It’s been nearly eight months since COVID-19 threw millions out of their jobs and onto unemployment, closed schools and businesses, and wreaked havoc on the national food supply chain. And throughout that previously unthinkable stretch of time, agencies in Western North Carolina devoted to addressing food insecurity have persevered to meet the community’s ongoing need in an ever-shifting landscape.
The directors of three food relief agencies Xpress spoke with in May — MANNA FoodBank, Beacon of Hope in Marshall and Bounty & Soul in Black Mountain — say that six months later, their organizations continue to face unprecedented challenges in navigating unpredictable sourcing of food, funding, resources and volunteers.
“It’s hard to believe we’ve been doing this since March,” says Ali Casparian, founder and director of Bounty & Soul. “We are so in the day-to-day of it, that it seems like yesterday, and it seems like forever. It’s a weird concept of time.”
All three organizations report that the numbers of people seeking assistance took an immediate leap when the state began its quarantine measures last spring, and they just keep growing. Bounty & Soul went from serving about 850 people a week pre-pandemic to 2,300 by May and is currently providing food to about 2,500 clients weekly.
Jessi Koontz, director of Beacon of Hope, says her organization had been consistently serving about 1,200 families a month since June (up from 682 in February), but in October, 78 new families signed up for food assistance. “I think things are settling down for some families who may be getting back into the workforce, but others are facing other challenges as this wears on,” says Koontz.
MANNA FoodBank CEO Hannah Randall says she’s concerned about the number of people showing up at MANNA’s 250 partner agencies who need food on a monthly basis. “In July, we were 60% above pre-pandemic levels, and in August we were 50% above, so I thought, maybe this means we are plateauing or seeing a decrease,” she says. “But in September, it jumped up to 73%.”
Checking with the Bureau of Labor Statistics, Randall found that while the unemployment rate is going down nationally, North Carolina saw an increase in September. Meanwhile, Koontz notes, the federal unemployment subsidy of $600 per week expired July 31, and the onset of cold weather is set to bust household budgets with rising utility costs. “We want to help people save on food so that money can go to heating oil, winter clothing and doctor visits if needed,” she says.
While the food supply chain and national distribution situations are not as chaotic as they were back in March, says Randall, they remain challenging. And with food donations down and need up, MANNA is being forced to purchase food at unprecedented levels. “We can do that thanks to the generosity of our community and funds from the CARES Act,” she says, pointing to grants MANNA has received from local foundations like WNC Bridge Foundation, Pisgah Health Foundation and Dogwood Health Trust, as well as private family foundations.
Koontz notes that while food donations from regular sources like Aldi, Publix and Walmart dropped dramatically at the beginning of the crisis, that has since changed, and Beacon of Hope is now doing pickups from these companies seven days a week. “The stuff we get from retail grocers is meat, produce, bread and other bakery items,” she explains. “We can offer weekly produce boxes now and double the amount of meat, which are the costlier items, so that’s huge for our clients.”
Beacon of Hope clients also benefited this summer from donations of plant starts from organizations, businesses and even home gardeners. And, Koontz adds, they always look forward to venison that’s donated annually from the Backyard Bow Pro nonprofit.
Casparian says Bounty & Soul has been able to stick to its mission of providing free, fresh, healthy food to the community thanks to donations from partners like No Evil Foods, Roots Hummus, Annie’s Bakery and MANNA along with rescued food from grocers and purchases from local farmers and growers. “We made a commitment this year to help the economy and put money back into the local food system,” she says. “We raised money and wrote grants to pay farmers.”
In October, Bounty & Soul celebrated the delivery of a new refrigerated food truck, Big Peppa, thanks to a sizable grant from Pisgah Health Foundation. And Casparian is heartened that the organization was able to eventually reinstitute much of its health and wellness programming on a virtual platform, including yoga, cooking and gardening workshops, with Zumba classes resuming at distanced outdoor locations in late summer. Videos posted to the organization’s Facebook page offer tips on how to prepare and store the contents of the food boxes distributed each week.
Winter is coming
Although much progress has been made at all three agencies in managing the crisis, winter is coming, and worries abound. “The thing that concerns me is all CARES Act funding ends at the end of the year, and no other relief package has passed Congress,” Randall says.
Casparian is anxious about accessing fresh produce for clients from late fall to early spring and uneasy about her staff and volunteers standing in the cold twice a week through the winter to facilitate Bounty & Soul’s drive-thru pickup events in the old Black Mountain Bi-Lo parking lot. “I am hoping the property owner will allow us access to the inside foyer where carts are usually kept,” she says.
Staff well-being is top of mind for all three directors, who are acutely aware of the potential for physical, mental and emotional exhaustion. “This has been a marathon and a sprint every single day since March,” says Randall. She gives staff members a paid “relief day” once a month and, after consulting with operations, has decided to close the week of Thanksgiving.
Randall’s decision has inspired Casparian and Koontz to do the same: Bounty & Soul will close Thanksgiving week, and Beacon of Hope will be closed Thanksgiving Day through Dec. 2. “We have been going at this 24/7 and need to unplug before we burn out,” says Casparian. “It has been gratifying to see other people in the community step up to cover us so we can take off.”
Going forward, Koontz says she takes to heart the support Beacon of Hope has received from the community it serves. “Everyone is doing the best they can,” she says. “We have one client who at the end of every month very cheerfully says, ‘Well, we survived another month!’ That’s a big deal, to get through another day, another week, another month. We celebrate the little victories and hold our breath with hope the good fortune we have will continue.”