An 18-foot tree made of nonperishable food items and assorted household products, in a mall decked out in artificial candy canes: It’s as natural a fit as highlighting poverty in a place where commerce reigns and cash registers ring with cheerful abundance.
“One of my goals for this season is to draw just a little bit of attention away from that $73 bottle of perfume to the great work that MANNA and its volunteers do for the hungry this Christmas,” says Sally Spiegel, an Asheville professional decorator, who returns for the second year as the Ingles Giving Tree’s chief stylist. In that capacity, she will pass on nothing — not toilet paper nor liquid laundry detergent — to make sure this Asheville Mall tradition serves as an eye-catching and wallet-tugging reminder to passing shoppers that in this season of giving, more than 100,000 people in the region still struggle to meet their most basic needs.
When the Giving Tree, built out of items donated from Ingles Markets, was lit up the Monday before Thanksgiving, MANNA FoodBank volunteers were ready to educate mall visitors and accept food and cash donations throughout the holiday season. Raffles for Ingles Markets gift cards help with the cause. Last year, according to Ron Freeman, Ingles’ chief financial officer, mall visitors donated $35,000 and 26,000 pounds of food to MANNA.
As for Ingles’ perspective, Freeman says, the Giving Tree seems to be the perfect metaphor for the growing need to fight poverty from the roots up.
“Hunger is pre-emptive when it comes to improving quality of life,” he says. “If it is not addressed, it is difficult for people to make progress in other areas. There is not a better fit for us to have a positive impact.”
MANNA, which serves as a conduit between area donors, growers, producers, wholesalers and food charities, distributed more than 14 million pounds of food in 2013, according to its annual report. More than 2 million pounds of those were donated by Ingles.
Building the Giving Tree itself requires little beyond brute strength and a nimble sense of balance, says MANNA volunteer Rudi Sommer, who has been in charge of the tree for 17 of its 22 Christmas seasons.
“We do it without cranes or lifts; the good news is that you lean inward as you get up in height,” he says with a laugh at the improbability of creating something special out of the mundane, and in a mall of all places. “There is always that moment, when you find yourself perched 14 feet above the ground on a ledge of cans, looking out into the dark mall, and you wonder, ‘How did I get here?'”
That may be the question some 107,600 Western North Carolina residents asked themselves as they sought food assistance in 2013, according to research in the “Hunger in America” report compiled by Feed America, a nationwide network of food banks. The survey reports that more than half of all families reaching out for sustenance included at least one adult with a paying job, though almost two-thirds subsist on $10,000 or less per year. In all, 38,000 children in the 16 counties that make up WNC could not count on three square meals a day in 2013.
“I think it is OK for all of us to be just a little bit uncomfortable as thoughts turn to the holidays,” says Becky Upham, MANNA’s director of communications and marketing. “We do get a lot of generosity toward the end of the year, and we feel that our supporters don’t forget about us” she adds, “but the people we serve have to make tough spending trade-offs in January and February.”
While adequate nutrition is a year-round struggle for many, Upham says that the winter months often fray already lean fixed incomes past the breaking point. “During this time of the year, it quickly becomes a question of food or electricity, or blood pressure medicine,” Upham says. This is especially worrisome for the almost 20,000 seniors who got food assistance in 2013, many of whom are the sole caregivers of school-age children.
Food is one of the most vital means of charity, says Lynne Michael, a social worker for Homeward Bound, a nonprofit agency dedicated to helping homeless individuals and families.
“We all need food to survive,” she says. “Hunger affects us physically and mentally, and in order for each of us to be our best, we need good nutrition.”
Michael is part of the Haywood Street Welcome Table, which is one of 211 partner organizations that rely on MANNA for supplies. Welcome tables, along with open markets, are a more contemporary interpretation of the soup kitchen and food pantry. Several area welcome tables focus on a more inclusionary weekly meal that brings together paying and needy patrons for healthy food cooked by local chefs and their staff. “We get a really varied crowd,” Michael says of Haywood’s Wednesday lunches. “Whether it is the homeless person or the office worker or attorney from down the block, we work to build relationships, and a nutritious, satisfying meal is a good place to start.”
To start a new holiday tradition, consider volunteering against hunger in Western North Carolina. For a complete listing of area organizations, go to mannafoodbank.org and click on Food Finder. To donate food, make a financial donation or give a vehicle for a tax credit, contact MANNA at 299-3663.