Make A Difference

How The Food Coalition Came To Be

March 20, 2023 | by uwhr1957


UWHR Director of Community Impact

When Heather Denman, Executive Director of The Arc of Harrisonburg & Rockingham, leaves you a message, you call her back.

When Heather says some folks were talking about you in another meeting, your ears tingle.

When Heather asks if you’ll convene a group of organizations to help them communicate and collaborate better, you say yes.

After some compulsory phone tag, I got Heather on the line. She laid out the issue for me. Food can be sourced from a number of organizations in our local area. Some of those organizations specialize in food distribution and some specialize in something else and food is an add-on to their services offered. Some organizations talk to each other and some don’t. The ask was to pull food folks together around the table to increase communication and decrease good food going to waste.

Some organizations spring to mind that just “do food.” Blue Ridge Area Food Bank. Hope Distributed. Elkton Area United Services’ food pantry. Blessed Sacrament’s food pantry and the vast network of food pantries that spring out of other churches, faith communities, community centers and nonprofit organizations all around the City and the County. Somehow, locals just come to know how to source food when needed. Clients served plus word of mouth equals common knowledge.

There’s a second list of organizations whose primary mission is something else – not food – but they work with local people and recognize how many of their clients and service users struggle to make ends meet. It’s hard to do the work that direct service nonprofits do in our community without noticing the interrelatedness of all of the other challenges facing working households living paycheck-to-paycheck in our area.

Food insecurity is a real issue for our local area. Virginia 2-1-1 says every call it receives results in referrals to approximately five separate agencies. Food consistently ranks in the top five service requests to 2-1-1 for the Harrisonburg-Rockingham area.

Heather listed off the organizations that were part of the conversation that made my ears tingle. Harrisonburg Education Foundation’s Backpack Program, Salvation Army’s Mobile Food Pantry, the Gus Bus’ Food Bag program, and The Arc’s Martin Luther King, Jr Day food distribution event. These organizations and many more are potential and real sources of food for individuals and families in the City of Harrisonburg and Rockingham County. These organizations are the reason people – including many families with children – have food on their table some nights.

Heather told me about some of the amazing work that was already being done in our community around food distribution efforts. Some of it I was aware of and some of it was news to me.

In addition to your non-perishable food pantry staples of rice, beans, pasta and canned foods, there are a number of organizations that distribute fresh food, including fruits and vegetables. Through mobile distribution efforts, many organizations deliver directly to neighborhoods identified as most in need in our local area.

At a glance, it sounds like there is an abundance of food and a plethora of individuals and organizations helping it get to where it needs to go. Heather said the issue was, these organizations didn’t have any … well, organization. They didn’t talk to each other. They didn’t coordinate with each other who goes where when and what to take to whom.

Some orgs had fresh food that would go bad before they could get it where it needed to go. Some orgs operated mobile units that would show up to distribute food the day after another organization had just been there. For some families on the receiving end of food deliveries that might not be a problem. But for many families, that meant they had more fresh food than they could eat before it went bad. That’s a drain on organizational resources, volunteer and staff time, and simply a waste of good food.

These orgs wanted to talk to each other. These orgs wanted to make sure the fresh food they had to offer made it where it needed to go before it went bad. These organizations needed a convener. They needed a connector. They needed someone to pull them together to help facilitate a conversation and set up lines of communication to make their jobs and volunteer roles easier and ultimately the lives of members of the community they serve better.

I knew for any conversation about food in our local area, the Blue Ridge Area Food Bank needed to be at the table. I fired off an email to Robin Swecker, the food bank’s Partner Engagement Manager for the Shenandoah Valley area and set a time to talk. Robin was glad to hear that a conversation was starting between local food-minded orgs and was happy to sit at the table. The Food Bank is in regular communication with food pantries that distribute items through their programs, but it’s tough to get around to all the non-profit organizations, churches and faith communities, foundations and even schools that have added on “food” as a new or more recent offering in addition to their primary mission. And there are many.

Between Heather, Robin and myself, we brainstormed a short list of who’s who in food distribution in the City of Harrisonburg and Rockingham County. We picked a day and time and sent out an invitation and a Zoom link to get together. With that, the food coalition was formed.

The Harrisonburg-Rockingham Food Coalition is made up of organizations collecting, growing, sharing, storing, delivering, and distributing food to Harrisonburg City and Rockingham County residents.

During our first meeting, we spent time getting to know each other. We laid out some of the challenges organizations were facing around food collection, storage and distribution. We brainstormed names of individuals, organizations and faith communities who offered some sort of support around food and invited them to the next conversation.

Our numbers doubled from the first to the second meeting and kept on growing from there. The contact list has grown from a handful of four or five organizations to over 40!

Immediately following our first meeting, I created a listserv for any Food Coalition member organization to send messages to when they’re not sure exactly who to contact with a given question or situation. To date, the listserv has been used for invitations to table at a resource fair, recruit extra volunteers for food distribution efforts, find a new home for a donated stainless steel kitchen prep table, and put to good use leftover food from various events around our area.

The week of Thanksgiving, over the course of about two hours, members used the listserv to find a destination and arrange for same-day transport of 150 frozen turkeys. The birds were leftover from an event and made their way from a community food bank in northern Virginia to be distributed to local families in our area.

When Sentara Community Health learned about the H-R Food Coalition, Katie Robinson and Laura Kerfoot attended a meeting and shortly after, they applied for and were selected as a recipient of a Healthy Communities Action Teams Grant for Childhood Obesity Prevention from Virginia Foundation for Healthy Youth. Among other things, the three-year grant will fund a part-time position that will carry on the work of the Food Coalition and move it forward. It will also help increase the availability of fresh produce at food pantries and provide funding for transporting food from local growers right here in the Shenandoah Valley to organizations that distribute food to those who need it.

Contact Jo Benjamin at

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