Stepping up to the plate: Local volunteers lead the fight against food insecurity

GROUP EFFORT: Groups from schools, churches and other organizations frequently volunteer in the MANNA FoodBank warehouse to help with sorting and packing food for distribution. Photo courtesy of MANNA FoodBank
GROUP EFFORT: Groups from schools, churches and other organizations frequently volunteer in the MANNA FoodBank warehouse to help with sorting and packing food for distribution. Photo courtesy of MANNA FoodBank

Often invisible to those not directly affected, food insecurity nonetheless touches nearly 1 in 7 people in the U.S. In Western North Carolina alone, about 108,000 residents lack consistent access to three meals a day, according to the 2014 “Map the Meal Gap” report.

Thanks to dozens of nonprofit organizations, however, WNC residents needing nutritional support have places to turn — and thousands of dedicated volunteers play a crucial role in helping these groups carry out their various missions.

At the forefront of the local hunger relief movement stands MANNA FoodBank. The large-scale, collaborative network comprises 248 philanthropic groups in 16 counties across the region. In 2014, the nonprofit distributed 15 million pounds of food, enough for 34,000 meals per day.

And despite having about 40 paid staff members, “Volunteers are really involved with almost every level of the work we do here at MANNA,” says Maxwell Gruber, the organization’s volunteer coordinator. Last year, 7,534 community members provided 66,278 hours of free labor, the equivalent of 31 full-time staffers.

Meanwhile, many smaller organizations across the region are run primarily by volunteers, with paid staff either limited or simply nonexistent.

Picking up the slack

Local hunger relief efforts come in many different forms. In 2013, for example, the YMCA of Western North Carolina launched a Healthy Living Pantry in Beaverdam. The following year, the nonprofit invested in a mobile kitchen. The converted 72-passenger school bus boasts a fully functional prep kitchen and café-style seating.

“It seats anywhere from 15 to 20,” says Lisa Riggsbee, the Y’s healthy living manager. “We host cooking demos, nutrition lessons: It’s the ultimate teaching tool.”

Volunteers, she continues, “are there to pick up where we can’t and to come up with new and improved ideas. They play a role in physical, manual labor but also the background and thought process of everything we do.”

Erick Johanson works alongside Riggsbee in the program, and his family provides a full complement of volunteers: Johanson’s wife, Karen; their 11-year-old son, Maverick; and Karen’s parents, Bruce and Martha Craig.

“Many of the individuals that come in come back each week, because they need it,” notes Karen. “I get a lot of hugs and thank yous. It just makes you feel good to know you’re helping these people.”

But it doesn’t end there. The Johansons also lead a scout group that tends a community garden, and the Craigs help manage a food pantry through their church.

Changing lives

At the Bread of Life community kitchen and food pantry in Brevard, director Michael Collins is the only paid employee. All other work is done pro bono.

“There are 385 volunteers, who all work three hours a week or three hours a month” at the kitchen, notes Collins — not bad for a county with about 33,000 people and a town with only 7,600. Members of other groups, including retired teachers and local seventh-graders, also participate regularly.

“It’s cultural,” says Collins, praising the area’s participatory mindset and strong sense of community. “The volunteers make it happen; they do so much.”

Bounty & Soul, a Black Mountain-based group that provides fresh foods, nutrition education and wellness resources, has grown exponentially since its inception three years ago, thanks largely to volunteer support, says operations manager Lindsey Miller.

FRESH DELIVERY: Bounty & Soul founder Ali Casparian, third from right, is pictured with several of the organization's volunteers in front of their new mobile market truck. Volunteers use the truck to deliver fresh produce and offer cooking workshops in outlying areas surrounding Swannanoa and Black Mountain. Photo courtesy of Bounty & Soul
FRESH DELIVERY: Bounty & Soul founder Ali Casparian, third from right, is pictured with several of the organization’s volunteers in front of their new mobile market truck. Volunteers use the truck to deliver fresh produce and offer cooking workshops in outlying areas surrounding Swannanoa and Black Mountain. Photo courtesy of Bounty & Soul

“Up until August, this whole organization was run by one individual, founder Ali Casparian, and a lot of really committed and dedicated volunteers.”

Mainly focused on fresh produce, Bounty & Soul partners with a host of local growers to bring healthy food to outlying areas, often via a giant green truck emblazoned with a colorful fruit mural and the slogan “Produce to the People.” Volunteers run weekly markets, food demos and community outreach events — all free and open to anyone who needs assistance, no questions asked.

“We’ve found that when people become a part of our community, they see a major change in their lives,” says Miller. “We absolutely love our volunteers. They see all sides of our organization, and they can relate to our participants. There’s no difference between the people being served and the servers.”

After making use of Bounty & Soul’s resources and getting involved with the group, she says, one homeless woman was able to get back on her feet and find a place to live. The woman is now a regular volunteer.

Carrying the torch

Community gardens grow much of the produce that’s distributed by charity groups.

Buzz Durham volunteers with Grace Covenant Community Garden in Asheville. “We grow somewhere between 5,000 and 7,000 pounds of vegetables a year,” he explains. The project also collaborates with Gardens That Give WNC, a regional association of philanthropic gardens.

Durham says he donates his time to feel an “involvement in the community and a sense of making a contribution. And then the pleasure of working with like-minded people.”

And whether they labor in gardens, kitchens or pantries, those “like-minded people” are at the heart of WNC’s war against food insecurity.

“The hunger relief effort might not exist without volunteer support. The volunteers are really carrying the torch in WNC,” says Gruber of MANNA. “They’re doing this work because they know this is affecting their neighborhoods and individuals within their communities.”

For Karen Johanson, though, volunteering is a family affair. “My parents always raised me to take care of other people,” she explains. “So that’s what I try to do.”

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