WNC’s hidden faces of food insecurity

PRIDE AND JOY: Beacon of Hope director Jessi Koonz, back row, far right, is pictured with a group of the food pantry’s clients, staff members and volunteers. Pride and false stigma make some people reluctant to seek help when they need it, says Koonz. Photo by Lauren Rutten

Trish Harwood looks like a typical customer at any local coffee shop. When she took time to talk with Xpress one rainy day near Thanksgiving, she was well-dressed, sporting a cute, hand-felted wool hat over her bright red hair. She’s intelligent, quick to flash a grin and punctuates her sentences with bursts of warm laughter.

But her appearance belies a startling reality: Harwood is among the nearly 3,000 Madison County residents — and about 220,000 people in Western North Carolina who don’t have regular access to food.

In Madison County, where she lives with her husband, Jeremie, about 13 percent of the population is food-insecure, according to 2018 data from Feeding America. And 2015 statistics from the U.S. Department of Agriculture identify North Carolina as the 10th-hungriest state in the nation.

It’s long been understood that a host of factors, including poverty, job loss, lack of transportation, unaffordable housing and chronic health issues, contribute to creating barriers to food access. But the vague mental images painted by these scenarios do not necessarily put an accurate face on WNC’s sprawling and complicated food insecurity problem.

The statistics alone are a little surprising: Feeding America’s 2014 Hunger in America report shows that within MANNA FoodBank’s 16-county service area, which spans WNC, at least 24 percent of food assistance recipients are children, 18 percent are age 60 or older and 26 percent have post-high school education, including college degrees.

Although the numbers vary widely by county, 71 percent of clients identify themselves as white, 10 percent as black or African American, and 16 percent as Hispanic or Latino. They are working families, single-parent families, individuals working low-wage jobs, people with disabilities, professionals facing unemployment or health concerns, college students, veterans, immigrants — they come from all walks of life.

Since last fall, Xpress has sought out and interviewed a variety of Western North Carolina residents experiencing food access challenges to get an idea of the realities they face. This is the first of two stories exploring their journeys.

Season of life

Just two years ago, Trish Harwood, 40, was a successful business owner, farmer and active community volunteer. A licensed massage therapist, she’d owned and operated Clay Spa and Salon in Weaverville since 2004. Jeremie was a full-time building contractor, and they owned a working egg, meat and dairy operation called Special Stock Farm in Madison County.

The Harwoods also kept busy with church activities and local volunteer efforts, including animal advocacy and substance abuse awareness. But in 2017 and 2018, catastrophic health problems changed their lives forever, eventually sending Trish to seek assistance at Beacon of Hope food pantry in Marshall. 

HIGH FIVE: Trish Harwood was a successful business owner, farmer and community volunteer until a health crisis in 2017 and ’18 changed everything. She’s pictured here in 2016 with her dog, Owen. Photo by Sheryl Mann

Trish recalls the event that ushered her into what she often refers to as “this season of my life:” She had a gallbladder surgery in 2017 that led to a hernia, then another surgery to repair it with polypropylene mesh that ultimately left her in chronic pain and dealing with debilitating symptoms.

“I’m a person who gets up at 6 o’clock in the morning — I’m at the barn, I’m outside, I’m going to work, I’m going to church,” she says. “When I realized all of a sudden, ‘Trish, you’re not getting off the couch. You’re in pain all the time, you can’t clean your house, you can’t sweep your floor, you can’t even drive yourself anywhere,’ something’s wrong.”

Just a few months later, Jeremie was installing flooring at a construction job when he ripped a bicep tendon, rendering him unable to work.. “And he was our provider,” says Trish. “Because at that point, I was just sitting on the couch puking into a bucket all the time.”

Over the months, as her pain, nausea and weakness grew worse, she says, she became unable to continue running her business and was forced to let it go. Money became impossibly tight, and the couple began selling off most of their beloved farm animals, which included laying hens, roosters and dairy goats.

“I was a substantial part of my community and someone that was very respected,” Trish recalls. “I went from that to ‘I can’t quit puking.’”

She sought another surgery to remove the mesh, which she had determined was poisoning her, but she and Jeremie were out of money, had lost their health insurance and were hanging on by a thread. Through the financial and emotional support of family, friends and former clients and, Trish adds, with a good dose of divine intervention they were able to drive their only running vehicle to Las Vegas last July where she had found a surgeon to perform the operation.

Almost immediately after the surgery, she says, she was able to eat again, and she assumed she would soon be able to return to work. But that was not the case. Her abdominal wall had been compromised, and her doctor told her she could not work for at least a year. Additionally, Jeremie’s torn tendon hadn’t healed properly because he’d been caring for her, so he was still unable to earn a living.

Financially depleted and desperate, they went to the Department of Social Services and began applying for assistance. Although they were out of food, Trish says they were initially turned down for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (also known as food stamps) because of the value of their vehicle. According to federal SNAP eligibility guidelines, households can have $2,250 in countable resources, including vehicles.

Working from a list of local food pantries they eventually obtained from DSS, Trish decided to enlist her mother-in-law to drive her to Beacon of Hope. She felt incredibly embarrassed to walk through the door at the pantry. “I was scared; I was shaking,” she says.

But the volunteer who took her back to shop in the pantry assured her that she had no reason to feel ashamed. And as she began selecting her food items, she found some joy in being able to take home favorite foods like tofu, milk and fresh vegetables.

“I was so excited, because I’m such a vegetable person,” she says. “I got avocados and tomatoes and asparagus and pomegranates and things like that that were so yummy and that I was craving but didn’t have the money to buy.”

Bridging the gaps

Months after that first encounter with Beacon of Hope, the Harwoods are still struggling. Trish’s sister helps them with firewood to heat their home and got them an old-school, noninternet-connected phone that costs $10 a month. Other relatives help them along with money for utilities and gas for their truck.

The phone and truck are crucial, because they endure a grueling daily routine of paperwork, doctor visits, phone calls and trips to the library to access the internet, as they work to keep Jeremie’s disability (which is currently making the payments on their truck), keep their house and farm out of foreclosure and keep themselves fed and clothed.

“It’s exhausting. It’s every day,” says Trish. “I spent four hours yesterday trying to get a promissory note from my mortgage company, so I can keep my farm. Then I was talking to Pisgah Legal because I couldn’t get that promissory note. … It’s a full-time job.”

The Harwoods did eventually qualify for SNAP, but those benefits don’t come close to meeting all their needs (including, Trish notes with disbelief, necessities like toilet paper and feminine hygiene products). MANNA FoodBank estimates that about 56 percent of local food pantry clients are currently receiving SNAP benefits.

So, they continue going to Beacon of Hope. “It’s bridged a gap for me, because [SNAP] doesn’t cover a lot,” says Trish.

Because of the stigma often associated with accepting public assistance, Beacon of Hope Executive Director Jessi Koonz says it’s not unusual for people to be embarrassed to visit the pantry for the first time.

Beacon’s clients, she says, include many like the Harwoods who suffer from severe health issues. There are also clients who drive nice cars but have lost their homes to catastrophes such as fires, she says. And there are a growing number of homesteaders, crafters and artists who have moved to Madison County and face financial hardships.

According to recent data collected by the nonprofit, 18 percent of its clients report having zero household income. The largest number of clients — 34 percent — report total income of $10,001-$20,000 per year. About 2 percent earn more than $40,000 annually.

“At Beacon, we are all over the place,” says Koonz. “There are so many different life situations that you have seeking food assistance. But food is the easiest way to bridge all those gaps.”

Beacon also serves plenty of hardworking, employed Madison County natives the working poor make up one-third of North Carolina’s workforce, according to the Economic Policy Institute.

“The reason we’re serving those clients is because it’s hard for them to find a job that’s 40 hours a week,” she says. “And if you can find a full-time job, it’s usually something paying $7.25 or $8 an hour, and if you have kids, you can’t survive on that.” Heading to Asheville or other areas to find work, she notes, requires reliable transportation and money to pay for gas and upkeep, which can be impossible on low wages.

Working families, says Koonz, tend to use Beacon’s services only sporadically and for short periods of time. She personally experienced this early in her marriage, when her husband, who was employed in construction, was out of work one winter due to rainy weather, and they were forced to seek assistance to buy heating oil. “You know, we just needed help for that two months, and then we were done, and we were back on our feet,” she says.

‘I don’t need help’

Andrea and John Faunce admit that asking for help at Beacon of Hope was a hard step to take. The couple, who have a 9-year-old son, Lewie, own their own modest home in Madison County. John is employed in Asheville at the Omni Grove Park Inn. They have maintained involvement with their community through church, Lewie’s Boy Scout activities and in numerous other ways, including volunteer firefighting and fundraising for local nonprofits.  

But, though they are in many ways a thriving family, the Faunces, both 42, are also dealing with food insecurity. And, like the Harwoods, health challenges put them over the edge.

In 2001, Andrea was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. In spite of her declining health, she went on to finish nursing school and found work in the cardiac unit at Mission Hospital, where she was honored with The DAISY Foundation Award, which recognizes nurses for extraordinary service.

IN IT TOGETHER: Andrea and John Faunce were forced to seek food assistance when their son’s premature birth, coupled with Andrea’s inability to work due to health problems, put them in financial distress. Photo by Gina Smith

After five years, she got what she calls her “dream job” at Mission on the mother-baby postpartum floor. But two years in, the 12-hour shifts were becoming impossible — and dangerous — with her MS symptoms, which include muscle weakness, confusion, balance problems and fatigue.

She likens a bad day with MS to a scene from the The Wizard of Oz: “It’s like I’m always walking through the poppy field.” Her last day on the job at Mission was in May 2017, and she says her neurologist doesn’t think she’ll ever be able to return to the workforce.

The Faunces’ experience with food insecurity actually started several years before that, when Lewie was born. He was delivered prematurely at just 28 weeks, weighing less than 2 pounds, and for a time, neither John nor Andrea could work while they cared for him.

They found Beacon of Hope through DSS because Lewie was receiving Medicaid, and they started going there for groceries. Once Andrea went back to work (John remained with Lewie for a while as a stay-at-home dad), they stopped visiting the food bank.

But before long, Andrea started missing more work due to her health problems and burned through her vacation time, bringing in increasingly smaller paychecks. “Then it was literally, like, how are we going to eat?” says John. It was time to go back to Beacon.

“It was very, very hard,” says Andrea. “You know, there’s a stereotype you get in your mind, and at that point, when I was still a nurse, you come in and you see all these people, and you think, ‘Man, they have it so much worse than me. I don’t need help.’ But we do.”

Andrea did what a great number of food recipients do and started volunteering at the pantry. She began in the thrift store and later started minding the desk during food distributions to stay off her feet. But in October, her health forced her to quit volunteering altogether. “I called Jessi in tears,” she says.

Now, with John’s income and Andrea’s Supplemental Security Income benefits, they still barely get by, and the food pantry continues to be part of their lives. “It’s still really hard,” says Andrea. “I mean, we had a lifestyle. We had the gaming systems, and we have a TV and we have cellphones, but those were all things that were purchased when we could afford them.

“So now, part of why it’s hard for me,” she continues, “is you look at our house, and you’re like, ‘They don’t need to eat; they have stuff.’ But it’s stuff from before. And now here we are.”

Community Table

Like Andrea Faunce, Jeff Jones loves to give back. On any of the four days a week that Community Table in Sylva is open, offering free, hot meals and a food pantry to anyone in need, Jones, 62, can be found there, greeting guests, bagging food, doing cooking demonstrations or helping with bookkeeping.

He has volunteered pretty much full time at Community Table for a couple of years now, but before that, he was a client.

His first experience at Community Table was when an elderly friend from Tuckasegee asked him for a ride to the food pantry. Jones stayed for a meal and kept coming back. About a year later, he started volunteering. “I’ve been here ever since,” he says. “This is my place. God led me here.”

Jones was raised in Sylva, where his grandparents owned a hardware store, but he now lives by himself in Whittier. He was employed at a variety of jobs for many years, but a host of health problems, including partial blindness, limited heart function and a back injury, have kept him from being employed since 2005.

He survives mostly on his SSI benefits. He’s making payments on a car. His rent and medical bills are paid through an inheritance trust that’s controlled by another family member. To eat, he saves up his SNAP benefits and takes home leftover food from Community Table. “I’m not struggling so much now,” he says.

In remote and mountainous Jackson County, where the food insecurity rate is over 15 percent, transportation is a huge challenge for low-income folks. So the ride-sharing arrangement Jones had with his friend is not unusual, says Community Table Executive Director Paige Christie. Although Jackson County Public Transit travels to the pantry, its routes and hours are limited. “And some folks don’t have the $1 or $2 to get here,” she says.

Nationwide, the age demographic of Jones and his elderly friend is one that commonly uses food assistance services. About one out of 12 seniors is food-insecure, according to a Feeding America report. “We see a lot of elderly folks,” says the Community Table’s only other employee, kitchen manager Gary Wood. “A lot of them, if they didn’t come here, they wouldn’t eat today.”

The ‘I’m OKs’

With just two household stoves, Wood and a few volunteers, including Jones, manage to prepare hot, fresh meals for an average of 140 people a day, four meals a week — and at just 38 cents per plate. In 2017, they served almost 27,000 meals, all sit-down, table-service style.

HELPING HAND: Jeff Jones, left, first came to the Community Table as a client about three years ago. Today he volunteers at the facility. “This is my place,” he says. “God led me here.” He’s pictured with Community Table Executive Director Paige Christie. Photo by Gina Smith

In addition to seniors, the people they serve run a wide gamut, from homeless individuals to single parents to college students. “We get a lot of new families, people that are laid off or between jobs,” Wood says. “We also see a lot of addicts that come in.”

“We get a lot of folks who are working two or three jobs, and they stop in here for their evening meal because they’re going from job A to job B, and it’s either that or fast food,” says Christie. “And even if they want to eat fast food, they don’t have the money.”

She points out that the majority of the people who seek help at the nonprofit are employed, everyone from low-wage workers to teachers and college professors as well as a demographic she calls the “I’m OKs.”

“They’re the folks that are working a job or two, and they pay all the bills,” she explains. “They may even be able to pay to have satellite TV; they have a roof over their head, car in the garage, but something goes wrong, and whatever they need next goes on the credit card. … But they keep paying the minimum, so they’re OK. But they’re not OK. They’re one lost paycheck, one bad incident away from losing it all.”

It’s especially hard to overcome the pride factor with the “I’m OKs,” says Christie. “They don’t want to take from folks in need, folks who have it worse.”

But it’s impossible, she says, to pour from an empty cup. “Come. Let us help you. Let us save you that $10, $20 or $50 you’d have to spend on a meal, and pay a bill. When you’re truly OK, come here and wash a dish or two, buy some cans of food,” she says. “Pay it back when you’re actually OK.”

In an upcoming issue, look for the second part of this story, which will explore the realities of food-insecure veterans, college students and immigrants in Buncombe County. To find a food pantry near you, visit mannafoodbank.org or call 1-800-820-1109.

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About Gina Smith
Gina Smith is the Mountain Xpress Food section editor and writer. She can be reached at gsmith@mountainx.com.

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2 thoughts on “WNC’s hidden faces of food insecurity

  1. drnike50

    This article is very well written, and illuminates how quickly we all can go from self-sustaining to food and shelter insecurity. I really appreciate the individuals who consented to being interviewed and the way their stories were presented by the author…makes us all realize, “hey, that could’ve been me”

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