Spiritual organizations’ hunger relief efforts nourish body and soul

HAND IN HAND: Diners join hands to say grace before a seating at the Haywood Street Congregation Welcome Table. Connecting people through food is the focus of the ministry, which offers free hot meals to all regardless of income. Photo courtesy of Haywood Street Congregation

A good, healthy meal does more than fill the stomach; it nourishes the soul, cultivates a sense of belonging and can even function as medicine. Unfortunately — despite our region’s burgeoning “Foodtopia” reputation — meals like these can be rare for many living in the mountains.

In 2019, several Xpress articles, including “WNC’s Hidden Faces of Food Insecurity” in the March 6 issue, shared stories from the roughly 220,000 people in Western North Carolina who don’t have regular access to food. This month, as the holiday season demands more from all of us, we focus on organizations that recognize the spiritual importance of food and work tirelessly to make nutritious meals more accessible and equitable.

At a time when new eligibility standards threaten to strip nearly 30,000 North Carolinians of federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits, the fight against food insecurity remains as vital as ever. “Food is something that’s so sacred, yet people are struggling to have it and to celebrate it,” says Ali Casparian, founder and interim executive director of Bounty & Soul, a nonprofit that each week provides five free produce markets in Black Mountain and Swannanoa. “That’s what we hear and see. There’s a constant struggle of people not being able to meet basic needs.”

Although there’s a perception of general abundance in WNC, she continues, that’s not always the case due to the rising cost of living. “So the people who were managing with low-wage jobs are struggling more because their rent has gone up,” she says. “So usually at the end of the week, the biggest trade-offs are with food. We have this system that’s set up where the cheapest, most convenient food is unhealthy.”

Joining forces

Faith-based organizations in WNC have historically worked to alleviate this daunting problem, pooling resources, collecting food and volunteering at nonprofits such as MANNA FoodBank, The Sharing House and the Interfaith Assistance Ministry. At just those three organizations, more than 200 area congregations have stepped up to the challenge of fighting food insecurity.

One of those churches is Mills River Presbyterian Church. The congregation has partnered with IAM since 1984, donating about 500 pounds of canned and packaged food a year. Thanks to an impressive mobilization of more than 60 congregations, IAM provided food for 9,840 people and holiday meals to 1,489 families in 2018.

The Mills River church also contributes to this movement through the Presbytery of WNC’s Nickel-a-Meal hunger program, which encourages folks to put 5 cents (or more) in a jar for each meal eaten. These funds are then pooled with those from other churches and distributed to anti-hunger organizations, explains Edwin Holcombe, chair of the church’s mission committee.

“We’re a small church with 70 members, so we’re just trying to find every way we can to support members of the community in need and show Christian love to our fellow citizens,” says Holcombe. “This is one way we do it, and we’re continuing to look for opportunities.”

Rooting out food waste

Behind the scenes of every free community meal or food distribution effort, there’s an equally important story of how that food got there. Roughly 200,000 pounds of donated produce in Buncombe and Henderson counties can be traced back to the volunteer network of the Society of St. Andrews and its traditional biblical practice of “gleaning” crops that would otherwise be plowed over or left in the fields to rot after harvest.

Rooted in the Judeo-Christian principles of service, faith, compassion and stewardship, the organization is named for the disciple Andrew, who was known for cultivating abundance in places where others saw scarcity. In WNC, SoSA distributes what it gleans from area farms to 42 distributors, including Bounty & Soul, the YMCA and the Boys & Girls Club.

While this practice seems like a no-brainer, it’s a deviation from how leftover food is normally handled. The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that about 40% of the food produced each year in the United States ends up going to waste.

“It could be a large facility or a woman with an apple tree who doesn’t want them to fall off the tree and go to waste. There’s really no formalities,” explains Justine Redden, SoSA’s WNC gleaning coordinator. “A grower will call and say, ‘Hey, I have all these extra squash and tomatoes,’ and I’ll meet with them and scout the field.” If the crops are in acceptable condition, Redden will then call on her fleet of more than 300 active volunteers for help with harvesting and transportation.

Due to the perishable nature of produce, Redden says she usually has about a four-day turnaround to coordinate the gleaning efforts, which can be located anywhere in WNC and annually involve more than 130 growers. Nonetheless, rather than contending with a shortage of helpers, she finds herself having to put a cap on the volunteer numbers. “I’m continuously amazed by their zeal and impressed by their energy,” says Redden. “They’re all so motivated.”

In her work, Redden also focuses on the dignity aspect of food insecurity. “With this whole bootstrap narrative, it can be humiliating to ask for help, so I think it’s important to make the experience as dignified as possible,” she says. “Folks can also sign up to be on the gleaning list and attend if they are seeking to get food for themselves and their family, so they are literally getting the fruits of their labor.”

Everyone is welcome

Over at Haywood Street Congregation, a United Methodist Church ministry wedged between Interstate 240 and the outskirts of downtown Asheville, food is viewed as a “means to express love, grace and abundance,” explains the organization’s lead storyteller, Brook van der Linde.

In 2010, the congregation served its first Downtown Welcome Table lunch. By 2017, the biweekly, family-style meal — which accents its homemade fare with cloth napkins, fresh flowers and stoneware plates donated by East Fork Pottery — had served its 100,000th meal. Today, van der Linde says, roughly 1,000 plates are served each week.

More than 50 area restaurants volunteer their time to prepare meals throughout the year, and about 45 people volunteer as waitstaff and check-in and cleanup crew. Guests are not required to participate in a worship ceremony before receiving a meal, which van der Linde says provides many a feeling of relief. “There’s no obstacles to getting fed.”

Unlike a traditional soup kitchen, the meals are open to anyone in the community. While one of the goals is certainly to feed anyone who might be hungry, van der Linde emphasizes that the deeper purpose of the meals is to gather and unite a wide cross section of the community.

“I see people filled and fulfilled by both food and nonfood around the table,” she says. “Are we answering the question of food insecurity? Sure. … But we believe in, above all else, what is happening when any meal is shared, how it decreases isolation and builds relationships. That’s our guiding North Star.”

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