The volunteers load the hot lunches and pantry boxes of canned goods into the back of the car before venturing down the bumpy dirt road to the far side of the mountain holler. Eventually, the car slows to a stop when it reaches a creek it can’t traverse.
“You have to cross this bitty bridge or wade across the stream, and then someone will meet you down there, and they’ll have a little ATV or something for the meal,” says Milton Ready, a Madison County resident who helps distribute food to those in need. “Then they’ll take you up to this cabin where an old woman lives — she never learned how to drive and now lives by herself since everyone else has died off.”
Stories such as Ready’s are the reality of poverty in rural mountain areas, marked by a lack of transportation, infrastructure and access. In June, July and August, the problems worsen, says Kara Irani, director of communications and marketing for MANNA FoodBank, as the children of families who rely on free or reduced-price school lunches are home on summer break.
“Everything is different — every single organization does it differently — but at the end of the day, people just want to get more food to kids,” Irani says. “One in every four children doesn’t know where their next meal is coming from — but it doesn’t take much to get food out to people if you know what it is that you’re capable of doing and what you can offer.”
Bumps in the road
In Western North Carolina, just gaining access to rural communities is one of the biggest challenges that food distribution sites face, Irani says. “WNC is really unique when it comes to being able to provide direct service to people — the rural isolation, the lack of major highways or even just us being able to drive our big trucks out there,” she says. “There’s no mass transit here; people already struggle just trying to get from home to job, especially in those rural areas where there’s not a lot of employment very close by. Imagine kids stuck at home in the summer: If you’re not at a camp or dropped off at a church or something, you’re pretty isolated.”
Across the nation, summer meals are provided for children ages 2-18 as part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Summer Food Service Program. Federally funded open-site feeding locations sponsored by school districts, local organizations and individuals tend to be located at area pools, community centers and in densely populated neighborhoods.
In Buncombe County, school nutrition officials work with community members to identify areas where children from all socio-economic backgrounds can come and access a hot meal, says Lisa Payne, Buncombe County Schools nutrition director. “We turn over every stone, drive down every rural road and consult our bus drivers, local churches who know the areas and talk to community members to find the areas with the most need.”
Yet the model is less applicable when examining rural areas of WNC, Irani says. “It’s a fabulous program, and they’ve really helped a lot of people, but for our area, unfortunately, it’s not that effective,” she explains. “You have to eat a meal on-site, and you can’t take any food with you, so it’s still the whole problem of getting kids to those locations. For that, isolation continues to be the issue, even when there is a meal available, whether it’s at a community pool or a lot of trailer parks that have a community meal.”
Thinking outside the box
To bypass the transportation issue, community groups are creating innovative ways to bring much-needed food to the children and families who depend on it. This summer, Henderson County Schools debuted its Meals on the Bus initiative — a refurbished bus that stops and brings food to six open-site feeding locations throughout the county, says Amanda Stansbury, child nutrition supervisor for Henderson County Schools.
“We have a population of about 13,000 children in our county, and 50-55 percent of those kids are dependent on free and reduced lunches during the school year. Unfortunately, the hunger doesn’t go away,” Stansbury says. “The kids are familiar with the bus stop, they associate it with transportation, and it’s accessible to them, which is really the target — to make them feel comfortable with a place they can walk to, to feel safe there. There’s a trust element as well — that they get on the bus here to go to school, and then they get food there in the summer.”
Meals on the Bus serves an average of 120 meals a day, Stansbury says — a number expected to grow as the bus gains exposure. “There’s a lot of hype about it, which is exciting because it’s such a community-involved program,” she says. “Obviously, we’re not touching every child — this is a pilot program, and if we can reach as many kids as we can, there’s so much growth potential in the future.”
Further spearheading the movement to make mobile food distribution commonplace is the YMCA of Western North Carolina. In addition to supplying a free meal at all of its summer camp programs, the YMCA has three mobile food distribution units, a mobile produce market and two mobile kitchens, says Cory Jackson, nutrition and wellness director for the YMCA of WNC.
“When we launched our first food pantry, what we noticed was that people were driving from about 45 minutes away. We’d have families coming from past Madison County to our pantry,” Jackson explains. “And we learned two things: one, that we really need to meet the population where they are. If people are driving this far to go to our pantry to get healthy foods that meet our standards, we owe it to them to make this more accessible closer to them. And also, it really debunked the myth that a lot of people have that low-income families and those [experiencing] hunger do not care about the nutritional quality of what they consume.”
At each stop, the program, which operates from a renovated bus and two vans, provides produce to families and offers cooking demonstrations. The focus is on shaking the ambiguity surrounding the term “healthy food” while making nutritionally sound options accessible to rural, impoverished areas, says Jackson. “We’ve been able to define ‘healthy’ as a practical thing, and that’s really been our leverage. There’s a vast need to meet the meal gap, and as the Y and as a very strong local nonprofit that focuses on healthy living, we have an opportunity to make sure that we’re not just feeding a kid to feed a kid, but feeding them with some intentional purpose.”
Additionally, MANNA is continuing its Summer Pack program, which provides 1,150 children with a week’s worth of food for them and their families. In order to get the packs in the hands of the children who need them, Irani says, MANNA relies on partnerships with local nonprofits, clubs and religious organizations.
In the far reaches of Madison County, the majority of the food distribution programs are run by local churches, says Willow Wyatt, a member of Mars Hill Baptist Church and longtime volunteer with the MANNA Packs program. Since transportation is such an issue, it’s often up to smaller congregations to ensure that food is brought to those who need it, she explains.
Ready agrees. “The people have just been left alone, politically and socially, to their own devices. It’s their churches and their families, and that’s it,” he says. “Delivering food works, but it’s still just a drop in the bucket.”
Prevailing mindsets, potential solutions
Lack of infrastructure aside, an undercurrent of “mountain pride” makes providing meals for these rural populations more difficult, Irani says. “It’s such an interesting dynamic here,” she reiterates. “We really approach it from a place of total respect — these people are living with absolutely nothing, and they are just resilient as hell. The strongest thing that we can say is that if you need help, come get help, and if you don’t need help, come help.”
As someone who works extensively in remote mountain areas, Wyatt sees this Appalachian mindset as just another obstacle to overcome — once you get into the communities and offer to help, they quickly tend to accept it, she says. In her perspective, the biggest thing that can be done to address these attitudes while helping impoverished children is to have people open more USDA feeding sites. “The more we have, the more people in these rural parts of Madison County can access food,” she says. “And we can help get the food and get the word out. We just need more people taking initiative,” Wyatt says.
Reflecting on the unique movement that the YMCA’s mobile units have prompted, Jackson sees the future of rural food distribution moving in a more transportable direction. “When you look at it, it can be incredibly daunting,” he says. “But it didn’t happen overnight. It started with a supersmall pantry and a small idea, and we really used the community to dictate where we went. Start small, let the community tell you where to go and don’t really force it.”
As the summer winds down, Stansbury believes that while it might take some effort to create sustainable and innovative options to bring food to rural families, the sheer fact that so many kids were hungry and inaccessible during the summer was enough of a reason to try and make a change.
“I have all the information I need to say this is successful, because of all the good things that are happening,” Stansbury explains. “Now whether we feed 10 children who need it or 10 million who don’t really need it, I’m all about those 10 kids who are benefiting. And that’s our goal: to feed every kid that needs it, regardless of barriers.”