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UVA Faculty, Alumni Leading Effort to Combat Food Insecurity During Pandemic

By Caroline Newman

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, approximately one in six people in the Charlottesville/Albemarle, Virginia region faced food insecurity, unable to consistently access and afford healthy food.

Local leaders say the pandemic, which has led to a sharp increase in unemployment claims across the commonwealth and the country, is exacerbating existing problems, especially where systemic issues already existed.

Related: Pledge My Check campaign asks financially comfortable Americans to donate their stimulus checks to help those in need

“Nonprofits and grassroots groups in our network have seen an increase in demand for services while they have also had to pivot to helping people shelter in place, often relying on volunteers and facing supply shortages,” Brooke Ray said. “Many of our community members were already struggling and are now facing even more acute concerns and, with new unemployment issues, others are emerging in need of support.”

An array of community organizations and leaders are working as hard as they can to help – many of them from Sullivan Foundation partner school the University of Virginia (UVA).

Ray, for example, is a member of the planning team for Cultivate Charlottesville’s Food Justice Network, a collective of more than 35 community organizations that have been working for racial equity, health and food security in Charlottesville. In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, the network is coordinating resources and partners to help ensure people who need food and resources most can continue to access them.

Ray is also the operations manager at the Global Policy Center in UVA’s Frank Batten School for Leadership and Public Policy, which, along with University organizations like the UVA Equity Center, is providing logistical and financial support to the Food Justice Network and other community groups, as well as elevating their message to university leaders.

Rosa Key, a member of the Cultivate Charlottesville advocate team, hands out pre-packaged produce in the Westhaven community, part of a weekly food distribution. (Photo courtesy Cultivate Charlottesville)

Together, those organizations are meeting critical needs. The Loaves & Fishes food pantry, for example, offers much-needed groceries to families and individuals. City Schoolyard Garden, which partners with Charlottesville City Schools to teach gardening and nutrition skills, is now coordinating meal donations for students who rely on school lunches for regular meals. The PB&J Fund is providing more than 300 bagged meals each Friday to families, in partnership with Charlottesville City Schools. Local Food Hub, a nonprofit that partners with local farmers, is working to get fresh, locally grown produce into more neighborhoods, supporting farmers and residents at the same time.

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“There is a lot of great work going on right now, with a lot of different organizations pitching in,” Food Justice Network Program Director Shantell Bingham said. “My job is to check in with those organizations, and coordinate efforts and connect people so that we have the consistent impact we want to see, especially in the communities that need it most.”

Bingham, who earned both her undergraduate and Master of Public Health degree at UVA, has been working on food security issues in Charlottesville since she was an undergraduate, when she started a “Growing for Change” project partnering with public housing residents to build and plant gardens. That organization is now part of the Food Justice Network.

Right now, Bingham and other community leaders are particularly focused on making sure that pandemic-related relief efforts are equitable, reaching communities across Charlottesville and particularly those who are most vulnerable to the pandemic or underrepresented in other areas.

“Food insecurity was a persistent issue in Charlottesville before the pandemic, and the inequities we see in our food system are also very present in education, housing and economic wealth gaps, often founded in race or socioeconomic status,” Bingham said. “These are not new issues in Charlottesville and, as always, it is important to think about who controls resources, how they are distributed, and how nonprofits and leaders can share those resources in a way that fits what the community actually needs.”

The biggest part of that, Bingham said, is getting community members involved at every stage – something the Food Justice Network has prioritized for years.

“We have to set up programs that are driven by community members, and to get people who are living these issues day in and day out at the table, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic,” Bingham said. “We want to talk with people about what best meets their needs, and how we can set up food delivery, for example, to meet those needs.”

Volunteers and partners from the Food Justice Network, City Schoolyard Garden, the Salvation Army, Pearl Island and the Batten School prepared spring break meals for Charlottesville students. (Photo: Aleen Carey)

As part of that work, Bingham serves as a community director and local steering committee member at the UVA Equity Center, where she works with other local leaders, Equity Center staff and UVA faculty members to help identify concerns and coordinate responses.

“Our local partners are well-organized and dedicated, but COVID-19 has greatly increased the load they have to tackle,” Equity Center executive director Ben Allen said. “At the Equity Center, we can help to elevate their concerns, talk to University leaders and groups around UVA and in the community and identify areas that need support.”

The center employees a grant writer who is helping local organizations apply for pandemic-related grants and other funding. Staff members are also helping track food routes across the community, identifying which organizations are providing food and where it is going.

Related: Duke University: U.S. needs to rethink its patchwork of community water systems

“That helps us see which areas of the community are not getting the food they need,” Allen said. “We want to keep that going and grow that working, during and after the pandemic, to keep giving families the support they need.”

It’s a mission that the Food Justice Network and the organizations it supports have been focused on for a long time – and one they will continue to pursue long after this pandemic. That is why, Ray said, supporting those organizations and mutual aid efforts is so important, and why the Global Policy Center is dedicating her time, plus that of two research assistants, to focus on this response.

“These organizations have been doing this work for a long time, and they are going to be here long after this response is over,” Ray said. “We want to invest in them, make sure they remain viable and able to support the community, and pursue much needed systems change in addition to critical emergency response work.”

This article was edited slightly from the original version appearing on the UVA website.

Born to Heal

Working in a hospice isn’t for the faint-hearted, but for Bradley Firchow, the 2019 Algernon Sydney Sullivan Award winner at Oglethorpe University, it was an opportunity not to ruminate on the vagaries of fate, but to celebrate the remarkable lives of the patients under his care.

Firchow, who graduated this spring with a degree in biopsychology, volunteered at the Crossroads Hospice in Atlanta for four years. The Russellville, Kentucky, native spent hours at a time with chronically ill and elderly people nearing the ends of their earthly tenure. And he found beauty and significance in every moment.

“This work has been particularly meaningful to me as I have been able to spend quality time with folks who may not have family nearby or, in some case, no family at all,” Firchow said. “It has allowed me to share my loves of visual art, music and literature with my patients, which can be very therapeutic for them as they grapple with mortality.”

It was also a chance to collect and record the stories they have to tell for future generations. “My favorite was working on the Life Journal Project, which documents significant events, places, stories and people in a person’s life and preserves them for their family in the form of a hardbound book,” Firchow said. “Spending hours with patients learning their life stories can be transformative for them as they reflect on a lifetime. I value my time with my patients as their stories often offer bits of wisdom for me that I can incorporate into my life and my approach to living.”

A History of Service
After his freshman year, Firchow and a group of fellow students spent nine days in the mountains of Nicaragua, serving 1,000-plus patients in rural communities in a clinical praxis for Global Brigades, a nonprofit focused on sustainable health and economic development.

“As volunteers, we filled prescriptions under the supervision of a pharmacist, assisted the medical professionals, took patient histories, did triage, provided childcare during doctor’s appointments, and worked with community organizers to strengthen public health infrastructure in the communities we served,” Firchow said. “We also constructed eco-latrines, concrete flooring in houses and a water pipeline in La Corneta so people have access to indoor plumbing, can prevent exposure to soil parasites in their homes, and have access to potable water.”

Firchow led two Alternative Spring Break excursions—one to St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge in Florida to perform invasive species maintenance, environmental cleanup and trail-blazing for the Florida National Scenic Trail system, and one to Charlotte, N.C., to work with LGBTQ+ youth organizations after the state passed HB2, a law many see as discriminatory against gay and transgender individuals.

And because he apparently still didn’t have enough to do, Firchow volunteered at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta (CHOA) through the Phi Delta Epsilon International Medical Fraternity. “My fraternity facilitates art projects with the kids,” Firchow said. “We also annually host an Anatomy Fashion Show as a benefit for CHOA. We find models on campus who wear spandex and have an organ system painted on their bodies by art students. Then they walk down a runway, modeling their organ system, as a member of my fraternity reads a narrative about the system and, sometimes, a child at CHOA who has a disease relevant to that system.”

A Passion for Rural Health
Looking at his record of service, Firchow clearly has a career in medicine in mind.
“My passion is rural health,” he said. Growing up in the Appalachian region of Kentucky and West Virginia “exposed me to the difficulties of accessing quality healthcare in the U.S. Geographic and socioeconomic factors determine what level of healthcare a person will receive and, despite the incredible advances in modern medicine and public health, many people have poor access to care—and even when they have access, the care available in their community is limited.”

After graduation, Firchow went to work for Atlanta’s Childspring International, which provides life-saving surgeries for children from developing communities. He plans to attend medical school in Fall 2021 and practice medicine in a rural community. “After medical school, I’m interested in CDC’s Epidemic Intelligence Service program so I can gain boots-on-the-ground sensibilities and approach medicine from a public health perspective early on in my career,” he said. “I think it’s imperative that physicians incorporate public health philosophy into their practice of medicine, and I want to set the tone for my career in medicine early on. Later in life, I would be interested in running for political office or perhaps working for a public health agency or NGO.”

Firchow said he was floored to receive the Sullivan Award. “At Oglethorpe, it’s one of the highest awards a student can receive, so when our provost announced my name, my jaw must have been somewhere beneath my feet. I was honored to be recognized for doing work that I try not to make a big fuss about—and that, honestly, I didn’t even know other people knew that I do. Receiving the award reinforces my passion to tackle issues I care about that affect people I care about.”

Born to Heal: Bradley Firchow Earns the Sullivan Award at Oglethorpe University

Working in a hospice isn’t for the faint-hearted, but for Bradley Firchow, the 2019 Algernon Sydney Sullivan Award winner at Oglethorpe University (pictured above, center),  it’s an opportunity to celebrate the remarkable lives of the patients under his care.

Firchow, a senior majoring in biopsychology, has volunteered at the Crossroads Hospice in Atlanta for the past four years. A native of Russellville, Kentucky, currently living in Woodstock, Georgia, the 22-year-old spends hours at a time with chronically ill and elderly people nearing the ends of their earthly tenure. And he finds beauty and significance in every moment.

“This work has been particularly meaningful to me as I have been able to spend quality time with folks who may not have family nearby or, in some case, no family at all,” Firchow says. “This opportunity has allowed me to share my loves of visual art, music and literature with my patients, which can be very therapeutic for them as they grapple with mortality.”

It’s also a chance to collect and permanently record the stories they have to tell for future generations. “My favorite part of my work with Crossroads is working on the Life Journal Project, which documents significant events, places, stories and people in a person’s life and preserves them for their family in the form of a hardbound book,” Firchow says. “Spending hours with patients learning their life stories can be transformative for them as they reflect on a lifetime. I value my time with my patients as their stories often offer bits of wisdom for me that I can incorporate into my life and my approach to living.”

There are easier ways to give back to the community, but a quick review of Firchow’s history of service will tell you he doesn’t go looking for easy things to do. After his freshman year, for example, he and a group of fellow students spent nine days in the mountains of Nicaragua, serving more than 1,000 patients in rural communities like Sacacli and La Corneta in a clinical praxis for Global Brigades, a student-led nonprofit focused on sustainable health and economic development.

“As volunteers, we filled prescriptions under the supervision of a pharmacist, assisted the medical professionals, took patient histories, did triage, provided childcare during doctor’s appointments, and worked with community organizers to strengthen public health infrastructure in the communities we served.”

They got their hands dirty, too, he notes. “We also constructed eco-latrines, concrete flooring in houses and a water pipeline in La Corneta so people have access to indoor plumbing, can prevent exposure to soil parasites in their homes, and have access to potable water.”

Firchow has also served as Oglethorpe’s Blood Drive Coordinator and volunteers for events produced by the university’s Center for Civic Engagement. He has led two Alternative Spring Break excursions—one to St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge in Florida to perform invasive species maintenance, environmental cleanup and trail-blazing for the Florida National Scenic Trail system, and one to Charlotte, N.C. to work with LGBTQ+ youth organizations after the state passed HB2, a controversial law many see as discriminatory against gay and transgender individuals.

And because he apparently still doesn’t have enough to do, Firchow volunteers at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta (CHOA) through the Phi Delta Epsilon International Medical Fraternity. “My fraternity facilitates art projects with the kids,” Firchow says. “We also annually host an Anatomy Fashion Show as a benefit for CHOA. We find models on campus who are willing to wear spandex and have an organ system painted on their bodies by art students. Then they walk down a runway, modeling their organ system, as a member of my fraternity reads a narrative about the system and, sometimes, a child at CHOA who has a disease relevant to that system.”

Looking at his track record of service, Firchow clearly has a career in medicine in mind. “My passion is rural health,” he says. Growing up in Kentucky and West Virginia “exposed me to the difficulties of accessing quality healthcare in the U.S. Geographic and socioeconomic factors determine what level of healthcare a person will receive and, despite the incredible advances in modern medicine and public health, many people have poor access to care—and even when they have access, the care available in their community is limited.”

Firchow has also served an internship with the Child Development Studies Team at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), focusing on mental health issues such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and Tourette Syndrome. “Being part of a group of people … who care about the health of our nation’s rural residents has been extremely rewarding and has only deepened my passion for serving the types of communities I grew up in,” Firchow notes.

After graduation this May, Firchow will work for Atlanta-headquartered Childspring International, which provides life-saving surgeries for children from developing communities, and then attend medical school in Fall 2021. He plans to practice medicine in a rural community. “After medical school, I’m interested in CDC’s Epidemic Intelligence Service program so I can gain boots-on-the-ground sensibilities and approach medicine from a public health perspective early on in my career,” he says. “I think it’s imperative that physicians incorporate public health philosophy into their practice of medicine, and I want to set the tone for my career in medicine early on. Later in life, I would be interested in running for political office or perhaps working for a public health agency or NGO.”

For all his hard work and service to both his community and the world at large, Firchow said he was floored to learn he had received the Sullivan Award. “At Oglethorpe, the Sullivan Award is one of the highest awards a student can receive, so when our provost announced my name, my jaw must have been somewhere beneath my feet. I was honored to be recognized for doing work that I try not to make a big fuss about—and that, honestly, I didn’t even know other people knew that I do. Receiving the award reinforces my passion to tackle issues I care about that affect people I care about.”