Food-insecure: Widespread hunger persists in WNC

Canned corn, green beans and big jars of pickles are stacked to the ceiling at MANNA FoodBank’s distribution center on Swannanoa River Road, yet even this well-stocked warehouse isn’t enough to feed the hungry in Western North Carolina.

And despite recent signs that the economy is improving, local food demand hasn’t slowed.

“We’re not seeing a diminished need at all,” notes Communications and Marketing Coordinator Joshua Stack. “Our agencies are reporting they consistently need more food, and we’re struggling to get them enough.”

One in six WNC residents access emergency food assistance each year through MANNA FoodBank’s providers, according to “Hunger in America 2010,” a study by Feeding America. The nonprofit is the nation’s largest hunger-relief organization.

“Our primary objective,” says Stack, “is the large-scale acquisition and distribution of food for our 230 partner agencies. Last year, we distributed about 9.7 million pounds of food across 16 counties.” Dedicated volunteers help MANNA keep up (see sidebar, “A Happy Experience”).

To many people, he observes, the extent of domestic hunger is “shocking, because we’re a nation of excess. The American dream is to get as many yachts as you can.”

Yet in 2010, 14.5 percent of households nationwide were “food insecure,” the Feeding America study found. That means they had limited or uncertain access to nutritionally adequate, safe food at some point during the year. At 15.7 percent, North Carolina was one of only nine states exhibiting significantly higher rates of food insecurity than the country as a whole.

Children at risk

UNCA economics professor Leah Greden Mathews, who teaches an “Economics of Food” class, blames the state’s unemployment rate.

“North Carolina has one of the persistently highest unemployment rates in the country,” she notes. “In Western North Carolina, we also have historically had relatively higher housing costs [compared] to the rest of the state. Especially as people are losing jobs, or not getting enough hours, they may not be able to make ends meet. If they have to pay a higher portion of their income for rent, that means less is available for food.”

Thus, underemployed people may still need food assistance, Mathews points out. According to the Feeding America study, 36 percent of the nation’s food-insecure households included at least one employed adult.

“Maybe they had a full-time job but employers cut their hours from 40 a week to 10, because they’re not as busy,” she explains. “Maybe their wages stayed the same, but … their overall income has dropped.”

Children also suffer the consequences. In 2009, 33,000 children accessed emergency food assistance in Western North Carolina alone, Feeding America reports. And chronic hunger, says Mathews, “can impair brain development. If you think about the long-term trajectory of our economic potential and what it takes to actually have a vibrant economy, we need to have educated folks. They have to be nutritionally prepared to actually become educated. I’ve personally had situations where if I’m hungry, I can’t concentrate, so I’m not going to be learning as well. In the long run, that has pretty significant impacts.”

The MANNA Packs Program, notes Stack, sends at-risk children home with 5-pound bags of food on Fridays to ensure they’ll have something to eat over the weekend. School breakfast and lunch programs also help keep kids from going hungry.

But pride, notes Mathews, can deter people from accessing food assistance. “For a lot of folks, especially if you’ve been a middle-income household and you’ve always been self-sufficient, it’s a big deal to admit to yourself that you need that kind of help.”

— Megan Dombroski is a senior journalism student at UNCA.

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