Jessi Koontz’s plate is full, but her pantry is severely depleted. The executive director of Beacon of Hope, Madison County’s 25-year-old nonprofit providing hunger relief to low-income residents, says demand for its services has continued to increase since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“There was no recovery period after the peak of the pandemic,” she explains. “All the residual effects are still with us, and now food costs increase that need and affect our operations.”
Monthly, the group serves about 1,000 families in Madison County, with distribution of food boxes taking place Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. Dry foods, shelf-stable products, bread and baked goods are among the featured items; meats and dairy are included when available.
“In 2021, we spent $12,000 for the entire year on dry food,” says Koontz. “With rising costs, we spent $22,000 the first six months of this year.”
In previous years, continues Koontz, Beacon of Hope ordered turkeys or hams from partners like MANNA FoodBank for holiday meals. But this year, all food insecurity organizations are facing the same increased need and mounting challenges to meet them. For the upcoming holiday, Koontz notes, families can expect side dishes such as sweet potatoes and squash to be included in their boxes, but the centerpiece of the meal is in short supply.
Paula Sellars, interim executive director of Bounty & Soul in Black Mountain, echoes the tricky math her nonprofit faces. “We track the number of participants and the amount of food we receive in donations,” she explains. “We are up about 280% in participants from pre-pandemic levels and down by about 53% in food donations.”
Unlike Beacon of Hope, Bounty & Soul does not provide meats within its boxes. Instead, the nonprofit focuses on supplying residents with fresh produce — an ongoing challenge at this time.
“We used to pick up from MANNA twice a week but can only do once weekly now,” she explains. “And what we pick up from retail grocers like Trader Joe’s, Whole Foods and Sam’s Club is way down, too, as they purchase more conservatively to avoid the food waste and surplus we used to benefit from.”
With the holidays around the corner, nonprofits are counting more than ever on turkey drives, financial contributions, dedicated volunteers going the extra mile — sometimes literally — and increased awareness and support from the community at large.
Kara Irani, director of marketing and communications for MANNA FoodBank, confirms the dire landscape. In September, MANNA served over 120,000 people through its various food relief programs.
“We are all sitting in a true perfect storm right now,” she says. “Our partners continue to tell us they see new faces every week, and we are experiencing astronomical food costs. I have never seen it like this. It’s a little scary, and there’s a bit of heartburn going on.”
Currently, Irani says the nonprofit is attempting to source a full range of items for people to build traditional meals for Thanksgiving and Christmas. “It is so vital for people to be able to celebrate this special occasion as they would have in better times,” she states. “A holiday meal can really be a luxury for many people.”
MANNA’s Virtual Turkey Drive kicked off Oct. 3 and will continue through Dec. 16. Despite its name, the focus is not just on the big bird, but also hams, chickens and even tofurkey. Irani adds that so far, MANNA has purchased several truckloads of turkeys for distribution to partner agencies and will continue to buy more as donations come in.
“Donating to that drive goes a long way because we are able to purchase turkeys and other proteins at wholesale prices,” she explains.
Seniors helping seniors
Thanks to a 22-year partnership with Deerfield Episcopal Retirement Community, turkey and all the fixin’s are also on the menu for Meals on Wheels of Asheville and Buncombe County clients.
In early 2000, “We were looking for ways for our residents to do outreach in the area,” recalls Michelle Wooley, director of philanthropy. “We contacted Meals on Wheels, and a rotation of our volunteers began picking up and delivering packaged meals to the Shiloh neighborhood five days a week.”
By fall, Deerfield completed an expansion of its dining space and community center, which opened another opportunity to serve. Literally. “We decided to take on Thanksgiving for all Meals on Wheels clients that needed it,” Wooley explains. “Before we served our first meal to residents, we prepared 300 meals to be delivered Thanksgiving Day in 2000.”
Deerfield dining services cooked the meal — turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, gravy, green beans, rolls and pie — and Wooley put a note in the resident newsletter seeking volunteers to package the meals in individual containers. “I was worried that first year I wouldn’t have enough volunteers,” she recalls with a laugh. “That was definitely not the case, and now they start asking me about it weeks before Thanksgiving.”
Each year, she says, they set up two long prep tables with the same items, staging a friendly competition between two teams of volunteers. Whichever group gets to 150 filled containers first wins. “I think the record is 27 minutes,” Wooley says. “They have so much fun doing this together.”
Ma-Rita Alexander, Meals on Wheels volunteer coordinator, arranges for drivers to pick meals up at Deerfield and deliver them to clients who are unable to celebrate Thanksgiving with family or friends. Since the partnership launched, residents at the retirement community have participated every year, except in 2020 due to the pandemic.
Throughout its history, notes Wooley, there has only been one mishap. “One year we somehow forgot the stuffing, and there was a bit of an outcry,” she says. “Never again!”
Community involvement like the work at Deerfield is one silver lining in this roiling storm, say nonprofit leaders who spoke with Xpress. Volunteers consistently help navigate choppy waters; and though names and faces have changed, overall numbers are consistent and have even increased in some areas.
“We have long counted on retirees as warehouse volunteers, but of course, that changed during the pandemic,” remembers Irani. “We saw younger people come in, including college students. But now many of our retirees are back, and we are able to accommodate more volunteers in the warehouse, almost to pre-pandemic capacity.”
Irani also notes that this year’s Empty Bowls fundraiser, held in October, was record breaking in terms of ticket sales and funds raised. Adding to the good news, in early November, the nonprofit learned that Jerry Sternberg and Marlene Joyce-Berger of the Sternberg Cos. committed $10,000 in dollar-for-dollar matching funds for every donation to the turkey drive.
In Black Mountain, Bounty & Soul prides itself on including fresh flowers (a donation from Trader Joe’s) in every food box. During the holidays, Sellars notes, the floral bounty is even more generous in an effort to add cheer when it is especially needed. “I know the people we serve are grateful for the food, but the flowers give them the emotional boost they need,” she says. Recipes for healthy seasonal sides are included in the produce boxes as well.
Bounty & Soul has also received assistance from a corporate sponsor, Cottonwood Properties, which has conducted a “turkey brigade” for the past couple of years. “They purchase turkeys and add them to the seasonal produce in our Benevolent Boxes, a home delivery program for people with medical or transportation issues that cause them to be homebound,” Sellars explains.
Three-year Capacity Building grants from WNC Bridge Foundation have added more reasons to give thanks this season for Meals on Wheels and Beacon of Hope as well.
Meals on Wheels — which prepares and delivers about 450 meals a day — is using its three-year grant to cover the salary of Charles Jett, a professional, formally trained chef that the nonprofit hired in August. “He has been wonderful,” Sprouse enthuses. “We have a six-week cycle now of 30 different meals, better food nutrition and are using more fresh produce in what I call our farm-to-elder program.”
Meanwhile, Beacon of Hope will use its three-year $150,000 grant to hire a fund development coordinator. The position has been a longtime need, says Koontz, especially right now as the organization is in the midst of seeking a new home once its lease expires in March.
“It’s a lot — serving our families, seeking grants, figuring out finances and now finding a new building,” says Koontz. “But we have been providing this vital service to Madison County for a quarter century. We just take a leap of faith every day that we can continue to do all we can for all we can, and that somehow it will all come together. It has to.”