FREDERICKSBURG, Va. — Virginia National Guard Soldiers assigned to the Fredericksburg-based 229th Brigade Engineer Battalion, 116th Infantry Brigade Combat Team are lending a hand to help feed citizens in need by supporting the Fredericksburg Regional Food Bank as part of COVID-19 response operations.
A team of about 35 Soldiers is helping the food bank in many different ways, from helping deliver meals to local food pantries and helping run drive-through food distributions for hundreds of citizens each week, both at the food bank and at various locations in the community.
The 229th’s support has meant a great deal to the food bank’s leadership.
“Before they got here we were barely making it. We were hanging on by a thread,” said Steve Carty, the food bank’s operations manager. “They’ve done pickups, they’ve helped with deliveries. They’re professional and pleasant to be around. Ready to work, great attitude, all of that means a lot.”
Inside the food bank, Soldiers are helping organize and stock food items ranging from canned goods to fresh produce. That food is then packaged for either delivery to community partners or for individuals and families to pick up directly from the food bank. With job loss and furloughs common as a direct result of the COVID-19 outbreak, the local community is more dependent than ever on the food bank’s support for families in need.
“There’s a lot of need. The community is struggling, and there’s a lot of need for support like this,” said 1st Lt. Cole Stevens, who is leading the 229th’s team at the food bank. “Everyone on this team is just glad to be able to a part it.”
Twice a week, members of the community line up in their vehicles to pick up meals from the facility. On Tuesdays, it’s citizens aged 60 and older, and on Thursdays, it’s individuals and families. Hundreds of vehicles begin lining up to pick up their meals several hours before distribution begins. Stevens and his Soldiers help the food bank’s staff and volunteers box up those meals and place them in the vehicles’ open trunks during the drive-thru distribution.
“I couldn’t be more proud of the Soldiers and what they’ve accomplished. They were faced with a complicated and difficult situation, but they’ve risen to the challenge and worked tirelessly to accomplish their mission,” said Stevens. “The team has been instrumental in helping keep thousands of families afloat during this difficult time. Working side-by-side with the civilian staff, the Soldiers have been able to drastically increase the food bank’s logistical capabilities and the number of people served on a weekly basis.”
On days when they aren’t helping distribute meals at the main warehouse, the 229th’s Soldiers have packed supplies and set up pop-up food distribution sites in several different communities across the region. During these events, the Soldiers set up a smaller-scale version of the drive-thru back at the warehouse, helping get food more directly to communities in need.
“At the end of the day, the food bank mission isn’t just a charitable project—it is quite literally saving lives and helping hold the entire community together,” said Stevens. “For many of us, I expect, this may be the most impactful mission we experience in our careers.”
In addition to the direct support to the community, having the Soldiers’ support has helped the food bank tackle other projects they needed to complete to help them feed the community.
“This is not the only thing we’re doing,” said Carty during a recent distribution. “We’re also trying to run the building, we’re doing day-to-day operations on top of this. So by them being here, that frees up a few employees to do other work that has to be done. It’s been a great help. Having the extra hands, there’s so many projects that keep getting put on the back burner, that we can now get to.”
“Whatever task we give them they do it efficiently, effectively and they do it with the proud sense of ‘I’m an American, we are all family, and we’re gonna get through this together,’” said LaToya Brown, agency and programs coordinator for the Fredericksburg Regional Food Bank.
Stevens said the genuine thanks his Soldiers have received from the community and the food bank help show them they are making a true difference.
“The most rewarding part of this experience for me has been the stories of gratitude from the families we’ve served,” said Stevens. “After one of our teams delivered supplies to a local church food pantry, a volunteer at the church called the food bank, crying, to let us know it was the first food delivery they had received in nearly two months.
“We were glad to be able to help out in moments like that, but much of the credit goes to the staff and volunteers of the Fredericksburg Regional Food Bank who do this important work all year long.”
During domestic operations, the VNG receives mission taskings from the Virginia Department of Emergency Management and can’t respond to direct requests for assistance. Localities looking for VNG support should contact VDEM and make a request. Read more about the VNG’s statewide response at https://go.usa.gov/xvhSh