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Food pantry feeds growing need

INDEPENDENCE — A few years ago, Tom and Anita Simpson noticed some people in Grayson County suffered from food scarcity, and they’d been kicking around the idea of starting a pantry of some kind.

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, the idea took on urgency. “We knew of people who were getting laid off due to the pandemic,” Tom recalls. “We had talked about a need before, but that seemed to be the impetus we needed to do it.”

Along with Bev Fermor and Ken Kreuzer, the Simpsons got the nonprofit Food Independence off the ground.

Though it technically started in March 2020, said Tom, the first round of distributions didn’t take place until July of 2020.

Food Independence, now under the aegis of Grayson LandCare, is a 501c3 nonprofit and sees about 250-275 cars come through their regular drive-thru pickup, which takes place on the fourth Tuesday of each month. And that’s just the one location — 40 food boxes a month go through the Grant Grange and 20 to to an apartment complex near downtown Independence.

“The Grange distributes about 40 boxes back in the holler, where people don’t get out as much,” Tom said. Fermor and Kreuzer are in charge of the Grant end of the distribution, along with volunteers.

Tom says the monthly drive-thu is still the main locus of activity. “We began it at the start of COVID; that was necessary,” he said, “but now we think the better way to do it is drive-thru. And we don’t just say, ‘Here’s a box, have a good day.’ They’ll get a few things at a couple of other tables.”

What’s available at the tables as people drive by include things like, say, butternut squash. Not everybody likes them, but those who do can take one. “Everybody gets a 5-pound bag of potatoes, because everyone likes potatoes,” Tom said.

Food boxes are usually shelf-stable ingredients, along with produce and some other frozen or refrigerated perishables. “They typically get 40-50 pounds of food in a regular month,” Tom said, though they’ll get more this week due to Thanksgiving.

Homes with kids under age 19 get a bag of mostly shelf-stable items they can assemble a breakfast or lunch with, and at the October distribution last month, Halloween was celebrated. Adults “at least got a candy bar, with a bag of candy for the kids,” he said. The adult one was just as important, “because they like it, too.”

Donations come from many places. One of them is the regional effort Feeding Southwest Virginia, but a lot comes from local businesses like Food City, Grayson Natural Farms and the Southwest Virginia Farmers Market in Hillsville, along with local farmers.

In addition, said Tom, “We’re doing toothpaste and toothbrushes now finally, and we’ve been able from the beginning to work with county emergency services and the health department. We had a place they could pull over and get a COVID vaccination a couple times. And actually, this Tuesday, we will be giving out the home COVID test kits. Part of that is because it’s Thanksgiving. Families are gathering; they’re at risk of exposure.”

Aside from a few things like this, Food Independence is pretty focused on feeding people and that’s it. “We do food, we do not do clothes,” said Tom; there are other groups and organizations to turn to for that.

If you come to one of the monthly events, what can you expect?

Well, they only technically run from 9-11 a.m., said Tom, but, “We start a little early to ease the traffic crunch... Generally, our line is so long we start at a quarter of nine. Usually there are four to eight cars waiting at 7 a.m. and by the time we start, we have two lines going through the parking lot backed all the way up Hilltop, out of sight. We do have people managing traffic.”

They don’t turn anyone down. “Our goal — and that of most food pantries — is that we have an inventory that allows us to provide a basic box to everyone that comes in. If you have a specialty meat, you might run out of it, but we have not let anyone go away with nothing.”

Once you get to the front of the line, if you’re new, two volunteers take the data you’re comfortable giving, which you don’t need to worry about. “All the contact info, addresses and names, are kept confidential by us,” said Tom. “But we send in some information to Feeding Southwest Virginia,” like household demographics, such as the ages of household members.

“We prefer to get an address, but we’ll accept just a zip code,” he said. You only give your full information, or as much of it as you plan to, the first time; after that, you can just give your name. Currently it’s still a pen and parer affair, but they’d like to do it electronically at some point.”

Tom noted that “90%-plus” of people they help are from southern Grayson County “and the Route 16 corridor, as I call it, but we do not turn people away if they’re not... There is no qualification other than having the patience to wait in line.”

Like most nonprofits, they also rely on help; Food Independence recently received a grant for $25,000 a year for three years (dependent on their performance) from the Twin County Community Foundation. They’ve been blessed in that regard before.

“We got $10,000 in a general grant from the Twin County Community Foundation a couple years ago,” he said. “There were similar amounts from the town and county, and a Community Development Block Grant through the Virginia DHCD that allowed us to purchase freezers, refrigerators, and equipment to move pallets around, and it helped us with food for a year.”

Despite the boost, they’re always looking for help in various forms. “This is not a low-cost operation,” Tom said; it runs $60,000-$80,000 a year.

They want what he calls “uniformity” in food donations — a pallet of the same kind of canned goods in normal-sized containers, rather than random cans of different ones in different sizes. If someone donates something that doesn’t really fit, however, they’ll make sure it gets used somewhere, like a local blessing box.

And, as with many food pantries, they encourage money donations, since they have contacts who work with them to provide goods in bulk at a discount that a single individual simply couldn’t access.

“We are different than many food pantries,” Tom said. “We are community-based. We’re not affiliated with a particular church or other organization. We really reach out, we work with so many different groups in the community, and the community has been so great about supporting us.”

This includes, among other things, a food drive in February that Independence Elementary School conducted, “and they donated a pickup truck stacked high with food,” Tom said.

They also got four boxes of food from a Matthews Living History Farm Museum event in October called “Scare Out Hunger,” the proceeds of which were split among several food pantries.

The community, it turns out, is rich in another resource that Food Independence always needs more of: volunteers. They have over 50 — many of whom you won’t see on the actual distribution days. Some help unload the Feeding Southwest Virginia shipment, which has to be sorted, unpacked and shelved so it’s organized and easily accessible to the volunteers who pack individual food boxes.

“It takes close to 20 [people] during the distribution,” Tom said. “But it takes about the same number to get us to the point of distribution. Not all 50 are available every month. We have no paid staff.”

All kinds of volunteers have come in to help, including students from Grayson County High School and Oak Hill Academy.

“We’re really fortunate to have the number and the quality [of our volunteers],” he said. “Our volunteers are amazing. We try to act with some sort of organization, although we call the two hours before distribution ‘uncontrolled chaos,’ and the hours of distribution ‘controlled chaos.’ But we schedule, and we need to know when we will have people. They’re great about telling us in advance and then showing up.”

Taking shipments, arranging for donations, applying for grants, distributing food, seeking out and scheduling volunteers and organizing all of the above sound exhausting. There are other places people can go, at least in theory. Simpson and his wife could live the life of happy retirees. Why do they bother?

“It sure wasn’t in our plans,” Tom said with a laugh. “And it has grown to at least three times as big as we ever thought, and it has been one of the most rewarding things we’ve ever done.”

He continued, “We’ve both had great lives, professionally and personally, but the thing that is amazing is that our clients are super — ’clients’ is what we call the people we help — and they become our friends. This Tuesday [before Thanksgiving] is actually the most rewarding and emotionally hard that we have. Most clients get emotional when they see they’re getting a Thanksgiving meal.”

He continued with praise for others who help out. “Our local donors are phenomenal, but there are stress points. It’s not that we’re always smiling, but the payoff is watching the food go out, and watching the gratitude and satisfaction of your clients, and our volunteers feel the same thing. Once they do it, they want to be there doing it again. And they’re certainly people who have plenty of other things they could be doing.”

Just nothing, it seems, that’s quite so rewarding.

How to Help Out or Get Help

Food Independence’s monthly food distribution is held on the fourth Tuesday of every month at 103 Hilltop Street in downtown Independence from 9-11 a.m. (being early is recommended).

You will be asked information about your household, including address, but you may choose to share information at your comfort level. You will not be turned away.

For more information or to inquire about volunteering or donating, call Food Independence at 276-768-0956, email foodindependence1@gmail.com or find them on Facebook by searching “Food Independence.”

Monetary donations may be sent to Food Independence, P.O. Box 201, Independence, VA 24348, or you may donate online at graysonlandcare.org/donate/.


News
County to hold meeting on multi-use facility

TROUTDALE — Grayson County will hold a community meeting concerning a potential multi-use facility project in the western part of the county on Nov. 29. The meeting will be held at 7 p.m. at the Goodwill Grange, 840 Grange Hall Road, in Troutdale.

The Elk Creek Fire Department hosted a community meeting on Nov. 1 to get feedback about the potential building on 30 acres of their property.

The land, adjacent to the firehouse and the old Elk Creek School building, could be used for the county’s agricultural fair and other community events.

Fire Chief Brian Billings said the proposed project is “at the information-gathering stage.”

Stakeholders include the Grayson County Agricultural Fair Foundation, Elk Creek Fire Department, Grayson County Livestock Committee, Grayson County Office of the Virginia Cooperative Extension, Grayson County Career & Technical Education Center within the Grayson County School System, Grayson County Parks & Recreation Department, Grayson County itself, Hands of Grace Food Bank and local producers and community members.

“This project has been discussed between the fire department and some other community members for 10-15 plus years; they just haven’t been able to get it moving forward,” said Grayson County Agriculture Economic Development Director Lyndsie Young.

The building could be available as a fair facility, an educational space, or for other agricultural and recreational purposes. Young said finding out what the community would want to use the building for would help the county “figure out the cost, who’s going to manage it and maintain it, all of that. That’s going to be the whole driver of how we move forward.”

According to a recent community survey, some options for the facility include:

• Agricultural — livestock shows, horse shows, community gardens, agricultural fair, cattle sale/working facilities

• Educational — arts and crafts programs, water fitness programs, youth learn-to-swim programs, youth outdoor camp programs, senior adult programs, environmental education programs, before- or after-school programs

• Recreation/Wellness — indoor fitness and exercise facilities, basketball gym, volleyball, indoor walking track, outdoor walking track, outdoor fitness and exercise facilities, tennis court, biking trails, swimming pool, playground, youth sports programs, baseball fields, soccer fields, football fields

• Public/Community Use — meeting space, dog park, open green space, nature trails, event/party space, picnic shelters

• Entertainment — musical events, theater, car shows, artisan exhibits


News
Police investigate school threat

A Carroll County man taken into custody Nov. 16 on suspicion of threatening a school shooting and violence against children has been released while police gather more evidence.

The threatening video, posted on the social media platform TikTok, resulted in a lockdown at Grayson County schools that day.

The person to whom the TikTok account is registered was released from custody as of Friday afternoon and has not been charged. Carroll County Sheriff Kevin Kemp said the investigation is ongoing.

As of Nov. 18, police had not charged the man and he was released from custody. According to investigators, they are still waiting to receive some evidence in the case.

If evidence supports an arrest, a warrant taken out by the Galax Police Department says a suspect in the case would be charged with “threats of death or bodily injury to persons on school property.”

Schools Go Into Lockdown

According to police reports, a video threatening a school shooting and other violent acts was posted on TikTok under a local person’s account. Galax Police Chief DeWitt Cooper said the video mentioned kidnapping or killing kids.

The video did not specify which school was being targeted, but the owner of the TikTok account was traced to this area.

The Virginia Fusion Center — a collaborative agency among federal, state and local law enforcement — sent an alert to police in the Twin Counties on Nov. 16. Grayson County, Carroll County and Galax school systems all were placed on “soft lockdown,” wherein students were kept inside locked classrooms but lessons continued.

“It was just very generic,” said Galax Schools Superintendent Susan Tilley of the threat. “It could have been any school anywhere,” but the fact that the video appears to have originated in the Twin Counties caused concern.

“We went to all known addresses for that person,” Cooper told the newspaper, referring to the TikTok account owner. The Carroll County Sheriff’s Office located the man and took him into custody around 2:15 p.m. on Nov. 16.

Reacting to news of the incident on social media, many local parents expressed concern that they received no calls from schools notifying them about the threat or lockdown until it was over. Complicating the issue was a U.S. Cellular system outage at the time of the incident.

Threats in the Video

According to a search warrant obtained by Capt. James Cox of the Galax Police Department and sent to TikTok Inc.’s headquarters in California, investigators requested that the social media company provide a variety of digital assets related to the threatening video.

In the warrant, Cox says that Galax police were notified on Nov. 16 that TikTok had intercepted multiple threatening comments that day from an account originating in the Twin Counties area.

The TikTok account named in the warrant appears to have been taken down.

The court document contains a listing of “material facts” that constitute probable cause for the search — including the disturbing content of the videos. Some of the comments included:

• “I’m just tryna teach y’all how easy it’s to kidnapp and kill ur kids...”

• “LETS KILL KIDS TODAY”

• “If I find this school I’ma shoot this mutha- — up”

• “ur kids are not safe”

Items named in the warrant included recordings and data associated with the TikTok account where the videos were posted, email addresses, phone numbers, IP addresses, device information, log-in and log-out data and comments on the video. Cox notes in the warrant that such data would help investigators “in identifying the location of the sender as well as the location where the messages were created.”

In addition to local police departments and school systems, other agencies handling the threat situation included the Virginia Fusion Center, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Virginia State Police and Virginia Department of Emergency Management.


News
Winter farmers markets planned

INDEPENDENCE — The regular season may be over, but the Independence Farmers Market will return to Courthouse Street for two Winter Markets — the Friday after Thanksgiving and again on Dec. 2.

Market director Michelle Pridgen notes that this is a change for 2022. The second Winter Market is usually the first Saturday in December, but this year vendors voted to join the town’s Christmas Market and Tree Lighting, to be held at the 1908 Courthouse on Dec. 2 from 3-7 p.m..

To accommodate the market, Courthouse Street will be closed to traffic on the Nov. 25 from 8 a.m.-3 p.m. and Dec. 2 from noon-7:30 p.m.

The first Winter Market, set for this Friday from 11 a.m.-2 p.m., features delicious local products and beautiful crafts.

IFM Kids Bucks will be back, the first 20 kids to the market get $5 of Kids Bucks to spend on anything at the market. Two free kids’ activities will be offered — cookie and card decorating.

The second Winter Market will be Dec. 2 from 3-6 p.m. “We are teaming up with the 1908 Courthouse for their Hometown Christmas event this year,” Pridgen said.

Vendors will be located in the 1908 Courthouse, on the front and back lawns and on Courthouse Street.

The farmers market will hold the ever-popular Annual Chili Cookoff on Dec. 2, with a first prize of $100. Contestants should bring entries to the market between 2-2:30 p.m — preferably already warm, in a crockpot. The contest is free to enter, and $5 allows everyone to taste all the chili and vote for the People’s Choice winner. The winner will be announced at 6:15 p.m.

Cookie and card decorating will be offered again, as well as IFM Kids Bucks.

In addition, the Free Market will be located at the nearby GATE Center on Davis Street for their annual Christmas Shoppe. Kids are welcome from 3-5 p.m. to shop for free for family and friends, and everyone is welcome from 5-7 p.m.

The Independence Farmers Market also features a year-round Online Market. Orders can be placed from Wednesdays at 8 p.m. to Monday at 8 p.m., and picked up Wednesdays from 4-6 p.m. at the IFM office on Courthouse Street. The Dec. 7 Online Market pickup day features a holiday open house where you can sample products, chat with the vendors and meet the ones who only sell online. If you’ve never shopped at the Online Market, IFM can help you set up an account.

The Independence Farmers Market accepts SNAP and EBT, and offers a matching program up to $30 for fruits and vegetables thanks to Virginia Fresh Match.

For more information, contact Pridgen at 276-768-0597 or independencefarmersmarket@gmail.com. You can also follow the market on Facebook.


News
Final vote counts confirm results

The outcomes did not change for town elections in Grayson County and the 9th District congressional race, after the Virginia State Board of Elections posted the final official vote totals on Nov. 14.

There were only slight differences from the preliminary numbers announced right after the Nov. 8 election, which were based on in-person voting. Election officials posted final totals after counting up absentee and mail-in votes.

Independence

There were four candidates (two incumbents and two challengers) for three seats this year.

Buddy Halsey, who has served on council for more than two decades, was re-elected with 23.7% of the vote. Newcomers Mark Miller, received 27.8% of the vote (the most of all four candidates) and Joan Collins, who received 25.8%, were elected to their first public office.

Incumbent Tom Maxwell, who now serves as vice mayor, lost his bid for re-election, earning 20.5% of the vote.

Former council member Jeff Miller and incumbent council member Ronald Sexton were running for mayor. Though Miller passed away in October, it was too late for his name to be removed from the ballot. Sexton won with 60.6%, but Miller still received 33.5% of the total votes.

Fries

In Fries, 10 candidates were vying for seven seats, with the seven receiving the most votes taking office starting in January 2023.

According to the final totals, the seven candidates receiving the most votes were incumbents Jo Ann Gunter (12.3%), Cynthia Grant (10.9%), Yvonne Burr (10.3%), Richard Hawks (9.6%) and Bill Davis (8.7%); and newcomers Junior Young (12.7%) and Johnny Dickson (12.7%). Young and Dickson each received 123 votes — tied for the most votes of all candidates.

Candidates who lost their bids include incumbent Frances Boone (5.6%), former council member Terry Akers (8.2%) and newcomer James Dowell (6.9%).

Troutdale

In the Town of Troutdale, nine candidates ran to fill six seats on town council.

According to the final count, the winners included incumbents Tina Michelle Delp (13.1%), Gary E. Tilson (13.1%), Scott Lee Cornett (12.9%), Ira K. McGrady Jr. (12.6%) and Deborah R. Cornett (12.3%); and newcomer Samuel J. Pennington (10.3%).

The three candidates who lost their bids included challengers H.M. “Mike” Leake (7.7%), Dawn G. Leake (7.4%) and Sean R. Baston (4.3%).

William C. Mitchell was unopposed in seeking re-election as mayor, and received 95.8% of the vote.

Savanna Shea Cornett, also unopposed, received 93.7% of vote to become the town’s new recorder.

9th District

U.S. Congressman Morgan Griffith swept the Twin Counties on Nov. 8, in the incumbent Republican’s successful bid for re-election against Democratic challenger Taysha DeVaughan.

Griffith held his 9th Congressional District seat in the U.S. House of Representatives, according to final results from the Virginia Department of Elections. In Grayson County, Griffith won with 81.6%, to DeVaughan’s 18.3%.


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