Many people throughout Western North Carolina are not sure where their next meal will come from, or if they will even have one, according to a recent study performed by national hunger relief organization Feeding America. In fact, the report states that food insecurity and hunger are faced by one in six people throughout the region.
With hunger manifesting in WNC during the national economic downturn, Western Carolina University, along with MANNA FoodBank, hosted a public policy forum on Monday, where more than 40 WNC hunger-relief workers and community organizers filled the A.K. Hinds University Center to discuss the issue.
The event was also “an opportunity for engagement,” according to MANNA Communications and Marketing Coordinator Joshua Stack, remarking that it allowed hunger-relief workers to network and increase the level of communication with one another.
The networking sessions were followed by a three hour panel discussion, where eight professional speakers took turns identifying issues in their respective fields that relate to food insecurity. Those speakers included representatives from MANNA, local non-profits, healthcare and agricultural experts.
“There’s a need for us to be here today,” said MANNA Executive Director Cynthia Threlkeld, at the opening of the forum. “Because there is a problem here in Western North Carolina, collectively in this room, we have the power to do something about it.”
Threlkeld recently acquired her position at MANNA after serving more than eight years with the Peace Corps. During her years in the organization, she served as the Country Director for both Guatemala and Zambia. “Perhaps the greatest difference between Zambia and Western North Carolina is that people Western North Carolina have the resources to do something about [food insecurity],” she said. “It takes a community becoming empowered, becoming impatient of what is being seen around it, to pull together to address the common issue... We have that power.”
The need for food
Stack then took the floor, and began recounting the amounts of food distributed by MANNA last year; 173,000 lbs. of food went to Jackson County. 445,571 lbs. to Macon and 630,869 lbs. of food went to Haywood. Buncombe County led the hunger figures with 2,700,000 lbs. of food. The Asheville metro area even ranks seventh, out of 950 metro areas in the country, for food hardship, he pointed out.
“The need has not diminished,” said Stack. He stressed that communication between MANNA and the hunger-relief agencies in the 16 counties it serves is of great importance. “MANNA relies on agencies so it knows the status of food insecurity in each community,” he said.
For Sylva-based food pantry The Community Table, one of the seven agencies that relies on MANNA for relief in Jackson County, food insecurity may only be increasing this year.
“We’re afraid 2011 will break last year’s numbers,” said Amy Grimes, executive director of The Community Table.
While community-based food assistance programs are one option for those in need, MANNA Outreach Coordinator Ella Kliger said that government assistance is another option for those facing food security challenges. Part of Kliger’s job is to work closely with the Department of Social Services and MANNA clients, expediting the process of attaining Food Nutritional Services (formerly known as food stamps), which has proven in her experience to be an adequate source of nutrition for those in need.
However, in rural towns, as opposed to metro towns like Asheville and Waynesville, there is often a negative connotation associated with collecting government provided assistance. “In larger cities we find that there is a fair bit of anonymity,” she said. “In a smaller county, you probably know the receptionist at DSS, and you might even be related, and you might not want to let them know. It’s a much more charged atmosphere in smaller towns,” she said.
Stack said that there is no shame for low income families to utilize food stamps. While they pay taxes, he noted, part of their income pays for the service. “Entitlement is taboo,” he said, echoing Kliger’s message that while government nutritional assistance can alleviate the food insecurity woes of the region, it still carries with it an undesirable implication.
Aside from government and community provided food, there is also another force combating domestic hunger. “Fields of Hope,” a community garden north of Asheville, harvests produce to be distributed to those in need.
“If you’re having to worry about the basics of your life, food, water and shelter, not much else is going to take a priority,” said A.C. Honeycutt, founder of Fields of Hope, whose organization produced 250,000 lbs. of food last year (75-80 percent of which was distributed by MANNA).
Honeycutt, along with Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project director Emily Jackson, stressed that local produce was another alternative food source with the potential for abundance in WNC. “Some of our youth do not even know where their produce comes from,” warned Jackson.
All too often, some make the remark that obese Americans could hardly be considered “hungry.” According to clinical dietician Nilofer Couture, that just isn’t the case. “Amidst this sea of hunger exists a sea of plenty,” she said.
Couture said that impoverished individuals or families frequently purchase unhealthy foods, as nutritious foods are often more expensive, in order to stretch their dollar further. In a “feast or famine situation,” as she stated, a hungry person will eat abnormally larger portions of food in order to get their fill. “Doing this trains the body to store fat more efficiently,” she said.
The trade off between food quantity and quality, Couture said, along with the lack of availability of nutritious foods in low income communities, and the lack of opportunity for physical activity among low income families, are among the reasons why obesity exists among such families. “If you eat too much, eat the wrong kinds of food, burn too few calories, you will gain weight,” she said.
Highlands-Cashiers Community Care Clinic founder, and hospital administrator Jerry Hermanson said the clinic he operates is seeing increasing numbers of clients. “The demand for our service grows with food bank demand.” Hermanson added that with food insecure individuals and families, there also exists the potential for physical conditions such as diabetes.
Hermanson encouraged hunger-relief agencies to approach their local healthcare providers to circulate dietary educational literature. “There’s a lot of things you can do to help other people,” he said. He also urged the agencies to have discussions with nearby health professionals and see if they could provide their clients with free health screenings.
At the end of the forum, those in attendance continued to network with fellow hunger-relief workers, and the panelists themselves. The food at the banquet table was promptly packed up to be donated to The Community Table.
Although an abundance of shocking facts and figures about hunger in WNC were revealed at the meeting, Threlkeld said that there is indeed hope for the region, given the ideas and connections exchanged at the forum. “We can come together so all of us can leverage a way to impact the area,” she said.