Food insecurity is a much larger problem than most people realize. It is more than simply having to budget at the grocery store or rationing food portions at home. People who are food insecure are unable to consistently access fresh and affordable food. Many factors such as the distance to grocery stores, available transportation, time to prepare meals, and lack of kitchen equipment contribute to food insecurity. It is way more than just having the necessary funds to purchase groceries. If a person has no way of accessing fresh food, they cannot buy it.
The projected average for overall food insecurity in North Carolina in 2021 is 14.8% according to Feeding America, with a large portion of higher percentages being in Western North Carolina counties. There is also a correlation between larger populations of minority groups and higher levels of food insecurity. In 2019, the overall state average for food insecurity was 13.5% and this number elevated drastically to 15.6% in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The ongoing pandemic contributed to a rise in food insecurity numbers, as many shelters, community kitchens, and food banks had to shut down or change their daily operations to accommodate safety regulations.
However, Western North Carolina was ‘famous’ for high levels of food insecurity long before the pandemic ever began. The global health crisis only increased the need for food in many families and caused a decrease in overall donations.
An important aspect of food insecurity that should be highlighted is the impact of hunger on children.
According to Feeding America’s projections for 2021, in Jackson County, 17% of people are considered food insecure and 21% of the children in Jackson County live in food-insecure households. Simply put, every one in five kids living in the county goes hungry every day. In 2019, according to the same organization, the food insecurity rate in Jackson County was less than 16%. In 2020, 18% of Jackson County residents were considered food insecure and 24% of children lived in food-insecure households.
View additional data from Feeding America on Jackson County and nine other surrounding counties here.
Local organizations and churches help with food distribution by supplying hot meals, food boxes, and access to food pantries. However, that is not always enough to keep a family full. Many people who use these services are also enrolled in federally funded programs like SNAP and WIC.
The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program(SNAP), previously known as food stamps or FNS, is a government-funded program designed to help supplement monthly incomes so people can afford to buy food. Funds are distributed monthly onto an Electronic Balance Transfer(EBT) card and can be used as a debit card at participating grocery stores.
Pamila Austin, supervisor of the Food and Nutrition Services Unit in Jackson County, explained the process for applying to SNAP.
“Clients can apply online thru epass.nc.gov, or they can drop off, mail or fax applications to the agency. Applications can also be completed over the phone. As far as a permanent address, the policy allows for homelessness or couch surfers, but they must be staying somewhere in the county they apply in,” Austin said. “College students can also receive benefits if they meet certain criteria and do not have a meal plan.”
In Jackson County, about 11% of people are enrolled in SNAP. This percentage has increased from 2019 when only 8% of residents used SNAP.
According to the USDA SNAP State Activity Report for Fiscal Year 2019, the average monthly benefit distributed per person was $126.43. Recently the federal government announced that food assistance benefits would be increased starting in October by an average of 25% above pre-pandemic levels. This is the largest increase since the start of the program in 1975.
“As a result, the average SNAP benefit – excluding additional funds provided as part of pandemic relief – will increase by $36.24 per person, per month, or $1.19 per day,” stated the USDA in a press release on Aug. 16.
In 2019, over 1.2 million North Carolina residents received SNAP benefits.
The Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children(WIC) is a federally funded grant program that provides food supplement funds through an EBT card, as well as nutrition education and health screening to “any eligible pregnant, postpartum, and breastfeeding women, infants, and children up to five years old.”
Eligibility for WIC is determined by income level, state residency and “nutritional risk”. A health screening is provided to determine “nutritional risk”, which is defined by either medical risk or dietary inadequacy.
According to Lee Lillard, WIC director of Jackson County, there are currently about 830 WIC participants in the county.
Applications for the WIC program are handled through the Jackson County Department of Public Health.
While SNAP and WIC benefits are certainly beneficial to struggling families, they are not the answer to solving food insecurity permanently.
Circles of Jackson County is a program dedicated to educating and mentoring families to enable them to achieve financial stability and self-sufficient incomes. Their program encourages people to learn the limits of their government benefits, such as SNAP, to help plan and save for the future when benefits are no longer available.
“What I like to say is that we are the second step. We’re not an emergency services agency. We don’t deal with people that are in crisis. The analogy I use is that they are not drowning. They have their head above water, but they are still standing in the nasty pond, and they’d like to get out on the shore,” Dawn Neatherly, director of Circles of Jackson County, said.
The Circles program consists of a 15-week training course that teaches members to understand the various aspects of poverty. After completion of the course, each member is paired with a mentor that works with them for 18-months to help find resources, set goals, and solve problems.
Neatherly explained an important lesson that is taught during the course.
“We use the term ‘cliff effect’, and it is the fact that government benefits are set with certain baseline levels and those don’t correspond to a living wage. So, there’s a point where you may be offered a raise by your employer or a better job option, but it’s not enough for you to be able to take care of your family. But it is enough for you to lose benefits. So, it’s a cliff, you’re climbing and you’re doing great, and then you fall,” Neatherly said.
Neatherly added that the first benefit that people lose after receiving a pay raise or new job is their SNAP benefits. This leaves families, once again, struggling to afford food.
“After losing SNAP benefits, the next step is to check Jackson County. We have phenomenal food assistance available in the community. There are meals that are served in churches and there are food banks and food distribution. If you know where all of those things are, you can lose your food stamps and still be able to sustain your family with food,” Neatherly said.
Some of these resources include the United Christian Ministries of Jackson County. With proof of residency in Jackson County, the ministry can provide food, household supplies, and occasionally small amounts of financial aid for bills.
The Community Table is another great resource that is open to anyone in need. They provide free, hot meals four days a week. Due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, all meals are being served to-go. They also have a food pantry distribution day every two weeks.
Another issue that arises with food insecurity is the quality of food that is available, and the health problems associated with it.
A member of Circles of Jackson County who wanted to remain anonymous for this story explained her struggles to afford healthy food solely on SNAP benefits. She suffers from severe health issues and has been trying to get disability aid for the past two years, so her income is extremely limited. She was homeless for a while and relied on shelters, however, she is now living with a friend in Jackson Co. She is a college graduate, a mother of two adult children and she played classical music professionally for many years. She receives about $196 in SNAP funding per month and struggles to make it last.
“The snap benefits cover most of what I need in a month. But my weight has become a bigger problem because I can’t exercise. The things that are cheap in a store to buy are the things that are totally unhealthy. I try to buy better things so that I don’t have to suffer the consequences of getting the cheaper things. So, I do run out of SNAP funds when I go shopping about once a month,” she said.
She also explained the overwhelming need for healthy options at food pantries. People tend to lean towards comforting, processed foods when deciding to donate. However, the better option is to opt for naturally healthy, nutritious foods to help provide alternatives to what is normally available.
The USDA recently released a study focusing on the struggles SNAP participants face when trying to maintain a healthy diet. Over 88% of study participants reported one or more issues with achieving a healthy diet. 61% reported that the cost of healthy foods was the problem and 30% reported that they lacked the time to cook healthy foods from scratch. Other barriers included lack of kitchen equipment or food storage, lack of transportation to stores, and physical disabilities.
When families lose access to WIC or SNAP benefits or require additional help to feed their children, they can access food aid programs for children over the age of five that are funded by the Jackson County Public School System.
Free or reduced breakfast and lunch is available to students and families who apply. With the COVID-19 pandemic, free meals are offered to all students without an application for the 2021-2022 school year. Read more about school-funded food programs here.
There is no clear-cut answer to solving food insecurity, as every person has a different struggle and a different story. However, with resources such as Circles of Jackson County, everyone can begin to educate themselves on how to find food or how to be a supporter of those in need.
“I think the first element to finding assistance is always psychological. Understanding that there is no shame or failure in accepting help. Sometimes we get stuck in this mindset that if I have to have help to feed my family, I must be failing. That’s just not the case. Using the resources available to you is a sign of problem-solving. It is a sign of making a difference in your family’s lives and it’s a positive thing. We want to make sure people don’t feel defeated by the need to use resources,” Neatherly said.