Full Circle

Virginia Graham lives in a small apartment in what was once a historic chapel in the picturesque village of Elliston, Virginia.

She enjoys her bit of tranquility, but she has also faced a lot of challenges in her lifetime. She used to do office work – data entry and some sales. “I was always in the workforce,” she says. But then, she began experiencing painful medical issues. After seven long years, she was finally diagnosed with cervical arthritis and had to stop working.

Now, the single 62-year-old lives on her disability benefits and social security income. She also receives about $45 per month in SNAP benefits. Even with those resources, she says it’s hard to make ends meet. “I’m on a fixed income and my rent takes more than half of my check,” she says. Then there’s utilities, car insurance and other necessities. When she reaches the last week of the month, things get especially tight.

A neighbor told her about a local food pantry, operated by the Shawsville Lay Ministerial Association. In addition to distributing food boxes, the pantry is also home to one of the food bank’s Veggie Mobile stops, which enables the group to distribute fresh produce. “It’s such a blessing, the food pantry,” says Graham. “And then when Feeding America Southwest Virginia started providing fresh vegetables, oh that was just incredible!”

“Potatoes, onions, carrots, celery, apples, oranges – those were all things I had just stopped purchasing because they weren’t in my budget,” she says. “But now I’m pulling out my cookbooks that were packed away and it’s much healthier.”

Graham speaks excitedly about all the things she’s learned to cook since gaining access to fresh produce, and her eyes begin to fill with tears as she reflects on her visits to the pantry. “It can be a little embarrassing to go when you’ve worked all your life,” she says. “But everybody’s just so kind – that feeling of embarrassment and humiliation just goes away.”

She also notes another personal connection to food pantries – her father started one at General Electric for retired union employees in the 1970s. “I used to watch him filling out USDA paperwork as a teenager,” she says. “I’m very much aware of how much effort it takes, and how many people are involved – and now being a recipient of all that hard work and kindness and generosity – it’s come full circle.”

Asked what she’d like others to know about those using the services of local pantries, Graham says she hopes people understand how thankful clients are. “We’re not people who are looking for a free ride. We’re people who have lost jobs or become ill and can’t work, or grandparents who are raising grandchildren, or parents who work everyday. We’re so grateful for food.”