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Faces of Hunger

Elderly Face High Rates of Food Insecurity in N.C. Mountain Counties

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Ralph “Butch” Grindstaff of Mitchell County at the Neighbors Feeding Neighbors weekly community meal at Newdale Presbyterian Church located between Spruce Pine and Burnsville in Yancey County. Photo: Matt Rose/Carolina Public Press

Insufficient benefits and soaring medical expenses intensify food insecurity for seniors in Yancey, Mitchell and Avery counties.

An elderly Mitchell County woman survived only because maggots in her leg were eating the dead flesh and preventing infection.

At the time, she was living in a run-down home with no electricity or running water and little to no food. She could not afford these things or medical care.

This is one of the stories that stands out to Allen Hoilman, co-director of Spruce Pine’s Neighbors Feeding Neighbors food bank.

He and his wife, Amy Hoilman, have been running the food bank only for a few years, but community members said they have already made an impact.

Jerry Sullens, who both receives help from Neighbors Feeding Neighbors and works at the food bank, said the Hoilmans have done a lot in helping resolve the hunger crisis in Mitchell County.

Driving through downtown Spruce Pine, Allen can point out every dumpster people go through looking for food and every abandoned building or camp people have made their homes.

One of these buildings once housed the woman who survived by having maggots eat her flesh.

While many food banks operate by having those facing food insecurity come in for food, Neighbors Feeding Neighbors operates primarily on a delivery system. This is because many of those who receive their donations are elderly, disabled or both.

The organization also offers a weekly community dinner at Newdale Presbyterian Church in eastern Yancey County that draws people from across the region.

According to Feeding America’s Senior Food Insecurity study, North Carolina is the fifth-worst in the nation when it comes to the elderly facing food insecurity.

Sullens said he falls into this category. A former trucker, Sullens retired to his hometown of Spruce Pine after having several heart attacks.

“He’s one of our families, but he wants to work,” Allen Hoilman said. “(Sullens) can’t get a job because of his age and his health and he doesn’t draw benefits, but he wants to help us, so he does.”

Sullens described his job as delivering food, burying bodies and taking out the trash, but Allen said Sullens’ help is his way of trying to pay back his community.

Neighbors Feeding Neighbors volunteer Travis Crowder, left, delivers a dinner to Mike Hughes who was unable to attend the organization’s weekly community meal in Newdale. Photo: Matt Rose/Carolina Public Press

Benefits aren’t enough

Though Sullens does not receive any federal benefits, if he did, they might not cover his expenses anyway.

Feeding America reports the average Social Security check is $1,467 a month for retired workers, resulting in an annual income of $17,606. In 2019, the federal poverty line is $12,490 a year for a single person.

The average amount of food stamps for homes with elderly members is $125 a month, according to Feeding America.

In Avery County, Theresa Ollis receives a $741 Social Security check along with $15 in food stamps every month. After paying her $400 rent and $325 car payment, she has only a few dollars left a month for food and emergencies.

“Sometimes I don’t have hardly nothing left in the house to eat because it’s hard,” Ollis said.

“If my son ain’t sending me some money to buy something on or do something on I’m pretty much broke.”

To close this gap, Ollis visits local food banks like Reaching Avery Ministry, where she can receive a week’s worth of food once a month.

Reaching Avery Ministry director Janet Millsaps said there are many women like Ollis in the county who are struggling to make ends meet.

Millsaps said for the most part, these women are widowed and never had a job with a recorded income, which affects the amount they receive with their Social Security checks. Because of these circumstances, these women are often living on their own, paying rent and buying food and any medication out of pocket.

These circumstances are not unique to Avery County. Of food-insecure elderly individuals, 20 percent rent homes, and 25 percent are disabled, according to Feeding America.

To help relieve some of this stress, Reaching Avery Ministry allots a small portion of its budget to medical prescriptions.

“We don’t do anything that is controlled,” Millsaps said.

“We do mostly heart, blood pressure, diabetes things. Those same individuals that are struggling to pay rent, buy food, sometimes have trouble buying medicine. We refer them to agencies so they can get a little help with their rent and some help with medicines and we help them with some food, then with their income they’re able to survive.”

Claudette McHone gets some dinner at the Neighbors Feeding Neighbors weekly community meal at Newdale Presbyterian Church located between Spruce Pine and Burnsville in Yancey County. Photo: Matt Rose/Carolina Public Press

NC seniors are worse off than most of nation

The Feeding America study, released in 2019 using 2017 data, said 5.5 million, or 7.7 percent, of seniors in the U.S. are food insecure. While this number is declining, it is still more than double what it was in 2001.

According to this same study, the rate of food insecurity in the elderly jumps to 10.5 percent in North Carolina.

Only six states – New Mexico, Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and North Carolina –  plus the District of Columbia, go above the 10 percent mark.

Illness in the elderly makes the problem worse

A mother of three and grandmother of 10, Ollis lived in Gastonia most of her life, only recently moving to Avery County. While in Gastonia, she only occasionally went to similar organizations to make ends meet, relying mostly on family support.

In 2002, Ollis suffered an aneurysm that left her unable to care for herself.

“When I had my aneurysm, I couldn’t even drive a car,” Ollis said.

“My kids had to teach me how to do everything all over again. They did, so I guess I did them right because they raised me all over.”

Ollis can now drive and take care of herself for the most part, but she still suffers seizures and has memory problems.

Before moving to Avery County a few months ago, Ollis was in an abusive relationship, she said. She met up with a lifelong friend, Richy Keller, and they decided to move to the mountains and take care of each other. Ollis said since moving to the mountains, her COPD has been bothering her less and she is able to breathe more easily.

Last September, Keller was diagnosed with liver cancer. He said his Medicaid covers most of his medical expenses, but he still has trouble making ends meet. Each month Ollis drives him to Reaching Avery Ministry to pick up their food boxes. He said traveling to and from hospitals and procedures takes all the energy he has.

“I just had a chemoembolization procedure done on Aug. 14 and I had to go back to the hospital four days later because I was hurting so damn bad and stayed in the hospital for about three days,” Keller said. “I’ve been feeling better, but I’m still in pain.”

The procedure involves injecting chemo into his liver from a small tube in his wrist and using poppy seed oil to close off the artery to the liver, blocking the flow of blood to the organ and allowing the cancerous cells to die.

Ralph “Butch” Grindstaff is a near-constant fixture on the Neighbors Feeding Neighbors front porch in Mitchell County. According to Allen Hoilman, Grindstaff has a brain tumor. They do not know how much time he has left.

Unlike Reaching Avery Ministry, Neighbors Feeding Neighbors does not offer financial or medical aid, but it does offer support in any other way it can.

Sullens said he did not know the Hoilmans before his most recent heart attack, but they were the first people to check on him in the hospital. Grindstaff did not have a cellphone to call anyone if he needed help, so Allen Hoilman gave his phone to Grindstaff.

“It’s just good old country folks helping each other,” Allen Hoilman said. “The poorest people are always the fastest to help.”

He said it shocks him that so many sick and elderly people are left to fend for themselves because they do not have families and those who do are often left behind when things get hard.

Sullens said he has hard times in his life, but it’s gotten easier with help. He said he is happy to pay it forward to those who need it now more than he does.

“You wouldn’t believe some of the things we’ve seen until you’d see them with your own eyes,” Sullens said. “You’d think I was lying. But the smiles on these people’s faces, they make it work it.”

This article was originally published by Carolina Public Press. Carolina Public Press is an independent, in-depth and investigative nonprofit news service for North Carolina.

The Faces of Hunger project is a year-long reporting initiative from Carolina Public Press focusing on issues of food insecurity in rural North Carolina, including its impact, root causes and potential solutions. In addition to sharing the stories and experiences of people most impacted by hunger in the region, this in-depth project will include reporting on the issues and systems impacting hunger. Carolina Public Press will also offer opportunities for community dialogue and resource sharing.

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Faces of Hunger

Isolation Creates Challenge for Battle Against Food Insecurity

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Roger Mathis of Yancey County fixes a plate of food at the Neighbors Feeding Neighbors weekly community meal at Newdale Presbyterian Church, located between Spruce Pine and Burnsville. Photo: Matt Rose /Carolina Public Press

Nonprofit groups seek creative solutions to hunger despite obstacles of geography and infrastructure in Mitchell, Yancey and Avery counties.

Spruce Pine, a small town in Mitchell County, is among many rural communities in the mountains of North Carolina that face food insecurity and hunger, driven by isolation.

Allen and Amy Hoilman run the Neighbors Feeding Neighbors food bank in Spruce Pine, which also hosts a weekly community meal in Newdale, in eastern Yancey County. Allen said the entire area is difficult to get to from outside, and while plans have been made to create an easier access point, he is unsure if it will help.

“It didn’t used to be this way,” he said. “You would know all your neighbors. There were plenty of jobs. Things have changed around here. The drugs and alcohol are here. All the jobs are gone.”

In recent years, highway U.S. 19E through the region has been the object of a major widening project to improve outside access. But so much had already happened, he said: “That road came 30 years too late.”

In nearby Yancey and Avery counties — like Mitchell, rural mountain counties clustered between the region’s larger population centers in Asheville and Boone — isolation poses the same problem.

For 37 years, Reaching Avery Ministry has operated a thrift store and food bank in Avery County.

The organization’s current director, Janet Millsaps, said the isolation of Avery County prevents good jobs from coming to the area.

“We’re not accessible by any major interstates,” Millsaps said. “We are kind of isolated, and so when you’re looking at big industries wanting to come, this is not a typical place that they would look at because of the transport on and off the mountain, what that looks like and what that would cost.”

Allen Hoilman greets Jason Gray, 12 at the Neighbors Feeding Neighbors weekly community meal at Newdale Presbyterian Church located between Spruce Pine and Burnsville. Photo: Matt Rose/Carolina Public Press

No industry, no jobs

The biggest industry in Avery County is Christmas tree farming. Most families who come to Reaching Avery Ministry for help have at least one family member working on the farms.

During the winter, the people work on Christmas tree farms helping get the trees to consumers. In the summer, they often work as landscapers on the farm to prepare for the winter seasons.

Although the tree farms provide income for half a year at most, it is not steady and it does not come with benefits.

Millsaps said this is part of Avery County’s problem.

“It doesn’t take but one thing. A car repair, a doctor visit, a sickness, for families to come in a crisis,” Millsaps said. “We have a lot of working poor families. They work, but they don’t have insurance, they don’t have benefits, so when they’re out of work, then that becomes a big issue, and food insecurity is a big part of that.”

Allen Hoilman said Mitchell County faces a similar problem. There was once a tire factory where innovations in the industry were made, but it is now a skeleton of a building with abandoned tires in the yard.

With no industry, seasonal or otherwise, Mitchell County residents are left with little choice other than to leave the area to find work.

Hoilman said this introduces a new set of problems.

“It’s hard to get a job because they can’t afford to get to work,” he said.

Dru Zucchino, farm manager with TRACTOR Food and Farms, in the truck, hands bagged ears of corn to John Miller, director of Southern Reconciliation Ministries, as Reconciliation volunteer and board member James Watrous unloads corn at Reconciliation’s food bank in Burnsville. Photo: Matt Rose/Carolina Public Press

Fighting hunger with local farmers

A Yancey County organization is taking a non-traditional approach to combating food insecurity, one that brings the community together.

Toe River Aggregation Center Training Organization Regional Food and Farms — better known as TRACTOR Food and Farms — helps farmers get their food to the people who need it most.

“TRACTOR is all about helping small farmers in the community sell and market their produce into the hand of people in the community that need it,” Becca Smith, TRACTOR’s sales manager said.

Since starting, TRACTOR has donated more than 10 tons of food to local food banks.

Located in an old sock factory, TRACTOR is open 24 hours a day for farmers to drop off food. While there, they can sort their produce into one of five industrial coolers that are all kept at different temperatures to keep a variety of foods fresh. They may also use a machine that washes and sorts produce.

TRACTOR operates on a CSA, or community-supported agriculture, model. Instead of a traditional CSA, where a community pays upfront for a season’s worth of food from a single farmer, TRACTOR partners with 33 different farmers. TRACTOR members who pay at the beginning of the season are eligible to get a bag of food each week.

Last year, TRACTOR received funding to enact a second component to its CSA: a clinical referral program.

The referral program, modeled on a pilot in Asheville, required doctors to write a prescription for fresh food for someone in need. With that referral, recipients can come to TRACTOR to get a bag of food at no cost.

“It’s the exact same bag, so it’s super dignified,” Smith said. “You wouldn’t know who’s paying for it and who’s not when they come to pick it up.”

In its first year, 101 referrals came to TRACTOR from three different clinics. Combined with 60 paid memberships, the organization was able to give out an average of 120 bags each week for the 18-week season.

With a frost date of Oct. 15, the end of the season is quickly approaching.

Smith said she has been getting a lot of questions about where people who rely on TRACTOR for food can go during the winter, but there is no easy answer to that.

For the most part, other organizations that provide less healthy options with a longer shelf life are left to fill the gap.

During the off-months, TRACTOR works with farmers to plan for the next season so they can provide as much food to as many people as possible.

Jim Edwards is one of these farmers. He grew up on a dairy farm in the ’60s, saw his family farm transition into a tobacco farm and, for the past five years, a pepper farm. This year he planted 4 acres of sweet corn to go with his peppers.

Edwards helped start TRACTOR’s predecessor and has been working with TRACTOR since it started.

He said he tries to make a difference where he can, and TRACTOR allows him to do that.

“It’s a terrible thing to think about, having hungry people in a land that’s so bountiful with food,” Edwards said. “We shouldn’t have hungry people.”

Becca Smith is sales manager with TRACTOR Food and Farms, a nonprofit food hub located in Burnsville. Photo: Matt Rose/Carolina Public Press

How small-town food banks are helping

When money for food is hard to come by, many residents in this area are going to food banks like Neighbors Feeding Neighbors and Reaching Avery Ministry to make ends meet.

In Mitchell County, Neighbors Feeding Neighbors operates out of a stone house owned by a church. While the organization is not associated with this church — the directors belong to another — the church offered up its extra space.

Neighbors Feeding Neighbors was started by the Hoilmans only a few years ago. The couple said they prayed about whether or not to start the organization for two years. Because they had experienced food insecurity themselves and received help from their community when they needed it, they decided to start the organization to give back.

They started with only three families and asked Facebook friends for donations. After only a few days, their home was overflowing with food in response.

In the years since, the organization has grown exponentially. The Hoilmans moved into the stone house to have more space than their own home could provide, but they are quickly growing out of this location as well.

The house is packed floor to ceiling with food ready to be handed out. Shelves line the walls, and multiple refrigerators throughout the house are packed. Boxes are scattered on the floor, waiting to be sorted or delivered.

Most people serviced by Neighbors Feeding Neighbors are disabled or elderly and are unable to get to the pantry themselves, or they do not have the transportation necessary. Allen Hoilman, along with assistant director Josh Robinson and Jerry Sullens, who relies on Neighbors Feeding Neighbors himself, delivers food boxes to anyone who needs them, wherever they are.

“We work all day here,” Allen Hoilman said. “Everything you see has been touched by these hands. My wife is up at night filling out paperwork. Sometimes we don’t get in bed until midnight, only to wake up the next morning and do it all over again.”

Neighbors Feeding Neighbors needs more volunteers, but Amy Hoilman said the group is cautious about whom it selects. She said the organization doesn’t want volunteers to treat their families as if they are less than or talk negatively about them just because they are facing hard times.

Allen Hoilman said this is also something that concerns him because they see the poorest people in Mitchell County on a daily basis.

A situation that stands out to him is one in which someone was sleeping on an overturned picnic table on a mattress black with dirt to keep away from rats.

With no power or running water, they used the bathroom outside and stored what little food they did have in a cooler sitting in a creek.

With help from Neighbors Feeding Neighbors, they were able to get to a place with food storage and a suitable place to sleep.

Amy Hoilman said that if people are in a tough spot, Neighbors Feeding Neighbors tries not to turn anyone away, regardless of circumstances.

“That’s not what we’re about,” she said. “We don’t see religion, we don’t see race. We don’t care who you’re married to, man and man, woman and man, woman and woman. It don’t matter. If you come to us for help, we’ll help you.”

Reaching Avery Ministry operates on a slightly different model from a traditional food bank.

The front of the building holds a thrift store filled with donated items that are sold at a low cost to anyone in the community. The profits from the store cover the overhead needed to keep the organization running. What is left, along with all donations, goes into the food bank, which is in the back of the building.

To be eligible, recipients must complete an intake application consisting of name and address, who lives with them, if they work and where, and if they receive benefits. If they are receiving food stamps, they are automatically eligible to receive a box of food.

Millsaps said the organization does not have a baseline on who is eligible and who is not, instead operating on a case-by-case basis.

Those who are eligible can receive one box a month with enough food to last their household a week.

When recipients come in, they are greeted by an employee who gets their name and checks their file to make sure it is time for them to receive a box. While an employee prepares the box with meat and frozen and canned foods, recipients can go through boxes in the lobby. These boxes contain extra items like salad dressings, and vitamins can be selected to supplement their box.

Millsaps said many families come in once a month, but some only come once or twice when they are faced with hard times.

“They maybe don’t qualify for food stamps, but they’ve had some kind of traumatic experience, whether it be sickness or accident or some kind of loss of work, job or temporary loss of income that we would help them until they get back on their feet,” Millsaps said.

Small solutions to big problems

Millsaps said while she is grateful for the support the organization has, there is still no long-term solution to the systemic problem that is food insecurity.

Nonprofit organizations in the region can offer assistance to individuals in need, but defeating food insecurity will require economic growth. For Avery County, Millsaps said the only real solution is to bring in industry.

She said even a big-box retailer like Walmart would make a difference in the community by providing more people with stable jobs and benefits. But bringing in something like a Walmart poses more problems than just building in an isolated location.

Some Avery County residents would not want it, Millsaps recognizes. “I’m in the minority when I say I want a Walmart,” Millsaps said.

“They just want to stay with the smaller hometown businesses, and I try to support our small hometown business because I believe in them, I like them, but I think we need to grow to be able to survive.”

This article was originally published by Carolina Public Press. Carolina Public Press is an independent, in-depth and investigative nonprofit news service for North Carolina.

The Faces of Hunger project is a year-long reporting initiative from Carolina Public Press focusing on issues of food insecurity in rural North Carolina, including its impact, root causes and potential solutions. In addition to sharing the stories and experiences of people most impacted by hunger in the region, this in-depth project will include reporting on the issues and systems impacting hunger. Carolina Public Press will also offer opportunities for community dialogue and resource sharing.

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Faces of Hunger

Hungry People in Swain County, N.C., and Those Who Help

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Paul Crisp, 76, sits in the kitchen of his mobile home in Whittier. He has trouble making ends meet and benefits from groups like Living Waters in Swain County that provide hot food to the community. Photo: Matt Rose/Carolina Public Press

Hundreds of families in Swain County, North Carolina, regularly seek help for food and other needs from Living Waters Food Pantry and The Giving Spoon Meals Agency.

This article was originally published by Carolina Public Press. It is part two in a year-long series of stories focused on food insecurity in Western North Carolina, titled Faces of Hunger.

Paul Crisp of Whittier came March 20 to the Living Waters Food Pantry and Resource Center, located across Swain County in Cherokee, and took a seat outside on a wooden crate.

He drove a school bus for 37 years, a taxi for four more and helped build the highway to Dillsboro. But at age 76, he has little to show for a lifetime of hard work, he said. He only draws $441 a month in Social Security, which barely pays the bills.

That’s why he was there at the food pantry. That’s why, he said, he’ll need to find a job again. He’ll be 77 this month.

Women and men his age and younger, some with kids in tow, gathered around outside Living Waters Lutheran Church waiting for the pantry in its downstairs garage to open. Many of them come every time it’s open — for food, for clothes, for housewares, for a job and for a chance to be encouraged by a group that cares.

“I don’t know what I’d do if this place wasn’t here,” Crisp said. “I’ve been coming two or three years. When I run out of things, I come up here and get me some stuff.”

He scanned the crowd, pointing out the children he once drove to school who are all grown up now and waiting in line just like him.

Crisp lives alone, but in his need, he’s not alone.

Of the 14,730 people living in Swain County, nearly a quarter live in poverty. One in five face food insecurity, despite most of them having a job if they don’t have a criminal record.

“They think poverty is young people that are just too lazy to work,” said Lisa Russell, who runs the pantry. “No. Poverty is every age, and it’s every situation you can (imagine), and it’s not that they don’t want to work. We had a lady up here, she’s 71 and just went to work up here at one of the motels because she can’t make it month to month.”

‘Fixers in Indian Country’

Russell and her husband, who pastors the church on Locust Road where the pantry is housed, said they were called there 11 years ago. He is the only ordained Cherokee pastor in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.

“We’re the fixers in Indian country,” Russell said.

When they came to the church, only two parishioners were left. It took the Russells about two years to rebuild it. Then they visited the tribal leaders of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians to see what other services they could provide.

“We talked to the elders,” Russell said. “They said, ‘Well, one of our biggest situations is our commodities that the government sends us. We just don’t get that much.’ And at that time they didn’t … and they said, ‘We’ve got so many hungry people.’”

So the Russells looked into starting a pantry.

“It started off as … we saw a need and we said, ‘OK, we’ll do this little pantry, and it’ll be cute. We won’t have to do much,’” Russell said with a laugh.

“And it grew and it grew and it grew. We’ve got partners all over the whole United States that help fund this because we’re not funded by tribal government. We’re not funded by county government, state government or federal government.

“We beg, plead and write grants. And the reason is, then they can’t tell me who I can serve and who I can’t because if a person walks up here and they’re $5 over, I’m not going to look at them and tell them they can’t have something.”

The pantry serves people of all ethnicities and covers both Swain and Jackson counties. The pantry started with three people and one yellow wagon, nicknamed “Old Yeller,” to help carry the food to the cars, Russell said.

Now, Living Waters serves “anywhere from 525 to 700 families” a month, Russell said. “We have done as many as 2,100 individual people during a month,” she added. “I’m all over the place. When I wake up in the morning, my phone is blowing up.”

But it’s more than a food pantry. Living Waters also helps people, including some with criminal records, connect with companies that offer on-the-job training. Stuffed animals are suspended from the pantry’s ceiling for any kid who wants them. Living Waters has a clothes closet and boxes of housewares, toiletries and other items up for grabs.

Russell keeps a list of the things people need, from furniture to appliances to beds, and their phone numbers in her office that is half-commandeered by pantry boxes. Those who suffer house fires, face losing their kids to the Department of Social Services or other emergencies advance to the top of the list. She has partners and resources in both of the Carolinas, Georgia, Kentucky and Tennessee to help her find what the clients need.

“Everybody wants to fix the world, but they want to do it the simple way, and there’s nothing simple to poverty,” she said.

“People say we can get ’em jobs, we can get ’em housing, we can build HUD housing. Well, that ain’t gonna do no good if they don’t have a job to pay the rent or to turn the electricity on. Poverty is not simple. It’s a very complex situation. But most people want to look at one little aspect of it, and that’s how they’re going to save the world.”

Individuals with Dreams

The pantry focuses on the individual, Russell said. The Russells listen. They care.

“We don’t judge them,” she said. “We don’t live their lives. And that’s part of how we can get through to some of them where others can’t. We meet them where they are,” Russell said. “They can do more than they think they can do. And most of the time it is, they just need to be encouraged. They need to be listened to. They need to be told, ‘It’s not crazy to have a dream. It’s crazy not to follow your dream.’”

Russell asks nearly all of them about their dreams and ambitions.

“They have dreams. But they’re in this rut of intergenerational trauma and crap. Maybe mom never graduated high school, so mom can’t help them out. Mom’s been in poverty their whole life. They’ve been in these systems their whole life. They want out of these systems,” she said. “They’ve got these dreams about what they really want to do, but there’s nobody to help them and believe in them. So a lot of them, when they come up here, especially our little young mothers (I ask), ‘What was your dream before you had that baby?’”

Then, she dusts the cobwebs off those old dreams and breathes new life into them with small steps to make it real, Russell said. Giving them a three-year plan would overwhelm most of the people just trying to get through the day, she says, so Russell breaks it down into a week at a time.

“Until somebody says, ‘I believe in you,’ until somebody says, ‘You can do this.’ Maybe not the way Joe Blow over here does it, but who cares how it gets done as long as it’s done?”

Getting Help, Giving Back

She estimates that 95 percent of the people the agency has helped find work have stuck with the program. Some have even gone on to attain higher certifications and degrees. And the ones who are helped at the pantry almost always return to help others.

“This is their community. This is not a free handout. This is a step up,” Russell said. “I mean, they hit a speed bump, so help them over it. It’s just a step up, that’s all it is because most of them don’t want to be in the situations they’re in. Some of them do … but for the most part, they don’t.”

Most of the people she serves are no stranger to hard work, she said, and if survival skills could get them into corporate offices, they’d all be CEOs.

“They grew up helping their neighbor. They may not have a pot to pee in, but if their neighbor needs something, they’re gonna give it to them, and that’s how it works in a community,” Russell said.

Laughter and jokes echoed through the pantry with the almost rhythmic calls of “Coming through,” “Wagons to one side,” “Hey, darling!” and “We’ve missed you.”

Then come the shouts of a name for the next “shopper” to step on down.

“Paul!” shouted Dorine “MacGuyver” George. She was dubbed MacGuyver when the others around her noticed how she had a knack for fixing just about anything, like the hero of the television show by the same name. It was Crisp’s turn.

His name was called at 2:30 p.m.

He quietly stepped inside, smiled softly at the workers and made his way through the labyrinth of aisles picking out the staples that would have to last him until his next trip. He estimated he had just enough gas to get home from there.

Robert Bakhaus, 74, of Bryson City attends the Thursday meal at the Bryson City Presbyterian Church activity center provided by The Giving Spoon, a nonprofit organization whose mission is to provide hot, nutritious meals to the Bryson City community. Photo: Matt Rose/Carolina Public Press

The Giving Spoon

Ashley Parrish has a college degree. She majored in social work but suffered a stroke on her first day at the job.

She now lives in subsidized housing in Swain County and came to The Giving Spoon on March 28 to get meals for her and five of her neighbors in Bryson City.

“This place is great,” she said.

The Giving Spoon is a new community meals agency modeled off the popular Community Table in Sylva. The Giving Spoon feeds an average of 140 to 200 people a night four nights a week. In its third week on March 7, The Giving Spoon fed 75 people a hot meal, up from the 24 meals the agency served when it started.

Kathleen Burns founder of The Giving Spoon in Bryson City. Photo: Matt Rose/Carolina Public Press

“Our meals on Thursday nights are free to anyone who comes through that door, no questions asked,” said Kathleen Burns, who started the program after a long career in social work.

“Through all of my work, and especially the last few years, because I would work with families and children in their homes, I would just see the food insecurity.”

She’d seen the same thing from having worked with home health, hospice and with elderly people, Burns said.

“So I left there and I thought, ‘What can I do?’” she said.

She wanted to start a meals program in her home county, something others had talked about for years.

“We just kind of formed a committee and we said, ‘Let’s do this,’” she said.

The Giving Spoon operates from a restaurant-style approach where people pick from a menu, and volunteers serve them food on glass plates with real silverware.

Mackenzie Royce, 10, comes each week to help her family volunteer at The Giving Spoon. She is the meal site’s youngest volunteer and often leads the call in her family to come and serve. She attends a charter school in Bryson City and hasn’t seen a lot of need among her peers, but she sees it at the pantry.

“Our program is not serving just a hunger need. It’s serving a lot of other needs and it’s also bringing this community together,” Burns said.

Emily Weaver is a Carolina Public Press contributing writer. Send an email to info@carolinapublicpress.org to contact her.

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Faces of Hunger

Childhood Hunger Rampant in Parts of Western North Carolina

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Isabella Cole, 2, waits as a volunteer packs up a to-go dinner at The Giving Spoon at Bryson City, a nonprofit organization whose mission is to provide hot, nutritious meals to the community. Photo: Matt Rose/Carolina Public Press

Food insecurity drives hunger in entire families, but often hits children hardest. School and community programs targeting children seek to help.

This article was originally published by Carolina Public Press. It is part one in a year-long series of stories focused on food insecurity in Western North Carolina, titled Faces of Hunger.

A 3-year-old boy with long raven hair cried April 3 inside the Living Waters Food Pantry and Resource Center, which seeks to combat hunger in Cherokee. He squirmed on the hip of his mother, stretching for a toy as she reached for a can of vegetables.

He got his toy, and she got their food at the tribal pantry that serves two counties, both plagued with poverty.

One in every four children under the age of 18 in Swain and Jackson counties live in poverty, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Even more live in households that the U.S. Department of Agriculture has deemed “food insecure.”

“It’s very hard,” said Lisa Russell, who runs the Living Waters Food Pantry and Resource Center within the Qualla Boundary, home to the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians.

“I mean I’ve had young, especially young mothers who will come up, and somebody will holler, ‘Lisa, you’ve got a new one around the corner.’ I’ve had them standing here, and they’ll be crying, ‘I’ve never had to ask for help.’ I say, ‘Baby, you’ve come to the right place. That’s what we’re here for. We’re here to get you on your feet.’”

The Living Waters pantry and many others like it are in high demand across Western North Carolina, where MANNA FoodBank distributed more than 18 million pounds of food to hungry clients last year.

Swain County was ranked 99 out of the state’s 100 counties when it came to food security among children in the Public School Forum of North Carolina’s Center for Afterschool Programs’ Roadmap of Need 2018.

Several other western counties also ranked poorly, including Clay at 89, Yancey at 88, Mitchell at 85 and Jackson, McDowell and Macon tied for 75.

“In Western North Carolina, one in four children are food insecure,” said Amy Sims, the western zone coordinator and agency relations manager at MANNA. “But there are pockets where as many as four in five kids don’t have enough healthy food to eat. We look at the rates of use for the free school lunch program in each of the 16 counties that we serve, and there are more than 45,000 kids on the program, a number that continues to climb.”

One of MANNA’s primary tools to address childhood hunger is through its MANNA Packs and Summer Packs programs, which provided 186,716 bags of food to kids last fiscal year, she said.

“Children are our future, and there is no better investment than providing those in need with the healthy food they need for a solid foundation in life,” Sims said.

Hunger and Learning

Nearly a third of the children in Swain County live in food-insecure homes. According to the county’s school nutrition director, hunger can hinder their ability to learn.

No Kid Hungry North Carolina, which recently honored Swain County Schools for its summer meals program, agrees.

“Hungry children have trouble concentrating, get more headaches and infections, are more likely to be hospitalized and are less likely to perform well on athletic fields and in classrooms. It’s simply much harder for children at risk of hunger to thrive,” said Tamara Baker, project and communications director with No Kid Hungry NC, an initiative based at UNC Chapel Hill’s Center for Health Promotion and Disease Prevention.

“School breakfast and strong instruction mean more graduations,” she said. “Studies show that a student who eats a healthy breakfast scores up to 17 points higher that day on a math test.  School principals tell us that eating school breakfast improves focus, discipline and academic performance for kids.”

Every child in both of Swain County’s elementary schools is served free breakfasts and lunches every day.

“All kids eat free,” said Jennifer Brown, the county schools’ nutrition director. “They all have the option to have breakfast and lunch. The middle and high schools run at about 60 percent free and reduced lunches.”

But whatever isn’t eaten or taken by the children at school is thrown away.

“My granddaughter said, ‘Nan, … you wouldn’t believe the food they’re throwing away here at the school,’” said Kathleen Burns, a former social worker and mental health worker, who has since founded The Giving Spoon community meals site in Bryson City. Burns’ granddaughter teaches at West Elementary.

Burns said she and others working on the problem convinced teachers to start saving their untouched leftovers for her to pick up. The extra cartons of milk, juices, cheese sticks and other prepackaged food items that would have gone in the trash were stored in a refrigerator in the teachers lounge.

Burns drove to the school to pick it all up and took the items to a community cooler on the porch of The Restoration House in Bryson City. The cooler, in addition to a pantry called The Blessing Box on the porch, held food, drinks and other items that are free to anyone 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

“That’s what really started the trend of people … coming by there to get those milks,” Burns said.

Then word got around that only certain people were taking all of the food, she added, and “the refrigerator went away.”

Burns started taking the leftovers herself to struggling neighborhoods until the efforts to store the items became a hassle.

“I’d really, really like to get that going again,” she said. “If there is food, there is no reason why food should be thrown away.”

Brown says she and others place the leftovers from breakfasts served in the classrooms on a share table offered to students.

“Kids can get extras,” she said. “What is not taken does get thrown away. In terms of food that comes back to the cafeteria, if it is not a shelf-stable individually wrapped food, it is required to be discarded by health department regulations.”

Brown says she and others are looking at ways to reduce the waste.

“I was doing that, and then my focus kind of got on this,” Burns said, as she sat in an office inside Bryson City Presbyterian Church, where she started The Giving Spoon, in February.

“We have a lot of grandparents raising grandchildren in this county — lots,” Burns said.

“They don’t get a lot of support. They’re on fixed incomes. And a lot of times they’re elderly.”

The federal government’s Temporary Assistance for Needy Families and Women, Infants and Children programs weren’t designed with the elderly providing care to children in mind.

The elderly and children under the age of 18 make up more than 40 percent of Swain County’s population.

To reach the children in need, Burns put a call out to teachers on Facebook, encouraging them to invite their students out to dinner at The Giving Spoon.

“Our meals on Thursday nights are free to anyone who comes through that door. No questions asked,” she said.

“We have two kids that come on a regular basis with their mom every week that we’ve been open. One child came with her grandmother one time. And we’ve had some children volunteers to come with their parents. But we’re hoping to get more children in, and I’m starting to work with some of the school social workers in getting information out that we’re available now.”

Swain County Schools also offers an after-school supper program for kids. The program once only offered snacks, but now meals are served to every child for free.

Dante Shields, 8, left, and Sydney Toomey, 11, finish eating at The Giving Spoon, a nonprofit organization whose mission is to provide hot, nutritious meals to the community in Bryson City. Photo: Matt Rose/Carolina Public Press

Summertime Food in Swain

“The cafeteria ladies, they tell me stories about how kids will come in on a Monday morning, and they’ll get to school hungry so, you know, you just wonder what’s going to happen to them over the summer,” said Brown, the Swain County Schools nutrition director.

The district has been honored for its summer meals program.

“We actually have a very big program,” she said. “We partner with about 23 sites. All of our cafeterias are open in the summer, except the high school won’t be open this summer because of the renovations. But we partner with churches and some community organizations and some camps in Cherokee. We do a lot of meals.”

Brown says The Giving Spoon offers breakfast, lunch and supper to children throughout the county for free. Adults can buy plates for $3, she said.

“We know that kids decline in their learning over the summer because they come back to school in the fall behind where they left off,” Brown said in a Facebook video message the district posted on March 4. “Part of this is due to inadequate nutrition over the summer months.”

For those who couldn’t make it out to the cafeterias, Burns said, the teachers brought the food to them.

“They were bagged lunches, and they (the teachers) would go to the poor communities in this county,” she said. Her granddaughter was one of the teachers who helped.

“My granddaughter said that at one place (an old motel) … kids would be jumping out the windows or coming out the door, you know, just coming to get their meals,” Burns said. “They knew it was their mealtime. Those are the ones that needed the meals, and to take it out and hand it out to them, that was great.”

“Swain (County) is the No. 1 county in our state for serving summer meals to the highest number of their percent of need,” said Baker of No Kid Hungry NC. Meeting more than 45 percent of the needs for summer meals through its federal summer nutrition program, the district’s efforts exceeded those in every other county.

“Next closest was Transylvania County with 25.12 percent met,” Swain County Schools announced in a Facebook post on April 22. “We currently have 19 sites that served 48,313 total meals during the summer of 2018, which translates into some 915 students being served daily.”

Hungry Kids in Graham County

Southwest of Swain County in Graham County, nearly 25 percent of children were living in food-insecure homes in 2017. Community partners in Graham are also striving to combat child hunger.

The current food-insecure rate is an improvement from the 30.1 percent of children who lived with food insecurity there in 2015, but it’s still higher than the state’s average at 20.1 percent and the nation’s at 17 percent.

“Food insecurity among children in Graham County is still high,” said the Rev. Eric Reece of Robbinsville United Methodist Church.

“Many fall through the cracks and are not counted.”

Reece’s church joined Grace Fellowship Baptist Church and Stecoah Baptist Church to form the Graham Fellowship Food Distribution, an alliance that distributes food to those in need once a month.

In April, the fellowship gave food to 72 households, feeding 172 people.

“Graham County is a food desert,” Reece said. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention defines food deserts as areas that lack access to affordable fruits, vegetables, whole grains and low-fat milk.

“We have one full grocery store,” Reece said, noting that “transportation is a problem for many.”

MANNA leaders say they are trying to address that issue with Pop Up Markets.

“We send a box truck full of food, mostly produce, directly into communities in need and distribute on the spot,” Sims said.

“We work with community partners to find a location, help staff with volunteers and advertise. This innovative approach helps us reach families in need where there may not be a nearby grocery store or even a food pantry.”

The agency launched the pilot program last summer. Since then, it has partnered with communities at more than 20 locations, providing an average of 2,500 to 3,000 pounds of food at each one. Community members don’t need a nonprofit status or a brick-and-mortar building to request the markets. Several have been held in different locations around Graham County.

“Graham County is like much of rural America, a beautiful place with great people, just very few jobs that pay a living wage,” Reece said.

“Our younger population goes off to college and does not return.”

The average cost of a meal in Graham County is $3.01, higher than the state’s average at $2.87.

“We are passionate about seeing that children have good healthy food to eat. It is important for their well-being and growth,” Reece said.

“For the past four years, our main program is the once-a-month food distribution the first or second Wednesday of each month,” he added. With the help of MANNA and other partners, the fellowship provides “food demonstrations with recipe cards on much of the produce that is available in a given season.”

The group has also given out Leanne Brown’s “Good and Cheap: Eat Well on $4/Day” cookbooks.

“The challenges are trying to get the word out about the distributions to families. In addition, all our food distributions in the county are during the day, which makes it hard or impossible for working families to take advantage of (it),” Reece said.

With incomes at or vastly below the federal poverty level, 93 percent of the people living in Graham County qualify for nutrition programs, according to Feeding America’s Map the Meal Gap.

Agencies around Graham County try to host a food distribution every week, Reece said.

A local school hosts the Knights Pantry, sending food home with students on weekends, and the Grace Place at Liberty Missionary Church offers a free weekly meal, he added.

Jackson County Children

East of Swain County is Jackson County, where 23 percent of the estimated 43,639 residents live in poverty, according to the N.C. Department of Commerce’s AccessNC.

Sixteen percent of the population in Jackson County – more than 6,300 – is considered “food insecure.”

“Around 37 percent of those served by our food pantry and meals programs are children age 12 and under,” said Paige Christie, executive director of The Community Table in Sylva. “Only about 13 percent of those we serve are on food stamps, so most of the people we see are working at least one job or are elderly on fixed incomes, retired or children.”

The Community Table is in high demand these days.

“Through the years, we have seen a steady increase in the number of people needing both our programs,” Christie said.

“Living-wage jobs are limited in the area, as is affordable housing. Food costs and medical costs continue to rise for everyone. The poorest in our community are steadily more, more affected.”

Christie said the program started out feeding six to 10 people a night. Now, The Community Table serves around 134 meals a day, more than 27,000 meals a year and gives out more than 8,500 boxes of food.

“Some of the families we serve do not have ovens or sometimes even stoves,” Christie said. “For children, this means we face a challenge in providing the family healthy foods that are easy to store, easy to open and that children can fix for themselves. Part of the way we do this is by providing ‘kid bags’ for each child 12 and under in a household. These are small bags, filled with child-friendly foods, that are added to pantry boxes.

“Many of the children we see might only get one meal a day – often provided by the school, church or us – and so often they live in worry that they might miss that meal.”

Feeding Children in Polk County

To the southeast in Polk County, 73 percent of students are eligible for free or reduced-price lunches. Schools in Polk County offer free meals to every pupil in every elementary school.

“Participation in this (Community Eligibility Provision) program allows all students in grades prekindergarten through five to eat school breakfast and lunch free,” Superintendent Aaron Greene said.

The number of kids on the district’s free and reduced-price meals program has grown from 50 percent last year and 47.8 percent in the 2007-08 school year. The current number of district students on free and reduced-price meals is the highest it’s been in 10 years.

“In addition to CEP, we have a local agency, Thermal Belt Outreach Ministry, that supplies each of our seven schools with ‘food bags’ at the end of the week that needy students can take home to have meals over the weekend,” Greene said.

“Several local churches carry this program on during the summer months. We are fortunate to have that support for our students and families.”

The Polk County Community Foundation also supports the district “by providing extra food and snacks via small ‘food pantry’ setups in our schools,” Greene said.

“This helps counselors and principals get some food to hungry kids during the day.”

Emily Weaver is a Carolina Public Press contributing writer. Send an email to info@carolinapublicpress.org to contact her.

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