Food pantry initiatives aid underserved communities

HELP IS ON THE WAY: Talya Mazuz Food Program Director Hart Groves prepares orders at the Tranzmission office. Photo by Jenifer Sterling

Large hunger-relief nonprofits like MANNA FoodBank do a tremendous job of feeding people across Western North Carolina, but various obstacles nevertheless arise that keep resources from reaching those in need. (For more, see “Food for Thought: Area Nonprofits Fight Hunger Despite Supply Chain Woes,” Xpress, Nov. 10.) To help fill those gaps, several food pantry initiatives have arisen during the COVID-19 pandemic, serving marginalized communities in search of nourishment at a time when food insecurity is especially dire.

Destined to serve

Food has been a part of Tranzmission’s offerings in some fashion since its inception in the early 2000s. Back then, the Asheville-based education, advocacy and support nonprofit for nonbinary, transgender and gender-nonconforming people was involved with the local Food Not Bombs group, providing a stove and helping pass out meals downtown.

Over the years, Tranzmission has hosted Passover Seder meals, which welcomed such community members as Talya Mazuz, who passed away in 2012 at the age of 27. As needs within the Tranzmission community gradually rose, establishing an official food program increasingly made sense. When the pandemic struck, the organization polled its network members regarding what service would help them during this difficult time, and in response, the Talya Mazuz Food Program was launched in March 2020.

The contactless delivery and pickup service operates out of the Tranzmission office in downtown Asheville. Food program director Hart Groves, who uses they/them pronouns, says the pantry strives to provide a diverse array of foods from MANNA and Trader Joe’s, offering various dry and shelf-stable goods.

“We always work to keep a good stock of vegan and gluten-free options, refrigerated veggies, frozen meats and meals, and we work to provide personal hygiene items, as well as household cleaners, toilet paper, trash bags and pet supplies,” Groves says. “If the food program’s clients have a need, we try to meet it.”

Stocked and maintained by Groves and “a bunch of wonderful volunteers,” the pantry prioritizes serving the nonbinary, transgender, gender-nonconforming and queer community in WNC but does not turn away anyone who wants food support.

“We are prioritizing our specific community because oftentimes the rate of food insecurity is much higher amongst transgender and queer individuals. This has a lot to do with institutional stresses and social and cultural stigma affecting job prospects, housing opportunities and stability in general,” Groves says.

“Additionally, there are seen and unseen barriers to traditional support services, like food banks and pantries that keep transgender and queer people from accessing them easily and comfortably, or sometimes at all. Tranzmission decided to remove those barriers, like requiring one’s legal name or income information, in order to make food as accessible as possible.”

In fall 2020, Tranzmission Executive Director Jenifer Sterling and her team of directors decided to make the pantry a permanent part of Tranzmission’s programming, recognizing its importance in reducing food insecurity for its particular service community. She notes that many people within these groups remain food insecure even without pandemic-related pressures and that helping them eat is only one part of a larger goal.

“Their food insecurity often comes from job and housing insecurity, which is often informed by discrimination, transphobic actions and hostile legislation,” Sterling says. “While the pantry is a meaningful contribution to the support of transgender and nonbinary people in our region, it is also a very small step on the path toward full and equal rights and representation for a marginalized and often maligned group of people.”

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Structural additions

Planning for an emergency is one thing, but responding in the midst of one is something else entirely. That was the situation that confronted the Asheville Buncombe Food Policy Council’s Emergency Food Preparedness working group at the onset of the pandemic, though its members were fortunate to have somewhat of a head start.

“We were trying to get a feel for neighborhoods and reaching out to them to see where the needs were that we could possibly try to help supplement,” says working group member Isa Whitaker, coordinator of Bountiful Cities’ Asheville Buncombe Community Garden Network. “We were talking to the Red Cross and learning about the way [the Federal Emergency Management Agency] does its rollout in emergencies — just learning all the ins and outs.”

Inspired by small food pantries and farm stands they’d seen around town, the working group members then went out in pairs to neighborhoods, including Deaverview, Haw Creek and East End, with Whitaker and Mary Lou Kemph focusing on Shiloh. There, they found willing allies in the Shiloh Community Association, whose members Whitaker says were already having conversations about food emergencies. Together, they soon had an outdoor pantry built in the Shiloh Peace Garden.

Whitaker compares the pantries — designed by local carpenter Keenan Phillips — to slightly larger versions of the Little Free Libraries and notes that they were implemented quickly. In addition to the pantry at Shiloh Peace Garden, Phillips also constructed one at St. James AME Church and will be putting up an additional pantry in Deaverview.

COMMUNITY EFFORT: East End residents come together to install a new food pantry adjacent to the St. James African Methodist Episcopal Church. Photo courtesy of Asheville Buncombe Food Policy Council

“Early into lockdown, there were a lot of supplies around the office that were being distributed — household supplies and cleaning supplies and all different stuff aside from food that was being taken to the different pantries. Or, if there wasn’t a pantry built, to a central [neighborhood] location,” Whitaker says. “There was definitely a quick response that we tried to have in order to get stuff to folks once it started to become a little unclear of how the future was going to look.”

Once a pantry is in place, neighborhood leaders then take on the responsibility of keeping it filled. Norma Baynes, assistant liaison for the Shiloh Community Association, notes that Shiloh residents regularly donate nonperishable items and that Peace Garden volunteers also contribute exciting seasonal items.

“The garden crew that we have makes sure it’s continually stocked, and people are using the things that are in there,” Baynes says. “And during the time that we have fresh vegetables and things from the garden, we also put those in there.”

One of the founders of the SCA and its liaison for nearly 18 years, Baynes has been encouraged by both the garden’s popularity among neighborhood youths — “We try and make sure they’re eating healthy snacks,” she says with a laugh — and the pantry’s steady use, which she stresses isn’t restricted to Shiloh residents.

“It’s open to everyone,” she says. “If you are in need, please come and get whatever you can use for your family. That’s important to us.”

Whitaker says that the ABFPC working groups plan to film the process of building an outdoor food pantry so that interested parties near and far can more easily participate. But with winter approaching, extra consideration will have to be taken to continue serving those who need what the pantries offer.

“It’ll likely switch a little bit more into specific cans and boxed stuff. There probably won’t be as much produce, but some of the winter crops might be available,” he says. “We’ll also be looking at what type of supplies will be good for the winter, because it’s coming up fast.”

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About Edwin Arnaudin
Edwin Arnaudin is a staff writer for Mountain Xpress. He also reviews films for and is a member of the Southeastern Film Critics Association (SEFCA) and North Carolina Film Critics Association (NCFCA). Follow me @EdwinArnaudin

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