions, such as high blood pressure and diabetes, and disrupts growth and brain development in children. Nationally, 74 percent of food bank clients report that they were facing a choice between paying for food or medicine. 

A few ideas for this month: 

  • Include a food or fund drive as part of any event, including birthday parties, weddings or yard sales.
  • Use social media to follow the Foodbank on Twitter (@hrfoodbank), “like” the organization’s page on Facebook and link to its website from your page after posting some statistics on hunger. 
  • Plan to be a regular donor; make a monthly pledge or pack more lunches and contribute the money that would have gone to restaurants.
  • Schedule a tour of the Foodbank by calling 757-596-7188. Bring your kids and friends and educate them, too. 
  • Remember the BOGO principle (Buy One, Give One) when picking up items at the grocery store. 

The Foodbank always needs non-perishables, such as canned meats, peanut butter, pasta, rice and granola bars, as well as the fresh fruits and vegetables it is working harder to get into the community.  

As for what families can do in their own kitchens, Tighe and Benson say their jobs have taught them the importance of not wasting food. Watching portion sizes and planning at least several days’ worth of meals before grocery shopping helps keep food out of the trash and, therefore, available for stores to donate to needy families instead. 

Finally, be aware that the Foodbank receives about 60 percent of its donations during two months alone—November and December, for the holidays—though the demand is high year-round. “Hunger is not a seasonal problem,” Tighe says. “In fact, summer is one of our biggest times of need.” 

In other words, orange is always a good color to wear.   

About the author

Alison Johnson

Alison Johnson is a freelance writer who specializes in feature stories on health, nutrition and fitness, as well as biographical profiles. A former full-time newspaper reporter, she has worked for two Virginia dailies and the Associated Press in Richmond. She lives in Yorktown, Va., with her husband and two sons.