Richmond group utilizes grocery pickup in mission to end food insecurity

Volunteer Laney Sullivan, left, helps Maria Montoni go through a crate of food brought to Monroe Park by Food Not Bombs. Photo by Kaitlyn Fulmore

Ebonique Little, Staff Writer

For years, a group of Richmond residents crammed inside a small house on Hanover Street every week, cooking nutritious meals for the city’s homeless and low-income population.

“It’s so hard to cook for 50 people in a tiny little Fan kitchen,” Richmond resident Laney Sullivan said. “I would wash the dishes in the alleyway with a hose.”

Richmond Food Not Bombs is a collective of over 400 individuals working to end food insecurity, or the lack of access to affordable and nutritious food, through gathered resources and the help of local businesses.

Volunteer and VCU alumnus Arthur Kay converted a warehouse on Wickham Street into Createspace, a meeting space for small businesses and artists, in 2016. After suggesting the group use Createspace’s kitchen to cook, he said they “haven’t missed a beat.”

Volunteers lead activities such as cooking, distributing groceries and starting community gardens without a central leader or hierarchy.

“It’s a great community,” Sullivan said. “It’s a lot of activists, a lot of people who care about the earth and care about each other.”

Richmond Food Not Bombs is a collective of over 400 individuals seeking to end food insecurity, or the lack of access to affordable and nutritious food in Richmond. Photo by Kaitlyn Fulmore

In 1980, political activists from Boston and Cambridge, Massachusetts, called for greater investment in impoverished communities rather than weapons of war. A 1980 protest of New Hampshire’s Seabrook Nuclear Power Plant fueled the formation of the original Food Not Bombs initiative. 

About 25 years ago, the organization made its way to Richmond — a city widely affected by food insecurity.

The USDA reports food deserts, or urban areas without stores providing affordable or quality food, impacted about 60,000 Richmond residents in 2015. At 21.9%, Richmond had the highest rate of food insecurity of any county in Virginia in 2018, according to Be Healthy RVA

For this reason, Sullivan has worked with Richmond Food Not Bombs for the past 15 years.

“I have always loved cooking food and serving people food, and especially people who need it,” Sullivan said. “And one of the really big issues of our society is that we have so much waste.”

Grocery store Whole Foods in Richmond’s West End donates damaged or nearly expired goods to the organization. Seasonal Roots, an online farmer’s market, donates food as well.

Before the pandemic, Richmond Food Not Bombs used these donations to prepare hot meals for those in need at Monroe Park every Sunday. Due to health concerns, they now bring an assortment of groceries and allow people to select the items they want. 

The Robert E. Lee monument — a hub for many social justice demonstrations in Richmond — has become a prime location for outreach.

On Oct. 17, the group served sandwiches at the monument for the 27th birthday celebration of Marcus-David Peters, a VCU alumnus that was killed in 2018 by a Richmond police officer while experiencing a mental health crisis. 

The organization fed over 50 people at the event, and Peters’ sister, Princess Blanding, said the volunteers’ help was “an amazing show of love.”

“They didn’t just come and show up — everyone had an opportunity to just build relationships and get to know each other, and be there on common ground,” Blanding said.

In adjustment to the winter months, the group organizes grocery pickups for the community with the help of local businesses. Photo by Kaitlyn Fulmore

Peters’ birthday celebration marked the second time the group provided food for an event held in his memory. A few weeks before the celebration, Blanding said they helped host a fish fry to bring the community together at the monument, and she was moved by their generosity. 

“They didn’t ask for anything,” Blanding said. “You know, they definitely believed in what we were doing and supported wholeheartedly.”

The group has furthered its outreach through a partnership with Blessing Warriors, a volunteer organization that supports Richmond’s homeless population. In the past, they provided hot beverages to those waiting in line at the Annie Giles Center, Richmond’s former cold weather shelter.

“So [we] just kind of came out and tried to support those folks that are usually really caught in a hard place,” Kay said, “and kind of listen to some of their stories and just, you know, be their support.”

The city has not finalized where they will house the homeless population this year, and in March, Richmond shut down a tent encampment in Shockoe Valley called Cathy’s Camp.

Kay said volunteers will face more challenges serving the homeless community across Richmond, but she’s hopeful they can work through these obstacles.

“The cool thing about the people in the city is they do care about the homeless population,” Kay said. “I think our leaders need to step up.”

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