Imagine not knowing where your next meal will come from. You may live in a civilized town or go to Western Carolina University, but with school bills and housing you cannot afford to purchase a healthy, well-balanced meal three times a day.
For Jackson County, this is true for a number of citizens every day.
According to MANNA FoodBank, who provides food to non-profit agencies in 16 western North Carolina counties, 15.8 percent of Jackson County’s population falls under the food insecurity rate. That is 6,180 people who go hungry, and many of those are children.
Due to the economic and job crises, MANNA FoodBank and The Community Table in Sylva have seen a rise in numbers of how many people need food.
Alison Hixson, director of communications and marketing at MANNA, said that last year 25,196 pounds of food were given to The Community Table, which is a 9 percent increase compared to the year previous. Through the whole of Jackson County, Hixson said there was a 15 percent increase from the previous year of distributed food.
Amy Grimes, executive director of The Community Table, agreed that numbers have risen. Last year, The Community Table served 16,741 meals and provided 2,008 food boxes.
“We are certainly busier, especially in the wake of higher fuel and food costs,” said Grimes. “We continue to see new faces each week, folks needing help with the most basic need, nutritious food, so that they can also afford other necessities of medical care, rent, utilities, etc. Many folks have transportation issues, too. Especially in our rural area this can be a big problem.”
While some say that Jackson County is undergoing a food shortage, Grimes remarked that is not the case but said it falls on other problems.
“Technically, there is no shortage of food in our county, or anywhere in the world,” said Grimes. “The problem is distribution and lack of resources. The economic crisis has sharpened the divide though.
“In 2009, our numbers began to increase dramatically, and they only continue to rise,” Grimes continued. “We doubled the amount of food we provided in one year’s time. That was only possible with community support, for instance Wal-Mart began donating excess items to The Community Table. Without their weekly donations, we simply could not keep up with the need that is out there.”
Grimes added that usually The Community Table sees a slower flow of people during the summer. However, last summer that did not occur for the first time, and Grimes and the staff believe it will not happen again this summer.
Children are the ones who suffer the most as they cannot get the nutrition they need for healthy physical and mental development. The child food insecurity is 26.2 percent, according to the 2012 Map the Meal Gap.
“That an estimated 1,780 children who are food insecure,” said Hixson. “Also, not all children who are food insecure are eligible for federal nutrition assistance.”
MANNA helps hungry children in Jackson County by providing a “pack.”
“We also serve an average of 173 kids each school week in Jackson County via our MANNA pack program,” said Hixson, “where we pack up a nutritious five-pound bag of food and give it to qualified, low-income children on Fridays to help make sure they have something to eat over the weekend.”
More and more college students are also feeling the pangs of hunger as they are weighed down by increasing tuition and living costs.
Leigh Puttus, chief of programs and agency relations at MANNA, said that universities like Oregon State and University of Arkansas – Fayetteville along with others have established pantries on their campuses to meet the needs of hungry students who cannot afford healthy choices at grocery stores or restaurants. This hunger causes fatigue, headaches and the inability to concentrate during classes.
“Obviously, students are under a lot of stress with their tuition and financial aid and just their general economic status while in school, and it appears there is a growing food security issue with them as well,” said Puttus.
MANNA and its 231 partner agencies like The Community Table are working together to lower the food insecurity rate as much as possible.
“One of the efforts that we are engaging in right now is trying to help our partner agencies expand their programs,” said Puttus. “We’re helping them build infrastructure … and expanding their facilities and hours of operation. Many of them are limited in the services they can provide, which translates into people’s needs not being met, but they’re doing all they can. With more community support, we can come closer to closing that gap.
“We have a strategic plan that we have just refreshed,” continued Puttus. “With interventions designed to bring in more food, more resources … and increase the awareness about the issue, communities will respond when they understand the need.”
Also, a new MANNA partner opened four months ago in Cashiers.
“The woman that’s running it is an organic gardener,” said Puttus. “She comes to the position with an extreme interest in nutrition and quality food supply.”
To lower the rate and to try to feed parts of Jackson County, The Community Table provides more than dinner at their facility.
“We also provide food boxes for home use to help folks get by when we’re not open,” said Grimes. “We’d love to be able to be open seven days a week, but it’s simply not in our budget at this time.
“Also, we have been renovating our soon-to-be new home next to Sylva pool for over a year,” continued Grimes. “We have long needed a permanent home and more space, but the great expense of extensive renovations has left our budget strained.”
Grimes added that the best part of her job working as executive director is the family atmosphere.
“Being able to help someone isn’t even just about food,” she said. “It’s about providing a sense of community in a welcoming environment. Often what people need most is just a kind shoulder and someone to confide in.”
Puttus, who has worked at MANNA FoodBank for 20 years, agreed that working for such a cause is as life changing for the employees as it is for the people who come for food.
“You can see a family’s stresses reduced by a bag of groceries, you realize we all eat every day, but when you’re not sure how you’re going to feed your children supper, it helps you realize indeed that this is a significant way for the community to respond,” said Puttus. “It is a crisis.”
Puttus and Hixson both stressed that the Farm Bill and Food Stamp bills are currently being looked at and are facing severe budget cuts. The Farm Bill allows better access to healthier food that is affordable as well as stable food prices, according to website Food & Water Watch. The bill also helps farmers in providing a “fair marketplace” and a positive environment impact, the website added. Should the bill’s funding be cut, there will be serious consequences for farmers and consumers of all income brackets.
“The general public doesn’t understand that the nutritional safety net programs fall under the Farm Bill,” said Puttus. “It kind of gets buried in there with all the agricultural support programs, which are all important, but the safety net programs regarding food for families, children and seniors also lives in the Farm Bill.”
For the future, there is a hunger study currently in the works that will have results published in 2014. MANNA FoodBank will recruit volunteers in the fall who can conduct interviews next spring for the study. John Whitmire and Chris Cooper, both WCU professors, are involved in the project.
MANNA FoodBank encourages Jackson County community members and Western Carolina University students to seek out help if they need assistance with getting enough food. According to their website, there are 11 partners in Jackson County willing and able to help those in need, including The Community Table, SOAR in Balsam and Life Challenge of WNC in Cullowhee. You can also call MANNA at 828-299-3663 for advice on how to apply for food stamps and more helpful information.
MANNA FoodBank and its partners are all non profit and rely on donations and volunteers to continue serving western North Carolina. They are open from 8-4, Monday thru Saturday and are located in Asheville. Please call the above number for how you can help by donating food or volunteering at their facilities.
The Community Table also needs donations and volunteers. Please call 828-586-6782 for more information on how to get involved in your community and give back. Your contributions and assistance lower the food insecurity gap and help hungry neighbors get the type of nutrition they deserve.