BY JOSEPH JAMISON
I recently moved back to Asheville after a three-year hiatus spent in Transylvania County. While there, I worked at the alternative high school, Davidson River School. Many of our students came from low-income homes to the point that the entire school had access to free and reduced-price lunches. I now work for OpenDoors of Asheville, a local nonprofit addressing problems caused by multigenerational poverty for students in Asheville City Schools.
What I have learned in the short time back is that in both areas, students in poverty often suffer from similar issues: food insecurity, transportation, achievement gaps, enrichment activities gaps, affordable and stable housing, gangs and more. How do we solve these problems? First, we must understand that this is a question of place, and a place is most often defined by its residents and their culture.
That brings us to an issue that must be discussed: race. It’s not one of those words that dissipate in meaning the more you say it, like spoon. Instead, it digs in and roots, then separates. Culture in the U.S. is most often associated with race, particularly when communities are clearly divided along racial lines. In the first of Erin Daniell’s two-part series published in Xpress this summer, “Legacy of Loss: Food Insecurity and Its Disproportionate Impact on Asheville’s Black Community,” she points out one such division. In the city of Asheville, and many others across the country, you can draw a line around a designated food-insecure area and find a disproportionate amount of the black population suffering from poverty-related issues such as food access.
At the same time, you could draw another line around several rural, predominantly white communities in Western North Carolina and other regions and find the same issue of food access. Unfortunately, this very point is one that I’ve heard used countless times to undermine and diminish the experience of black communities suffering from food insecurity and other poverty-related issues. In essence, the argument goes: “We’ve got the same problem here, and we’re not minorities, so what does hunger have to do with race?” In these particular neighborhoods, a lot.
Historical context is important. Understanding why certain issue exists in an area can lead us to effective solutions. Predominantly black neighborhoods in Asheville experience food impoverishment disproportionate to white residents in the city because of racially biased systems built over time. Naming the history of a problem in our black community does not discount the experiences of our rural white communities. It’s simply a different article. It’s not an either-or argument. It’s an “and” discussion. And white, rural communities suffer from food insecurity, too, often due to economic conditions like industry collapse and the loss of a major, single employer.
But the causes of the problem are often different, and so then are the solutions. The fall of tobacco has a well-known relationship with poverty in WNC. In Transylvania County, a commonly referenced contributor to poverty is the closure of the Ecusta paper mill in 2002. The mill, which began in 1939 manufacturing cigarette papers, was clearly bolstered by the tobacco industry and war, but, in talking to locals, it is apparent that Ecusta provided much more to the community.
Varying reports claim Ecusta dwindled from employing thousands in the ’60s and ’70s to only a few hundred by the time it closed its doors. It was an economic force and a cultural point of pride for Transylvania County. The plant and two other major factories, which closed within the following year, symbolized progress. Aside from direct employment, they boosted complementary industries such as transportation, required for the supply chain, and contributed to the now-dominant service industry. Transylvania County is not connected to a major interstate as Henderson and Buncombe counties are, compounding the economic impacts of isolation for rural residents by making the county seat a comparatively less-frequented tourist destination, despite the county’s favored waterfalls.
Transylvania is roughly half the geographic size of Buncombe and, according to the 2010 census, has a fraction of its population, but its residents are also much more spread out (87 per square mile versus 363 per square mile). Molly Horak’s Aug. 2 Xpress article, “No Vacation from Hunger: Local Organizations Work to Address Summer Food Insecurity in WNC’s Rural Communities,” looks at solutions to food insecurity in WNC’s rural, predominantly white communities. These solutions identify geography and values as necessary considerations for reducing the impacts of poverty. Diffusely populated rural counties greatly benefit from solutions considerate of geography, such as the one at work in rural Henderson County. The Meals on the Bus pilot program there utilizes buses to take food to designated sites farther out in the county, increasing access for rural residents. This solution makes geographic sense. Similarly, the YMCA of Western North Carolina’s mobile kitchens and markets bring healthy food and culinary knowledge into Asheville’s urban food deserts. Though these deserts are born of geographic limitation, too, their origins are rooted in something much different than industry collapse.
Horak’s article also discusses the challenge of overcoming “mountain pride” in rural communities when offering aid. Literally, solutions to poverty must meet people where they are physically and socially: They must address people as they are. As we navigate geographic obstacles when addressing poverty in WNC, we must also navigate its unique cultures. Bread of Life and the Sharing House are two of the most recognizable resources for food-insecure households in Brevard. They are primarily (not exclusively) positioned for residents living inside the city, especially in its low-income, urban housing. These neighborhoods are predominantly minority and, like Transylvania residents living in rural poverty, isolated by place — but, as with Asheville’s low-income housing, these are historic and manufactured geographies.
It would not make sense for these two organizations, or those serving similar populations in Asheville, to ignore the elephant in many a room: Many of the people we serve are minorities, and most staff members in so many of these organizations are not. This is not a unique phenomenon, and it is not necessarily a bad thing, either. What it does require, like accounting for “mountain pride,” is an understanding and awareness of the unique histories and cultures in our community when crafting solutions for poverty or serving diverse populations.
As a biracial person, dividing lines between races have always been apparent and personal to me. Having the cultural awareness to work between rural WNC and Asheville is predicated on my contextual history. I often hear, for better or worse, ‘Yeah, well, we’re all mixed to some degree.” What’s more important to me is that so is our community. So are our problems. No issue eliminates, undermines, or discounts the similar challenges of another; they simply have different roots. Just like geography, understanding and valuing the unique landscapes of cultural realities is necessary to develop effective solutions that tackle problems as they are and at their origin.
Joseph Jamison is a student in the Master of Public Affairs program at Western Carolina University and operations manager for OpenDoors of Asheville; learn more about the nonprofit’s work at opendoorsasheville.org.