A study released this month by the Washington, D.C.-based Food Research and Action Center identified the Asheville metropolitan statistical area as the seventh worst in the country in terms of people’s basic ability to put food on the table.
In the Asheville metro (comprising Buncombe, Haywood, Henderson and Madison counties), 23.9 percent of the people surveyed struggled to feed themselves and their families at some point last year, the study concluded. And though Asheville's unemployment rate has fallen, its rate of food hardship has risen significantly since 2009, when it stood at 17.1 percent.
“What it shows is that, in 2010, the wave of food hardship that crested in late 2008 was still very high and is receding with a slowness that has terrible consequences for America’s people,” the introduction states. “Families’ struggle to afford necessities follows closely on their employment status and wages — and the most basic necessity is food. The data in this report show that food hardship — the lack of money to buy food that families need — continued to be a serious national problem in 2010.”
Based on data from a Gallup Poll involving hundreds of thousands of people nationwide, the study defined “food hardship” by asking participants, “Have there been times in the past 12 months when you did not have enough money to buy food that you or your family needed?”
That information, paired with the results of a separate hunger survey conducted by the Action Center and Tyson Foods as part of a charitable effort, prompted a March 15 donation of 29,000 lbs. of boneless chicken to the Asheville-based MANNA FoodBank, in partnership with Ingles Markets.
"We will distribute that to our 255 partner agencies across 16 counties,” MANNA spokesperson Joshua Stack explains. “We go from Cherokee to Avery, Madison to Polk and everywhere in between; it's going to be around 22,000 meals."
Asheville wasn’t the only metro area in the state to make the hunger list: Winston-Salem and Greensboro/High Point ranked third and fourth, respectively. Tyson is also assisting food banks in those areas, as part of a broader plan to donate 1 million pounds of chicken nationwide during March.
"Ever since the economy took a severe downturn, we've seen the need spike," notes Stack. "There's not been much of an abatement in folks seeking food assistance. This study is a validation of what our agency has been seeing for a while."
The problem, he says, is seen all across North Carolina. "It used to be that folks could make a living farming or that they were going to work in a textile or furniture mill. Now, those options aren't there, so people are making very difficult choices. Food hardship is different than hunger: These are folks who are [either] going to buy groceries or put gas in their car."
Asheville more typically draws attention via high rankings in national (and even international) lists of the best places to visit, start a business, retire or drink beer. In fact, however, the Asheville metro is one of the worst in the country in terms of credit-card debt, according to a study by the credit bureau Equifax, and the poverty rate is also above state and national averages. Since the economic downturn began in 2008, Buncombe County’s expenditures on food assistance have tripled.
According to the Action Center/Tyson survey, most people see hunger as a national rather than a local problem. And even at the local level, notes Stack, “People think the face of hunger is not something that is familiar to them — it's the guy on Biltmore Avenue who's hitting you up for spare change. In actuality, it's all around you: One in six of our neighbors seeks food assistance in the course of a single year.”
Accordingly, Stack urges area residents to volunteer in the "work of ending hunger" and advocate against cuts for food assistance, "which is crucial as a stabilizing tool."
"The need is not going to get any better until the economy improves and creates jobs these folks have access to," he stresses. "Until then, we need people to become united behind the work of dealing with this. These numbers are compelling, and it needs to be spread far and wide. This is the land of milk and honey in many ways, but the hills and the rural region [are often a hard place] to pay the bills."
— David Forbes can be reached at 251-1333, ext. 137, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.