The whack-a-mole arcade game, adapted from a Japanese concept and first introduced to U.S. players in the 1970s, was simple to grasp: As moles emerged from one of five holes on a waist-high flat playing surface, players armed with mallets would attempt to whack said moles back into said holes. Easy enough. Except that for every mole successfully whacked into submission, another one or two would tauntingly pop up again.
Since COVID-19 emerged in early 2020, local nonprofits dedicated to meeting the needs of food insecure citizens have been engaged in what feels like an endless game of whack-a-mole, no sooner subduing one obstacle before another rears its menacing head.
“At first, with everyone sheltering in place, the challenge was how do we keep our volunteers and keep delivery going,” recalls Debbie Sprouse, executive director of Meals on Wheels of Asheville and Buncombe County.
Immediately after the lockdown, she adds, there was a jump in clients, which precipitated a need to produce more meals and add more routes. “But we did it, and at a certain point we said, ‘OK, we’ve got this!’
“But fast-forward to today, and the cost of food is going crazy, the supply chain is still totally unpredictable, and fuel costs are through the roof,” Sprouse continues. “It does feel like it’s always something.”
Ali Casparian, founder and executive director of Black Mountain-based Bounty & Soul, echoes Sprouse’s observations. “In the beginning, it was all about how to meet the dramatically increased client numbers and figuring out the logistics of distributing safely. Now we are dealing with rising food and fuel costs, which on a client level creates more need and increases our operational costs.”
Part of Bounty & Soul’s mission is to bring healthy produce received from grocery chains or purchased from area farms to residents experiencing food insecurity. Packaged boxes are distributed twice weekly to more than 300 cars in the parking lot of the vacant Bi-Lo market, 205 N.C. 9, Black Mountain; once a week the organization also delivers to the mercadio communitario de Sherwood, serving the Latin community at 21 Sherwood Park Drive, Swannanoa.
While supply chain and staffing issues continue to impact the amount of food Bounty & Soul receives, rising fuel prices are also increasing the nonprofit’s bottom line.
“I nearly hit the ground when I saw our gas bill right after fuel prices jumped,” Casparian says.
Using diesel engines to carry its produce throughout Black Mountain and Asheville, as well as parts of Haywood and McDowell counties, has more than doubled the nonprofit’s travel expenses. “Whatever I experience at the pump when I fill my car pales in comparison,” Casparian says.
Kara Irani, director of marketing and communications for MANNA FoodBank, says the constantly changing variables of the pandemic have kept her organization, which serves 16 WNC counties, on its toes. “We really haven’t had a chance to catch our breath from rebalancing one thing before another thing comes along and we’re chasing our tails again. It’s a constant battle.”
Irani says the nonprofit’s services are at a record high — before the pandemic, monthly distribution reached about 70,000 people; in March, MANNA served over 116,000 residents. The ongoing health crisis, adds Irani, has been particularly hard on mothers, especially those who left the workforce at the start of the pandemic to stay home with children and now face unaffordable and scarce options for child care as they try to return.
“Food costs to consumers are a huge part of why we continue to see so many people,” Irani says. “Seniors and others on fixed incomes don’t have wiggle room as prices rise, especially for healthier foods like fresh vegetables.”
Irani notes that increased benefits through the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program have been helpful but were also offset by the rise in food costs. Furthermore, she says that when the monthly Child Tax Credit ended in January, it put more stress on struggling families.
On top of a growing clientele, MANNA has had to purchase much more of its inventory, facing the same inflation crisis everyday shoppers experience. “The pandemic has completely changed our donation structure,” Irani says. “Pre-pandemic, probably 85% of our inventory was donated, mostly by wholesale entities. After the first year, it was around 65%, and now we’re lower than that, mostly due to supply chain issues. Even perishable food drive donations have dipped because people have had to cut back what they can purchase at retail to donate. It puts a lot of pressure on us to purchase — and at much higher costs.”
Sprouse of Meals on Wheels says she experiences sticker shock every month. “Pre-pandemic, our grocery bills were about $17,000 per month. Now it’s up to about $25,000 per month. Food and food supplies, like the containers we use, are up 21%. Pre-pandemic, we delivered about 100,000 meals a year, and since then it’s about 125,000 a year. That need is not going away.”
These issues, Casparian adds, are not unique to food nonprofits. “Everyone — individuals and organizations — is going through it,” she says. “We all have to make decisions based on what we can do, what our resources are and how to best use those resources. It takes a lot more planning, effort and energy. It’s a collective effort.”
With metaphorical mallets in hand, the nonprofits continue to whack away at the lingering aftershocks of the pandemic and the persistent problems of food insecurity. Collectively, they assert that what inspires them on a daily basis are their donors and volunteers, as well as the glimpses of pre-pandemic normalcy.
“We are getting back to some choice markets again where clients can shop for their food rather than have a pre-packed box put in their car,” says Irani. “We are doing well with volunteers. So many new folks stepped in to help when our older volunteers had to step back, but since vaccines, [our older volunteers] have come back. We just hosted our first really big virtual food drive in March, and thanks to a donor who gave us $100,000 as a matching challenge, we raised over $200,000 to buy fresh vegetables, which we desperately needed.”
Sprouse notes that rising fuel costs have put an additional burden on volunteers, many of them retired seniors. Yet, when some MOW supporters donated gas cards, the volunteers declined. “They all said they had already made adjustments to continue driving and we should use the cards for our vans,” Sprouse says.
Like other organizations, MOW has not been able to do its signature annual fundraiser, Plate Expectations, since 2019. And yet, says Sprouse, the plate gets replenished. “We have some incredibly supportive businesses that pick us up. Maybe in the past, they did a $2,500 sponsorship for Plate Expectations, but now they send us a $10,000 check to keep us going. Our community has been incredible.”
Casparian sees many silver linings emerging from the storm clouds of the last two years, among them a significant increase in volunteer hours, stronger relationships with the local food system and a deeper outreach to the Hispanic community.
“When we’ve been able to take a minute and reflect, we’re pretty amazed at what we’ve been able to do,” she says. “You have to be adaptable and resilient. I am reminded of the victory gardens Americans [planted] during World War II. We all have that within us. When a crisis hits, we can come together and figure it out. “