A $2.6 million public-private program has been created to provide emergency food care packages for families facing hunger as the coronavirus pandemic continues.

The 20-pound boxes will be filled with five days’ worth of nonperishable meals. Distributors say they can be easily assembled and mass-produced at the usual Federation of Virginia Food Banks. Other locations are being considered to reach vulnerable people and those in quarantine.

The initiative, called the We Care COVID-19 Virginia Emergency Food Support program, is being paid for with a $1.4 million state grant from the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, aka CARES Act. It also received $500,000 grants from Sentara Healthcare and Truist. Other partners, including Humana, Northern Neck Virginia Insurance, CVS Health/Aetna, the Wawa Foundation and Tito’s Vodka, are pitching in contributions.

As unemployment rises amid quarantines and business closures, the demand for food is expected to grow. Feeding America, a nationwide network of food banks, now estimates that 450,000 more Virginians will become “food insecure” this year, passing 1.2 million. The U.S. Department of Agriculture defines food insecurity as a lack of consistent access to food to support a healthy life.

Gov. Ralph Northam went to the Foodbank of Southeastern Virginia and the Eastern Shore in Norfolk for a packing event Friday. About 300 boxes were assembled, but coordinators believe the program will eventually distribute 100,000 of them.

Program leaders say the initiative, spearheaded by Sentara, seeks to keep people fed during the public health crisis while addressing logistical issues for meal delivery services: Food pantries are struggling to continue operations while volunteers, staff and food supplies have decreased.

Because of the coronavirus, the food bank made several changes to the way it distributed food supplies to families this spring. Before the outbreak, the organization relied heavily on its network of pantry partners, including churches and volunteers. But many of those collaborators disappeared as the virus forced them to close or scale back.

The food bank has been working with Senior Services of Southeastern Virginia and Portsmouth-based Mercy Chefs to get food to seniors and children. Mercy Chefs also is expanding its food box program in Hampton Roads this month.

Sentara officials said they are looking for other partners to participate and contribute to the initiative to keep it going.

People who need emergency food assistance can visit Foodbankonline.org to find a nearby distribution site. We Care boxes and other foods will be distributed at mobile pantries, searchable by ZIP code.

Elisha Sauers, [email protected], 757-222-3864

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