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Heather Edwards, Foothills Food Hub developer, explains distribution for the drive-thru food pantry. This is the first of three pantries she will organize in the next few days.

“What folks need to understand is that we were here before the pandemic, providing food and assistance to those that needed it most. While most of the conversation has been focused on the response to the N.C. shutdown and state of the world, we continue to be here serving the community. What’s happening in the world has only put a spotlight on the helpful organizations and individuals in the community” — Amy Stevens Vaughn, McDowell Access To Care & Health

In November 2016, a focused group of WNC organizers were funded to study the food access systems in McDowell County and surrounding areas. What they found was limited access, funding and network resources contributed to the staggering hunger statistics in their region. Through generous grants provided by both Kate B. Reynolds Charitable Trust, and Community Foundations of WNC,  multiple agencies banded together for the creation of the Foothills Food Hub.

Fast-forward to March, 2020. Since the start of the statewide lockdown in March, funding and support from Gateway Wellness Foundation to the Foothills Food Hub and other local nonprofits has allowed for the distribution of thousands of food boxes, hundreds of hot meals, and emergency Food Outreach throughout the county.

But the story doesn’t just stop there. The story lies behind how the Food Hub has utilized both funding and a network of dedicated volunteers, organizers and businesses to face the COVID-19 crisis head-on.

Limited resources, abrupt loss in business, and financial strains aren’t just a difficulty faced by the citizens of McDowell County; businesses and local organizations have been dealt new challenges over the course of the NC shutdown. With everything at a standstill, local entities and nonprofits have taken to innovative methods of addressing the growing financial, health, and hunger concerns in the region.

A new way to serve

Alan and Crystal Ledbetter of L&D Appliance, LLC serve the restaurant Cooking equipment industry. Within the first week of shutdown, their business dropped down to 10% of what it normally anticipates.

“Businesses are unable to order new equipment because they aren’t serving customers, or they’ve had to delay restaurant openings” said Crystal. “We wanted to find a way to still serve the communities we love, and Foothills Food Hub helped with that.”

The L&D Appliance, LLC truck assists in food deliveries and pantry outreach twice a week for Foothills Food Hub, McDowell Local Food Advisory, and McDowell Access To Care & Health. Instead of sitting idle in the L&D parking lot, the truck, Crystal and Alan find themselves playing a critical role in fighting hunger. The Ledbetters not only deliver food, they help pack food boxes and are on the front lines of distributing during pantry events.

Pastor Bob Ritter of Nebo Crossing backs a forklift up to the L&D truck. Within minutes he’s moved 40 food boxes up for volunteers to load into the truck. Months ago, this was hard work tackled by over 20 volunteers twice a week.

With new restrictions on gatherings, Ritter assists nine Grace Community Church volunteers in getting boxes loaded for food pantry events multiple times a week. As more and more residents request food assistance, Nebo Crossing assists with donation storage, while helping Foothills Food Hub manage the incoming donations.

“As a local pastor and chaplain for the police department, I find myself in a lot of behind-the-scenes meetings and cooperation efforts. It thrills my heart to witness the role that Foothills Food Hub is playing to help those in need. Nebo Crossing, our church, enjoys the partnership we have developed with Heather and the Food Hub. It is great to know that any donation (whether it’s food, funding or support) is leveraged to meet the needs of the citizens in this moment of crisis.”

A call for help

Under a sweat-soaked work hat, Amy Stevens of McDowell Access To Care and Health stops loading sweet potatoes to take a quick peek at her phone. Another request has come in for assistance with medication. A McDowell resident who has been continuously employed for years has found himself without the means to pay for diabetes medication, and with no paycheck in the foreseeable future, no certain way to get to/from the doctors or pharmacy.

While sorting through boxes of fresh eggs, cabbage and fruit, Stevens makes a few calls. It isn’t long before she’s able to locate a provider that can assist in getting critical diabetes medication. Sometimes the request for help takes a couple of hours, sometimes it can take days before M.A.T.C.H. can resolve some of the new needs coming into the organization.

“We’ve seen a huge uptick in needs for our folks, not only needs of folks already enrolled (with local nonprofits), but individuals and households that have lost income, been laid off, or faced financial difficulties after only a few paychecks”, says Stevens. Since it’s a volunteer network, Amy often takes it upon herself to deliver or provide what many of us take for granted. Luckily, a new partnership with McDowell Transit, McDowell Access To Care & Health, and McDowell Local Food Advisory (LFAC) lift some of that burden.

Alecia Morgan, a McDowell Transit employee, drops off a stack of flyers at the Foothills Food Hub pantry on Tuesday. Upon seeing the rows of vehicles already lined up for the drive-thru pantry, Morgan gloves up and immediately joins the four other volunteers working to unpack food donation boxes. While the first 20 minutes of the food pantry are a blur, a smile beams from beneath Alecia’s mask as a McDowell Transit van pulls up to the pantry. Friendly chatter erupts from Morgan, the driver, and the passengers. As boxes are loaded for the multiple households, a few flyers and brightly decorated Art Activity Kits are handed to the driver: “Get these to everyone” — as Morgan waves the van off and another vehicle pulls up.

MACA helps out

The McDowell Arts Council Association regularly features local gallery events and live performances. However, since the March shutdown announcement all on-site activity has been canceled. Behind-the-scenes, Susan Pyatt-Baker (executive director) and Anna Branam (assistant director) create art supply activity kits for families receiving emergency food through the Foothills Food Hub and Centro Unido Latino-Americano food pantry.

Each kit contains information about online art and community resources, complete with tutorials, MACA event announcements, and podcast recommendations.

“Creating accessible virtual options for community programming and finding or creating resources for local artists is a priority right now” explains Branam. “Finding creative outlets for McDowell residents of all ages helps with the challenges of coping and dealing with our new normal.”

Throughout McDowell County, individuals like the ones above are working together to make the pieces fit when life deals a hard blow. Despite their own obstacles or increased responsibilities, these business owners, religious organizations and other entities are banding together.

In essence, this crisis had redefined community aid and outreach in the WNC. With some projections throwing the NC shutdown step-down phases as far out as June, it’s the goal of the Foothills Food Hub to continue collaborating with organizations regularly.

The lasting effects of business closures and travel restrictions are projected to affect many residents through Summer 2020.

Feeding ‘everyone that comes through'

 Caleb Parker, of Smokey Cues/Fat Boys Burritos, partnered with McDowell Access To Care & Health and the Foothills Food Hub to support their Tuesday drive-thru food pantry events. During one of the first events, 246 hot meals were distributed through the pantry within the first 40 minutes. By the third event, close to 400 were prepared for distribution.

“For the first meal distribution I was kicking myself a little because I didn’t hit 250 meals, but lately it’s just ensuring that I’ve got enough to feed everyone that comes through,” said Parker.

When Parker mentions “everyone” it’s not just households seeking assistance from the Foothills Food Hub. Libbi Green of St. John’s Food Pantry in Marion noted that prior to the NC shutdown, her organization provided 40-pound food boxes for 60 households on a regular basis. Their pantry utilizes resources from the Food Hub to supplement the boxes distributed to households throughout McDowell.

“Since the pandemic, we’re over 100 households and getting more requests weekly. The attitude has changed from shame to gratitude for organizations like ours existing. In these difficult times, we need more gratitude, both as givers and recipients. We are glad to be here for folks that need us,” says Greene.

On Thursday, the Dysartsville Food Pantry distributed over 150 food boxes to the outlying neighborhoods of McDowell. “Anita” (real name withheld) grabs an activity packet and MATCH flyer while receiving a food box from the pantry. A traveling artist-vendor, she’s been out-of-work since February.

“Events were getting canceled as early as February, and luckily I had savings in place for that. But suddenly March was here and every big conference or event I had on the books was gone. Some of them didn’t even refund my money, they just disappeared or claimed they needed the money to cover cancellation costs. I travel up and down the East Coast. It wasn’t just Carolina shutting down, I had eight gigs over three months lined up to pay bills just disappear overnight with no way to replace that income.”

Anita said she’s never used a food pantry before, and it’s not easy for her to do.

“I’ve had friends telling me for weeks to reach out and ask for help, but I felt like I didn’t deserve it. I didn’t have any income coming in, and this is the first time in my life I’ve been without full-time work. This box helps fill some gaps in my pantry until I pick up more hours at my (new) part-time job.”

Anita’s story isn’t unique, according to Foothills Food Hub Developer Heather Edwards.

“During the first week of the shutdown, we responded to a slight increase in food requests from the community. But in the following week, we had folks reaching out to us that honestly had no idea they would ever need to use our services before. These are people I know in the community, people I chat with at the market,” Edwards said. “By the second week of the shutdown, we served approximately 1,278 households which translates to a 300% increase in unique food assistance requests. It’s startling to see the impact in our rural community within such a short period of time.”

While new orders from the desk of Gov. Cooper state restrictions will begin to lift as early as May 8, the detrimental effects of the shutdown will only increase the responsibilities of food pantries, non-profits and assistance organizations. As more folks begin to feel financial strain on everyday necessities, many food pantries are being asked to include additional outreach. However, with that additional outreach, there are additional costs.

Through a partnership with Gateway Wellness Foundation, a special COVID-19 funding campaign has been created to source community funds and donors from the region. This unique fundraising drive allows for donors to provide direct donations to the Foothills Food Hub, with each dollar being matched by Gateway Wellness Foundation.

“We aim to put a community focus on the needs of their neighbors, with the opportunity to create more support for the Hub,” says Foothills Food Hub Developer Heather Edwards.

If you would like to help the Foothills Food Hub, McDowell Access To Care and Heath, or the McDowell Local Food Advisory, please visit: https://foothillsfoodhub.org/covid19-donation

If you would like to make a monetary donation that will be matched dollar-for-dollar by Gateway Wellness Foundation, please visit: https://gatewaywellnessfoundation.org/covid/.

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