David Tran

Lawmakers amend Virginia Human Rights Act; kill workplace harassment bills

By David Tran, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. -- The Virginia General Assembly passed several bills this session expanding employment protections for people with disabilities and domestic workers but killed a pair of workplace harassment bills.

Five bills were introduced during the 2021 session to amend the Virginia Human Rights Act. Three passed the General Assembly. The Virginia Human Rights Act prohibits employment discrimination on the basis of race, religion, age, gender, sexual orientation, among other groups. Virginia last year became the first Southern state to pass sweeping anti-discrimination protections for the LGBTQ community through the Virginia Values Act.

House Bill 1848 extends employment discrimination protection to people with disabilities. The legislation unanimously passed both chambers and Gov. Ralph Northam recently signed the bill into law.

“I am very happy that the bill has widespread support,” stated chief patron Del. Mark D. Sickles, D-Fairfax, in a press release. “I can’t thank our advocates enough, and am grateful for the leadership in Attorney General Mark Herring’s office and for the guidance of the disAbility Law Center.”

Workers with disabilities

 Employers with five or more employees must make reasonable accommodations to workers with disabilities unless the employer can demonstrate such accommodations would place an “undue hardship” on the employer. Current federal law prohibits discrimination under the basis of disability for employers with 15 or more employees.

Del. Kathy Tran, D-Springfield, said during a House subcommittee hearing that in 2019 the unemployment rate for people with disabilities was twice as high as those without disabilities.

“People who have disabilities, who are able to and want to work, I think we should try to help them be part of the workforce,” Tran said.

A person who claims they were denied reasonable accommodation must file a complaint with the Office of Civil Rights. They would need to exhaust all administrative processes before pursuing a lawsuit.

Colleen Miller, executive director of the disAbility Law Center of Virginia, an advocacy organization, said the bill’s passage is “an important development for Virginians with disabilities who are in the workforce and wish to be fully employed.”

Domestic workers’ rights

A trio of bills centered on domestic workers’ rights, dubbed the Virginia Domestic Workers’ Bill of Rights, were introduced in both chambers this year. Last year, Virginia lawmakers passed a bill guaranteeing minimum wage to domestic workers. 

The bills’ patrons highlighted the impact of excluding domestic workers from employment laws, which they said are bound to the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow-era laws. Domestic workers include occupations such as “cooks, waiters, butlers, maids, valets and chauffeurs,” according to the bills. 

A majority of domestic workers are women of color and are three times as likely to live in poverty than other workers, according to the Economic Policy Institute, an independent economic research organization. 

Introduced by Sen. Jennifer L. McClellan, D-Richmond, Senate Bill 1310 extends employment nondiscrimination to employers with one or more domestic workers. It also expands employment protections to domestic workers, including laws regarding the payment of wages. 

“This is a huge step forward to provide stronger workers rights and a safer workplace for 60,000 Virginia domestic workers,” McClellan stated in a press release. “As the daughter, granddaughter, and great granddaughter of domestic workers, I know how essential domestic workers are to the economy and how poorly mistreated they’ve been for generations.” 

McClellan’s bill passed the General Assembly and now heads to the governor’s desk. The House companion bill, HB 1864, from Del. Cia Price, D-Newport News, also passed the General Assembly and awaits the governor’s signature.

Lawmakers also passed HB 2032, patroned by Del. Wendy W. Gooditis, D-Clarke. The measure does not amend the state’s Human Rights Act, but it ensures domestic workers are not excluded from employee protection laws. Workers will be able to file complaints regarding workplace safety. Virginia is the 10th state to pass such legislation. Portions of the bill that would include domestic workers under the Virginia Workers’ Compensation Act were removed.

Failed sexual harassment bills

The two bills amending the Human Rights Act that lawmakers could not advance would have strengthened current workplace sexual harassment laws.

Del. Vivian E. Watts, D-Fairfax, introduced HB 2155 to expand and clarify the definition of workplace harassment and sexual harassment. The bill passed the House but died in the Senate Judiciary Committee by a vote of 6-7. It was the delegate’s second attempt to pass such protections.

The Senate companion bill, SB 1360, reported out of the Senate Judiciary committee, but was sent back and never picked back up. Patroned by McClellan, the legislation died over concerns on the bill’s absence of employers’ liabilities, especially for small businesses. 

Watts said her bill aimed to provide clearer definition of workplace and sexual harassment. The language in the bill comes from federal court harassment case decisions over a span of two decades, Watts said.

Watts’ measure clarifies that employers would be liable for the supervisors’ actions. She said committee members who voted against the bill failed to understand the guidance of employers’ liability is not currently spelled out in Virginia’s law. Employers may be alleviated from any liability if they can prove they “exercised reasonable care” to prevent and correct harassment or if employees “unreasonably” fail to take actions on “preventable or corrective opportunities” to avoid further harassment, according to the bill.

Both bills defined workplace harassment as an unwelcome conduct based on race, religion, natural origin, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity and more. Sexual harassment includes a sexual advance, a request for sexual favors, or any conduct of a sexual nature in the workplace.

Watts said her bill will remove a glass ceiling and “power differential” that contributes to workplace and sexual harassment.

“If you don't go along (with the workplace harassment), then you will be denied professional opportunities, work opportunities moving forward,” Watts said. “It is a power struggle, and that power struggle makes it a point of leverage.”

Prior to her bill’s death, Watts said there also was confusion over the Senate bill’s language, referring to the committee's dispute on McClellan’s bill.

“There wasn’t a real focus as there needed to be,” Watts said.

McClellan’s bill was met with debate from other lawmakers in the Senate Judiciary committee, such as Sen. Chap Petersen, D-Fairfax, over the bill’s language. McClellan asked Petersen if he wanted to add an amendment. He said he didn’t. 

“I just want this bill to go away,” Petersen said. 

Petersen questioned if his wife asking men “to move the furniture for her” constituted sexual harassment. Multiple lawmakers said the bill’s language was too broad. 

McClellan, a gubernatorial candidate, is committed to advancing anti-workplace harassment laws, either as a legislator or governor, according to her spokesperson. 

Watts said she will reintroduce her bill next year. She said she will make sure there is an understanding that the bill contains a “sound, legal approach” to employers’ liability. 

“I believe that the majority of the members do believe that this is something that needs to be spelled out to protect employees, and particularly minorities and women,” Watts said.

Capital News Service is a program of Virginia Commonwealth University's Robertson School of Media and Culture. Students in the program provide state government coverage for a variety of media outlets in Virginia.

Virginia Restaurants Grapple with Plastic Foam Container Ban

By David Tran, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. -- From vermicelli bowls to crispy chicken, Pho Luca’s, a Vietnamese-owned Richmond restaurant, uses plastic foam containers to package takeout meals. That may soon change after the General Assembly recently passed a bill banning such packaging.

After negotiations on a Senate amendment, the House agreed in a 57-39 vote last week on an amendment to House Bill 1902, which bans nonprofits, local governments and schools from using polystyrene takeout containers. The Senate passed the amended bill in a 24-15 vote.

“We’re just leveling the playing field,” said Del. Betsy B. Carr, D-Richmond, about the amendment. “So not only do restaurants, but nonprofits and schools will be subject to this ban in 2025.”

Food chains with 20 or more locations cannot package and dispense food in polystyrene containers as of July 2023. Remaining food vendors have until July 2025. Food vendors in violation of the ban can receive up to $50 in civil penalty each day of violation. 

Carr said she is glad Virginia is taking the lead to curb plastic pollution and that the measure will “make our environment cleaner and safer for all of our citizens (by) not having Styrofoam in the ditches and in the water and in the food that we consume.”

This is the second year the bill was sent to a conference committee. Last year’s negotiation resulted in a reenactment clause stipulating the bill couldn’t be enacted until it was approved again this year by the General Assembly.

The COVID-19 pandemic loomed over this year’s bill dispute as businesses shift to single-use packaging, such as polystyrene, to limit contamination.

Lawmakers skeptical of the polystyrene ban spoke out on the Senate floor, arguing the ban will hurt small businesses who rely on polystyrene foam containers, which are known for their cheaper cost.

“The places that give me these Styrofoam containers are the places that are struggling the most right now,” said Sen. Jen A. Kiggans, R-Virginia Beach.

The pandemic has financially impacted the restaurant industry. In 2020, Virginia’s food services sector lost more than 20% of its employees from 2019, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. 

Like many small businesses, Pho Luca’s has relied on polystyrene foam takeout packaging because it is affordable and functional.

Dominic Pham, owner of Pho Luca’s, said he has been in contact with several vendors that sell polystyrene alternatives, but it has been a challenge for Pham to find suitable alternatives. 

Pho Luca’s currently uses plastic foam containers that cost about a nickel per container, Pham said. The alternatives will cost about 55 cents more. However, Pham said he is willing to make the change, recognizing that polystyrene containers are detrimental to the environment.

Pham said he distributed surveys to consumers on the possibility of raising prices to offset the cost of polystyrene alternatives. The results were overwhelmingly positive.

“Even if we have to upcharge them a dollar for the recyclable, reusable containers, people (are) happy to do that, they don’t mind,” Pham said.

The use of plastic foam containers has risen during the COVID-19 pandemic. Several states and cities have reversed or delayed restrictions and bans on single-use plastics since April 2020, according to a USA Today report. 

The pandemic also has resulted in an increase in single-use plastics, such as plastic bags and personal protective equipment. A 2020 report in the Environmental Science & Technology journal estimated plastic packaging to increase 14% as consumers seek out prepackaged items due to sanitary concerns.

Although the COVID-19 pandemic sparked renewed interest in single-use plastics, environmental organizations and businesses have spoken against the use of plastic foam containers. Polystyrene biodegrades slowly and rarely can be recycled, posing a risk to wildlife and human health, according to Environment Virginia.

MOM’s Organic Market, a mid-Atlantic grocery chain, has used compostable containers and cups since 2005.

“I think that it's the right thing to do for the environment, for communities, for our residents,” said Alexandra DySard, the grocery chain’s environment and partnership manager. 

DySard said purchasing compostable takeout containers instead of polystyrene foam containers has not financially hurt the chain. She said using a plastic lid that can be recycled locally is a better alternative than using polystyrene foam.

Polystyrene alternatives will become more affordable and accessible the more businesses use those products, DySard said.

“If it's a statewide change, that's kind of the best case scenario because everybody makes the change at once,” Dysard said. “And it's driving demand for the product up and costs down.” 

The bill now heads to the governor’s desk. If signed, Virginia will join states such as Maryland and Maine to ban polystyrene foam containers. 

Capital News Service is a program of Virginia Commonwealth University's Robertson School of Media and Culture. Students in the program provide state government coverage for a variety of media outlets in Virginia.

Virginia Moves Closer to Ban Plastic Foam Containers

By David Tran, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. -- From vermicelli bowls to crispy chicken, Pho Luca’s, a Vietnamese-owned Richmond restaurant, uses plastic foam containers to package takeout meals. That may soon change after the General Assembly recently passed a bill banning such packaging.

After negotiations on a Senate amendment, the House agreed in a 57-39 vote last week on an amendment to House Bill 1902, which bans nonprofits, local governments and schools from using polystyrene takeout containers. The Senate passed the amended bill in a 24-15 vote.

“We’re just leveling the playing field,” said Del. Betsy B. Carr, D-Richmond, about the amendment. “So not only do restaurants, but nonprofits and schools will be subject to this ban in 2025.”

Food chains with 20 or more locations cannot package and dispense food in polystyrene containers as of July 2023. Remaining food vendors have until July 2025. Food vendors in violation of the ban can receive up to $50 in civil penalty each day of violation.

Carr said she is glad Virginia is taking the lead to curb plastic pollution and that the measure will “make our environment cleaner and safer for all of our citizens (by) not having (polystyrene) in the ditches and in the water and in the food that we consume.”

This is the second year the bill was sent to a conference committee. Last year’s negotiation resulted in a reenactment clause stipulating the bill couldn’t be enacted until it was approved again this year by the General Assembly.

The COVID-19 pandemic loomed over this year’s bill dispute as businesses shift to single-use packaging, such as polystyrene, to limit contamination.

Lawmakers skeptical of the polystyrene ban spoke out on the Senate floor, arguing the ban will hurt small businesses who rely on polystyrene foam containers, which are known for their cheaper cost.

“The places that give me these (polystyrene) containers are the places that are struggling the most right now,” said Sen. Jen A. Kiggans, R-Virginia Beach.

The pandemic has financially impacted the restaurant industry. In 2020, Virginia’s food services sector lostmore than 20% of its employees from 2019, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Like many small businesses, Pho Luca’s has relied on polystyrene foam takeout packaging because it is affordable and functional.

Dominic Pham, owner of Pho Luca’s, said he has been in contact with several vendors that sell polystyrene alternatives, but it has been a challenge for Pham to find suitable alternatives.

Pho Luca’s currently uses plastic foam containers that cost about a nickel per container, Pham said. The alternatives will cost about 55 cents more. However, Pham said he is willing to make the change, recognizing that polystyrene containers are detrimental to the environment.

Pham said he distributed surveys to consumers on the possibility of raising prices to offset the cost of polystyrene alternatives. The results were overwhelmingly positive.

“Even if we have to upcharge them a dollar for the recyclable, reusable containers, people (are) happy to do that, they don’t mind,” Pham said.

The use of plastic foam containers has risen during the COVID-19 pandemic. Several states and cities have reversedor delayed restrictions and bans on single-use plastics since April 2020, according to a USA Today report.

The pandemic also has resulted in an increase in single-use plastics, such as plastic bags and personal protective equipment. A 2020 reportin the Environmental Science & Technology journal estimated plastic packaging to increase 14% as consumers seek out prepackaged items due to sanitary concerns.

Although the COVID-19 pandemic sparked renewed interest in single-use plastics, environmental organizations and businesses have spoken against the use of plastic foam containers. Polystyrene biodegradesslowly and rarely can be recycled, posing a risk to wildlife and human health, according to Environment Virginia.

MOM’s Organic Market, a mid-Atlantic grocery chain, has used compostable containers and cups since 2005.

“I think that it's the right thing to do for the environment, for communities, for our residents,” said Alexandra DySard, the grocery chain’s environment and partnership manager.

DySard said purchasing compostable takeout containers instead of polystyrene foam containers has not financially hurt the chain. She said using a plastic lid that can be recycled locally is a better alternative than using polystyrene foam.

Polystyrene alternatives will become more affordable and accessible the more businesses use those products, DySard said.

“If it's a statewide change, that's kind of the best case scenario because everybody makes the change at once,” Dysard said. “And it's driving demand for the product up and costs down.”

The bill now heads to the governor’s desk. If signed, Virginia will join states such as Maryland and Maine to ban polystyrene foam containers.

Capital News Service is a program of Virginia Commonwealth University's Robertson School of Media and Culture. Students in the program provide state government coverage for a variety of media outlets in Virginia.

House Advances Legislation Recognizing Water as Human Right

By David Tran, Capital News Service

RICHMOND,Va. -- The city of Petersburg made headlines last year when the city disconnected water service to non-paying residents preceding the COVID-19 pandemic.

Del. Lashrecse D. Aird, D-Petersburg, criticized the city’s action as “inhumane” and the dispute reached Virginia Health Commissioner M. Norman Oliver, who in a letter ordered the city to restore service to 150 residences that still didn’t have water last May.

Aird introduced House Joint Resolution 538 to ensure no person in the commonwealth is denied access to water. The measure recognizes the access to clean, affordable water as a human right.

The Virginia House of Delegates advanced the measure in a 61-33 vote mainly along party lines, with six Republicans voting for the bill. The resolution now heads to the Senate Rules Committee.

Aird said the resolution lays out the foundation for future substantial policies. If passed, the next step will be turning the legislative recommendations into concrete legislation.

 “We can begin to frame policies that really make it so that we're humanizing hardship,” Aird said. “And we're taking an approach that is trying to put the safety and wellness of people first.”

The measure calls for a statewide water affordability program and decriminalizing water utilities’ nonpayments. It stresses that state agencies implement strategies to limit water contamination and pollution by residents and industries.

Aird said the resolution developed after meeting with families who had their water disconnected or are actively disconnected from water service. She experienced challenges to water access first hand growing up. 

“Unless you've actually lived that life and you've experienced it, you don't really fully recognize how much of a hardship this is,” Aird said. “And so for me, it's personal. It’s deeply a matter and sense of urgency.”

Numerous studies show race and socioeconomic disparities in water affordability and accessibility. Racist discriminatory practices, such as residential segregation, have long-lasting effects on Black communities’ water access and infrastructure, according to a 2019 report by the Thurgood Marshall Institute at The NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund Inc. 

Aird also sponsors HJR 537, which declares racism a public health crisis. She said social determinants of health can be found everywhere, from schools and hospitals to water access.

A U.S. Water Alliance report stated Black and Latino households are nearly twice as likely to not have complete indoor plumbing compared to white households. That number soars to 19 times as likely for Native American households.

Many communities in the Central Appalachian region, which include parts of Southwest Virginia, are without basic water and sewer infrastructure, according to a 2011 United Nations report. Two-thirds of homes in West Virginia and Southern Virginia discharged raw sewage, which is water containing excrement and debris, directly into streams and ground surfaces.

Oliver wrote in his letter that Petersburg residents struggle with poverty and obesity, factors that increase risks of severe illness from the pandemic. He said people need running water to keep a sanitary residence and to reduce risks from the pandemic.

Moratoria on utility disconnections, such as water, reduce COVID-19 infections by nearly 4% and mortality rate by more than 7%, according to a working paper by the National Bureau of Economic Research.

Jorge Aguilar, southern region director of Food & Water Watch, an environmental organization, said safe access to water is essential to human health and the state must invest in upgrading water infrastructures.

“This declaration of water as a human right is a good first step in signaling that the state is committing itself to tackling the long term challenges of the water crisis,” Aguilar said, “and ensuring that Virginians have access to clean safe, affordable water now and in the future.”

If the bill is enacted, Virginia will join states such as Massachusetts, Pennsylvania and California, to recognize water as a human right. 

The federal government does not recognize access to water as a human right, but has drinking water regulations under the Safe Drinking Water Act and Clean Water Act.

Rev. Faith Harris, interim co-director of Virginia Interfaith Power & Light, a state affiliate of the environmental organization, Interfaith Power & Light, said the resolution can open up further discussion and legislation among lawmakers on Virginia’s water access crisis. 

“People don't think about how important access to water is, and we need to put this on the front burner for all of us,” Harris said.

Capital News Service is a program of Virginia Commonwealth University's Robertson School of Media and Culture. Students in the program provide state government coverage for a variety of media outlets in Virginia.

 

Two Bills Advance to Facilitate COVID-19 Vaccine Distribution

By David Tran, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. -- The Virginia House and Senate have unanimously advanced separate bills to facilitate administration of the COVID-19 vaccine. 

House Bill 2333, introduced by Del. Lamont Bagby, D-Richmond, intends to strengthen the state’s vaccine distribution efforts and also bolster data collection.

The measure removes barriers on health care providers’ eligibility to conduct vaccination. Any person licensed or certified by the appropriate health regulatory board, who is in good standing within the past 10 years, can volunteer to vaccinate. This includes nurse practitioners, physician assistants and pharmacy technicians. The bill also allows anyone to volunteer whose license was in good standing within 10 years before it lapsed.

Health profession students enrolled in statewide accredited programs who have been properly trained in vaccine administration will also be allowed to volunteer. 

The bill directs the Virginia Department of Health to establish a program where eligible individuals may volunteer and complete training. 

Institutions such as hospitals, medical care facilities and universities would be able to volunteer their facilities as vaccine administration sites.

The bill also requires the collection of race and ethnicity data of people receiving the vaccine. Bagby said during the House meeting that this will ensure a more equitable vaccination rollout. The bill also allows higher education institutions to assist VDH with data processing and analytics.

“(This emergency legislation) is essential to making Virginia safely and efficiently distribute the COVID-19 vaccine supply we will receive from the federal government,” Bagby said.

VDH does not mandate reporting data based on race and ethnicity, but vaccine providers are asked to enter such data, states the organization’s website. Over 300,000 vaccines have been administered without data collection of race or ethnicity, according to the department’s vaccine dashboard.

A similar bill cleared the Senate unanimously last week. That measure, introduced by Sen. Siobhan S. Dunnavant, R-Henrico, does not require data collection on race and ethnicities. Dunnavant’s bill, Senate Bill 1445, allows anyone licensed or certified by the Department of Health Professions with good standing to volunteer, including those whose licenses were in good standing within five years prior to lapsing due to retiring. 

Del. Israel D. O’Quinn, R-Bristol, chief-co patron of the House bill, said during the meeting that despite the two bills he “has no doubt that we can work through those differences expeditiously.” 

The bill’s House passage on Tuesday came hours after President Joe Biden announced efforts to increase the country’s supply of COVID-19 vaccines by 200 million by the end of summer.

The Biden Administration plans to distribute weekly a minimum of 10 million doses to states, tribes and territories. The move would add 1.4 million doses per week than what’s currently being distributed. Biden’s administration said it will try to maintain the distribution for at least the next three weeks.

Roughly more than half a million Virginians have been vaccinated as of Wednesday with at least one dose. That means nearly 67% of the available first doses Virginia received were administered, according to the VDH vaccine dashboard. Over 488,000 total COVID-19 cases have been reported in Virginia as of Wednesday. The 7-day positivity rate is over 12% throughout the state.

 "People want to help," O'Quinn said. "I think we can put a lot of people to work utilizing their skills that have been honed in our communities."

The bills now head to the other chambers.

Central Virginia food bank provides hunger relief during pandemic

By David Tran, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. – When COVID-19 was declared a national emergency at the beginning of March, Feed More, a hunger-relief organization serving Central Virginians, was serving roughly 161,000 food-insecure individuals. 

Fast forward to early June, Feed More was assisting more than 241,000 food-insecure individuals, according to Doug Pick, CEO and president of Feed More. 

“It (the pandemic) increased the number of folks that weren’t sure where their next meal was coming from by about 50%,” Pick said.

That 50% increase, he said, was largely from those who were newly unemployed as a result of the pandemic. The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated food insecurity throughout Virginia and across the country. With 2020 coming to a close, food insecurity is lingering in many Virginia households as hunger-relief organizations and local officials scramble to curb one of the pandemics’ consequences.

Food insecurity is defined by the U.S. Department of Agriculture as limited or uncertain availability or accessibility to nutritionally adequate food. Nearly 10% of all Virginians -- or almost 843,000 people -- are struggling with hunger, according to Feeding America, a nationwide hunger-relief organization.

An additional 447,000 Virginians will experience food insecurity because of the coronavirus pandemic, Feeding America estimates. Across the country, millions of Americans have lined up in their cars or by foot for miles at food banks awaiting their next meal.

Nationwide, food banks also have to grapple with the dilemma of increased demand while maintaining their agencies network. In 2019, Feed More distributed about 32 million pounds of food, Pick said. This year, he estimates the organization will distribute between 40 to 44 million pounds of food. The nonprofit distributes food with the help of agencies, including churches, emergency shelters, rehab centers, soup kitchens and other organizations. 

“We worried about that network collapsing because most of those agencies are run by volunteers, and a lot of them are seniors,” Pick said. At one point this year, Feed More lost 13% of its 270 agencies.

Feed More did not witness the phenomenon of long lines other regions experienced and was able to meet the community’s food crisis, Pick said. 

“We put out some guiding principles early on that said: stick with our infrastructure, never abandon the infrastructure you built unless you have to,” Pick said. “So, we didn't panic.”

Those guiding principles upheld Feed More’s mission while adhering to COVID-19 safety precautions. 

Feed More’s Meals on Wheels program usually serves meals daily, but it is now delivering these meals frozen, once a week. The organization’s community kitchen that preps approximately 20,000 meals a week now is divided into two kitchen spaces – a prepping kitchen and a cooking kitchen – in two separate buildings, according to Pick.

Recent research found that the number of families who experienced food insecurity increased by 20% in the United States as a result of the pandemic. The study was co-authored by Elizabeth Adams, a postdoctoral fellow at Virginia Commonwealth University’s Massey Cancer Center. 

“We all know (the pandemic) had so many profound effects across so many aspects of people’s lives and has gone on for a long time,” Adams said.

The study methodology surveyed households across the country in late April and May with different food security levels – high food security, low food security and very low food security – about food consumption during the pandemic.

The survey saw a 73% increase in home cooking across all food security levels. The amount of in-home food availability increased 56% for food-secure families but decreased 53% for low food-secure families.

“For very low food-security families, we saw an increase in pressure to eat,” Adams said, “which means that parents are pressuring their children to eat more.”

Adams said she hopes the government takes notice of the data on how widespread food insecurity is across the country, which she said disproportionately affects low-income Black and Hispanic families. 

While bringing awareness to the importance of government assistance programs and other food assistance initiatives, Adams called for these programs to “really up the benefit that they are providing at this time, because we see that a lot more people likely need them.”

Programs such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, saw an increase in enrollment during the initial months of the pandemic’s spread in the United States, reported the New York Times. According to data collected by the New York Times, SNAP grew 17% from February to May, three times faster than any prior three-month period.

In March, 687,984 Virginians were enrolled on food stamps. That number jumped to 746,608 the following month, an 8.5% increase, according to estimates from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Since March, eligible Virginians have been granted SNAP emergency benefits during the pandemic, according to The Virginia Department of Social Services. The agency recently expanded these benefits through December, with more than 245,000 households eligible for emergency benefits.

The state recently launched the Virginia Roadmap to End Hunger initiative that seeks to end hunger by developing policies, programs and partnerships.

Feed More and its partners had a stable food supply and community support because of government assistance, Pick said. Such assistance includes the USDA Farmers to Families Food Box Program. Food banks, such as Feed More, and other nonprofits were able to give out family-sized boxes of produce and meat products that the department purchased from farmers and distributors affected by the closure of restaurants and other food-service businesses.

Northam also announced in November $7 million in Coronavirus Aid Relief and Economic Security Act funding. The funding will be allocated to the Federation of Virginia Food Banks, which Feed More is a member.

“The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the already serious problem of food insecurity in Virginia and across the country,” Northam stated in a press release. “This funding will help Virginia food banks and other food assistance programs meet the increased demand for their services and ensure every Virginian has continued access to nutritious food during these challenging times.”

Feed More will use its allocated $1 million to provide refrigeration, freezer, racking and vehicles to its partner agencies.

However, Pick said he is concerned for the following year as the pandemic continues. He said there needs to be long-term government policies to address food insecurities beyond food banks’ control. 

“The food banks have always been here for emergency purposes. When people get to a tight bind,” he said. 

For now, Pick said Feed More will continue its best to provide food assistance to Central Virginians.

“The need is out there,” Pick said. “The jobs are not coming back overnight, and this (food insecurity) is just going to continue on.”

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