A 3-year-old boy with long raven hair cried inside the Living Waters Food Pantry and Resource Center, which seeks to combat hunger in Cherokee. He squirmed on the hip of his mother, stretching for a toy as she reached for a can of vegetables.
He got his toy, and she got their food at the tribal pantry that serves two counties, both plagued with poverty.
One in every four children under the age of 18 in Swain and Jackson counties live in poverty, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Even more live in households that the U.S. Department of Agriculture has deemed “food insecure.”
“It’s very hard,” said Lisa Russell, who runs the Living Waters Food Pantry and Resource Center within the Qualla Boundary, home to the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians.
“I mean I’ve had young, especially young mothers who will come up, and somebody will holler, ‘Lisa, you’ve got a new one around the corner.’ I’ve had them standing here, and they’ll be crying, ‘I’ve never had to ask for help.’ I say, ‘Baby, you’ve come to the right place. That’s what we’re here for. We’re here to get you on your feet.’”
The Living Waters pantry and many others like it are in high demand across Western North Carolina, where MANNA FoodBank distributed more than 18 million pounds of food to hungry clients last year.
Swain County was ranked 99 out of the state’s 100 counties when it came to food security among children in the Public School Forum of North Carolina’s Center for Afterschool Programs’ Roadmap of Need 2018.
Several other western counties also ranked poorly, including Clay at 89, Yancey at 88, Mitchell at 85 and Jackson, McDowell and Macon tied for 75.
“In Western North Carolina, one in four children are food insecure,” said Amy Sims, the western zone coordinator and agency relations manager at MANNA. “But there are pockets where as many as four in five kids don’t have enough healthy food to eat. We look at the rates of use for the free school lunch program in each of the 16 counties that we serve, and there are more than 45,000 kids on the program, a number that continues to climb.”
One of MANNA’s primary tools to address childhood hunger is through its MANNA Packs and Summer Packs programs, which provided 186,716 bags of food to kids last fiscal year, she said.
“Children are our future, and there is no better investment than providing those in need with the healthy food they need for a solid foundation in life,” Sims said.
Hunger and learning
Nearly a third of the children in Swain County live in food-insecure homes. According to the county’s school nutrition director, hunger can hinder their ability to learn.
No Kid Hungry North Carolina, which recently honored Swain County Schools for its summer meals program, agrees.
“Hungry children have trouble concentrating, get more headaches and infections, are more likely to be hospitalized and are less likely to perform well on athletic fields and in classrooms. It’s simply much harder for children at risk of hunger to thrive,” said Tamara Baker, project and communications director with No Kid Hungry NC, an initiative based at UNC Chapel Hill’s Center for Health Promotion and Disease Prevention.
“School breakfast and strong instruction mean more graduations,” she said. “Studies show that a student who eats a healthy breakfast scores up to 17 points higher that day on a math test. School principals tell us that eating school breakfast improves focus, discipline and academic performance for kids.”
Every child in both of Swain County’s elementary schools is served free breakfasts and lunches every day.
“All kids eat free,” said Jennifer Brown, the county schools’ nutrition director. “They all have the option to have breakfast and lunch. The middle and high schools run at about 60 percent free and reduced lunches.”
But whatever isn’t eaten or taken by the children at school is thrown away.
“My granddaughter said, ‘Nan, … you wouldn’t believe the food they’re throwing away here at the school,’” said Kathleen Burns, a former social worker and mental health worker, who has since founded The Giving Spoon community meals site in Bryson City. Burns’ granddaughter teaches at West Elementary.
Burns said she and others working on the problem convinced teachers to start saving their untouched leftovers for her to pick up. The extra cartons of milk, juices, cheese sticks and other prepackaged food items that would have gone in the trash were stored in a refrigerator in the teachers lounge.
Burns drove to the school to pick it all up and took the items to a community cooler on the porch of The Restoration House in Bryson City. The cooler, in addition to a pantry called The Blessing Box on the porch, held food, drinks and other items that are free to anyone 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
“That’s what really started the trend of people … coming by there to get those milks,” Burns said.
Then word got around that only certain people were taking all of the food, she added, and “the refrigerator went away.”
Burns started taking the leftovers herself to struggling neighborhoods until the efforts to store the items became a hassle.
“I’d really, really like to get that going again,” she said. “If there is food, there is no reason why food should be thrown away.”
Brown says she and others place the leftovers from breakfasts served in the classrooms on a share table offered to students.
“Kids can get extras,” she said. “What is not taken does get thrown away. In terms of food that comes back to the cafeteria, if it is not a shelf-stable individually wrapped food, it is required to be discarded by health department regulations.”
Brown says she and others are looking at ways to reduce the waste.
“I was doing that, and then my focus kind of got on this,” Burns said, as she sat in an office inside Bryson City Presbyterian Church, where she started The Giving Spoon, in February.
“We have a lot of grandparents raising grandchildren in this county — lots,” Burns said.
“They don’t get a lot of support. They’re on fixed incomes. And a lot of times they’re elderly.”
The federal government’s Temporary Assistance for Needy Families and Women, Infants and Children programs weren’t designed with the elderly providing care to children in mind.
The elderly and children under the age of 18 make up more than 40 percent of Swain County’s population.
To reach the children in need, Burns put a call out to teachers on Facebook, encouraging them to invite their students out to dinner at The Giving Spoon.
“Our meals on Thursday nights are free to anyone who comes through that door. No questions asked,” she said.
“We have two kids that come on a regular basis with their mom every week that we’ve been open. One child came with her grandmother one time. And we’ve had some children volunteers to come with their parents. But we’re hoping to get more children in, and I’m starting to work with some of the school social workers in getting information out that we’re available now.”
Swain County Schools also offers an after-school supper program for kids. The program once only offered snacks, but now meals are served to every child for free.
Summertime food in Swain
“The cafeteria ladies, they tell me stories about how kids will come in on a Monday morning, and they’ll get to school hungry so, you know, you just wonder what’s going to happen to them over the summer,” said Brown, the Swain County Schools nutrition director.
The district has been honored for its summer meals program.
“We actually have a very big program,” she said. “We partner with about 23 sites. All of our cafeterias are open in the summer, except the high school won’t be open this summer because of the renovations. But we partner with churches and some community organizations and some camps in Cherokee. We do a lot of meals.”
Brown says The Giving Spoon offers breakfast, lunch and supper to children throughout the county for free. Adults can buy plates for $3, she said.
“We know that kids decline in their learning over the summer because they come back to school in the fall behind where they left off,” Brown said in a Facebook video message the district posted on March 4. “Part of this is due to inadequate nutrition over the summer months.”
For those who couldn’t make it out to the cafeterias, Burns said, the teachers brought the food to them.
“They were bagged lunches, and they (the teachers) would go to the poor communities in this county,” she said. Her granddaughter was one of the teachers who helped.
“My granddaughter said that at one place (an old motel) … kids would be jumping out the windows or coming out the door, you know, just coming to get their meals,” Burns said. “They knew it was their mealtime. Those are the ones that needed the meals, and to take it out and hand it out to them, that was great.”
“Swain (County) is the No. 1 county in our state for serving summer meals to the highest number of their percent of need,” said Baker of No Kid Hungry NC. Meeting more than 45 percent of the needs for summer meals through its federal summer nutrition program, the district’s efforts exceeded those in every other county.
“Next closest was Transylvania County with 25.12 percent met,” Swain County Schools announced in a Facebook post on April 22. “We currently have 19 sites that served 48,313 total meals during the summer of 2018, which translates into some 915 students being served daily.”
Hungry kids in Graham County
Southwest of Swain County in Graham County, nearly 25 percent of children were living in food-insecure homes in 2017. Community partners in Graham are also striving to combat child hunger.
The current food-insecure rate is an improvement from the 30.1 percent of children who lived with food insecurity there in 2015, but it’s still higher than the state’s average at 20.1 percent and the nation’s at 17 percent.
“Food insecurity among children in Graham County is still high,” said the Rev. Eric Reece of Robbinsville United Methodist Church.
“Many fall through the cracks and are not counted.”
Reece’s church joined Grace Fellowship Baptist Church and Stecoah Baptist Church to form the Graham Fellowship Food Distribution, an alliance that distributes food to those in need once a month.
In April, the fellowship gave food to 72 households, feeding 172 people.
“Graham County is a food desert,” Reece said. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention defines food deserts as areas that lack access to affordable fruits, vegetables, whole grains and low-fat milk.
“We have one full grocery store,” Reece said, noting that “transportation is a problem for many.”
MANNA leaders say they are trying to address that issue with Pop Up Markets.
“We send a box truck full of food, mostly produce, directly into communities in need and distribute on the spot,” Sims said.
“We work with community partners to find a location, help staff with volunteers and advertise. This innovative approach helps us reach families in need where there may not be a nearby grocery store or even a food pantry.”
The agency launched the pilot program last summer. Since then, it has partnered with communities at more than 20 locations, providing an average of 2,500 to 3,000 pounds of food at each one. Community members don’t need a nonprofit status or a brick-and-mortar building to request the markets. Several have been held in different locations around Graham County.
“Graham County is like much of rural America, a beautiful place with great people, just very few jobs that pay a living wage,” Reece said.
“Our younger population goes off to college and does not return.”
The average cost of a meal in Graham County is $3.01, higher than the state’s average at $2.87.
“We are passionate about seeing that children have good healthy food to eat. It is important for their well-being and growth,” Reece said.
“For the past four years, our main program is the once-a-month food distribution the first or second Wednesday of each month,” he added. With the help of MANNA and other partners, the fellowship provides “food demonstrations with recipe cards on much of the produce that is available in a given season.”
The group has also given out Leanne Brown’s “Good and Cheap: Eat Well on $4/Day” cookbooks.
“The challenges are trying to get the word out about the distributions to families. In addition, all our food distributions in the county are during the day, which makes it hard or impossible for working families to take advantage of (it),” Reece said.
With incomes at or vastly below the federal poverty level, 93 percent of the people living in Graham County qualify for nutrition programs, according to Feeding America’s Map the Meal Gap.
Agencies around Graham County try to host a food distribution every week, Reece said.
A local school hosts the Knights Pantry, sending food home with students on weekends, and the Grace Place at Liberty Missionary Church offers a free weekly meal, he added.
Jackson County children
East of Swain County is Jackson County, where 23 percent of the estimated 43,639 residents live in poverty, according to the N.C. Department of Commerce’s AccessNC.
Sixteen percent of the population in Jackson County – more than 6,300 – is considered “food insecure.”
“Around 37 percent of those served by our food pantry and meals programs are children age 12 and under,” said Paige Christie, executive director of The Community Table in Sylva. “Only about 13 percent of those we serve are on food stamps, so most of the people we see are working at least one job or are elderly on fixed incomes, retired or children.”
The Community Table is in high demand these days.
“Through the years, we have seen a steady increase in the number of people needing both our programs,” Christie said.
“Living-wage jobs are limited in the area, as is affordable housing. Food costs and medical costs continue to rise for everyone. The poorest in our community are steadily more, more affected.”
Christie said the program started out feeding six to 10 people a night. Now, The Community Table serves around 134 meals a day, more than 27,000 meals a year and gives out more than 8,500 boxes of food.
“Some of the families we serve do not have ovens or sometimes even stoves,” Christie said. “For children, this means we face a challenge in providing the family healthy foods that are easy to store, easy to open and that children can fix for themselves. Part of the way we do this is by providing ‘kid bags’ for each child 12 and under in a household. These are small bags, filled with child-friendly foods, that are added to pantry boxes.
“Many of the children we see might only get one meal a day – often provided by the school, church or us – and so often they live in worry that they might miss that meal.”
Feeding children in Polk County
To the southeast in Polk County, 73 percent of students are eligible for free or reduced-price lunches. Schools in Polk County offer free meals to every pupil in every elementary school.
“Participation in this (Community Eligibility Provision) program allows all students in grades prekindergarten through five to eat school breakfast and lunch free,” Superintendent Aaron Greene said.
The number of kids on the district’s free and reduced-price meals program has grown from 50 percent last year and 47.8 percent in the 2007-08 school year. The current number of district students on free and reduced-price meals is the highest it’s been in 10 years.
“In addition to CEP, we have a local agency, Thermal Belt Outreach Ministry, that supplies each of our seven schools with ‘food bags’ at the end of the week that needy students can take home to have meals over the weekend,” Greene said.
“Several local churches carry this program on during the summer months. We are fortunate to have that support for our students and families.”
The Polk County Community Foundation also supports the district “by providing extra food and snacks via small ‘food pantry’ setups in our schools,” Greene said.
“This helps counselors and principals get some food to hungry kids during the day.”
Around the region
The following list provides the percentage of children living in food-insecure homes in each of the counties in the region served by MANNA and its affiliates. (Source: AccessNC, 2017)
Avery County: 22%
Buncombe County: 21.8%
Cherokee County: 25.8%
Clay County: 27.3%
Graham County: 30.1%
Haywood County: 25.3%
Henderson County: 21%
Jackson County: 25.8%
Macon County: 25.8%
Madison County: 24.7%
McDowell County: 25.8%
Mitchell County: 26.7%
Polk County: 23.1%
Swain County: 31.7%
Transylvania County: 23.9%
Yancey County: 27%
Written by Emily Weaver, Carolina Public Press.