From CPP: Pandemic wearing NC nonprofits thin

MANNA FoodBank volunteers
Staff and volunteers pack food at the MANNA FoodBank in Asheville. Photo courtesy of MANNA and Carolina Public Press

By Brennan Doherty, originally published by Carolina Public Press. Carolina Public Press is an independent, in-depth and investigative nonprofit news service for North Carolina.

Though 2020 has posed challenges for direct services organizations, their leaders share a resilient message: “We’re not going anywhere,” said Laura Rice, communications and media manager at the Raleigh-based Interfaith Food Shuttle.

For many in need in North Carolina, the commitment of nonprofits addressing food insecurity is welcome — and sometimes lifesaving — news.

The COVID-19 pandemic and its economic fallout exacerbated the already difficult situation for many families who worry about having enough to eat. The health crisis not only increased demand for food assistance to unprecedented levels, but it also upended the way many organizations operate.

“Every day is literally like a marathon and a sprint here,” said Hannah Randall, CEO of MANNA FoodBank, which serves 16 counties in primarily rural Western North Carolina.

Pre-pandemic, from 2017-19, North Carolina ranked 10th nationally in food insecurity prevalence with 13.1% of the state’s more than 10 million residents struggling. Recent numbers from the U.S. Census Household Pulse Survey show 48% of North Carolina households are only somewhat confident or not confident they can afford food for the next four weeks.

Despite a decrease in joblessness from earlier stages of the pandemic, North Carolina’s unemployment rate remains considerably higher than the same time last year. As more people lose their income, the stress on food assistance organizations climbs.

Using Randall’s comparison, the daily “marathon and sprint” began nine months ago. And even with a COVID-19 vaccine on the horizon, its end is not yet in sight.

An increase in demand

David Juarez was named to his current role as program director at the Durham Community Food Pantry in January, during the calm before the pandemic storm. Now in the final month of his first year on the job, he faces an entirely different reality than the one he experienced in those early days.

Instead of serving about 1,000 individuals per month, Juarez’s new normal is serving 5,000 people monthly. On a weekly basis the pantry, run by Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Raleigh, provides food to 300 families, he estimates.

“We don’t see that number necessarily falling anytime soon,” he said. “I think that average is going to be the new norm.”

Randall saw a similar phenomenon in the western part of the state with MANNA, which, she said, served 118,000 people in October, up 77% from last year.

Estimates from Feeding America — the national parent organization of MANNA and the Food Shuttle — show a 25% statewide increase in food insecurity since 2018, with at least a 14.1% uptick in each of North Carolina’s 100 counties.

Nine counties have seen a jump of 30% or more, including tourism-dependent locales Dare (39.8%) and Buncombe (36.2%) and major metropolitan hubs Wake (31.7%) and Mecklenburg (30.8%).

In the western part of the state, Randall sees what’s happening as an unsurprising but nonetheless heartbreaking reality. She characterizes her region’s combination of a lack of transportation and affordable housing and prevalence of low-wage jobs as a “perfect socioeconomic storm.”

Job loss led to many first-time seekers of aid. Rice, of the Food Shuttle in Raleigh which serves a seven-county area in and around the Triangle, said helping these people find the proper resources is vital.

“Part of that is because they’ve never had to do it before,” Rice said.

“They don’t know who to turn to initially, because it’s not part of the way they lived their lives.”

Changing the way they serve

In downtown Charlotte at Roof Above, formerly known as the Urban Ministry Center, it would be common for 300-400 people daily to come inside for a seated lunch at the soup kitchen, open every day of the year.

The services extended beyond the meal, said Randall Hitt, Roof Above’s chief engagement officer. Clients could also do laundry, get their mail and take showers.

This year, the meals have continued, but the organization pivoted to an outdoor, grab-and-go system with mostly prepared items.

“People get in a line, they grab their meal, and then they’re back out the door,” said Hitt. “There’s a lot of eating outside. But we didn’t disrupt that service.”

Similar to Roof Above in Charlotte, the Shepherd’s Table Soup Kitchen in downtown Raleigh finds itself doing things to feed people it never could have imagined until this year.

After closing for one day in mid-March, Shepherd’s Table switched to an outdoor, socially distant setup. It also created a drive-thru line option, a change for an organization with clients who typically walk from nearby homeless shelters and rehab and transition centers.

“We’re seeing families now,” said Tammy Gregory, Shepherd’s Table’s executive director.

At the Food Shuttle, mobile markets, where individuals drive to locations like churches, community centers and schools to receive goods without leaving their cars, have expanded by 200%.

But pandemic-inflicted adjustments go beyond new, varied ways of food delivery. One of 2020’s biggest impacts on nonprofits has been the way it’s disrupted the volunteer model, crucial to the operations of many organizations.

Gregory said Shepherd’s Table, which only has three full-time employees, previously counted on 25-30 weekly volunteers, but that number has been reduced to seven because of safety rules.

In Western North Carolina, MANNA relies on 7,000 volunteers per year but has seen many in its volunteer base stay away because they fall into at-risk categories, including age.

At the food pantry in Durham, Juarez said during the summer months, college-age and younger adults helped fill the volunteering void, but that changed when universities resumed classes in the fall.

The need for employees to keep themselves safe also limits the number of outsiders able to help in traditional ways.

“If we get sick,” Juarez said bluntly, “we can’t serve anybody.”

Financial strain continues

Like most industries, the business model for nonprofits working against hunger changed considerably this year, often for the worse.

At MANNA, Randall said donated food is down 20%, while food purchasing is up by more than 600%.

“That math doesn’t work out too well,” she said.

MANNA, like the Durham Community Food Pantry and Roof Above in Charlotte, received funding from the CARES Act. The Emergency Food Assistance Program, administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, provided goods, as well.

Throughout the pandemic, 15 National Guard members have helped MANNA transport goods, distribute food and sort and pack items.

But those soldiers are set to disengage in the coming weeks, emblematic of the uncertainty surrounding governmental assistance in the coming months as the pandemic wears on.

“What we’re looking at is a cliff of federal food commodities that will drop by over 50% at the end of the year,” Randall said.

One boon across the board has been the role churches are playing in helping nonprofits deliver resources to communities.

Juarez cited food drives at the UNC Chapel Hill’s Newman Center and Durham Catholic parishes Holy Infant, Holy Cross and Immaculate Conception as a big help for the Durham Community Food Pantry. More than two-thirds of MANNA’s partners are faith based, Randall said.

Despite the changing circumstances and increased need, it is not as if those on the front lines against hunger are encountering a new issue.

When Juarez looks out at the line of cars that zigzag through the parking lot outside of the food pantry, he knows many in line were already going hungry before COVID.

“The people who are food insecure, even pre-pandemic, are still there,” he said. “They’re still looking at us as a pillar of stability, consistency and hope.”

While leaders hope the pandemic will prompt a better plan by local, state and federal entities to combat hunger beyond the health crisis, the immediate battle continues.

“I do view living with this purpose and this moment as a real gift — I really do,” Randall said. “I think a lot of us view it that way, and it’s what keeps us going.”


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