Hunger soars in North Carolina in the wake of the pandemic
Published March 24, 2021
By Lynn Bonner
Nonprofits, food banks expand, but still struggle to serve all the people who can’t afford groceries
A crew of workers recently parceled flour, bags of broccoli, bottled water, bread, and other essentials into boxes, as vehicles lined up in the parking lot of a Durham apartment complex. The drivers were waiting for boxes of food that would help sustain their families for a few more days.
La Semilla, a new United Methodist congregation in Durham, has worked with organizations such as the Inter-Faith Food Shuttle — which delivered the food that morning — Rocky Top Catering, and the nonprofit Overflowing Hands, to deliver food to neighborhoods throughout the region for about a year.
On Tuesday of last week, La Semilla’s rapid response workers rushed to get the boxes ready as the line formed nearly an hour before the distribution was to begin. The line often extends through the lot and into the street, said the Rev. Edgar Vergara of La Semilla.
“People for the most part receive the food gladly,” he said.
Another pandemic-driven tragedy
It’s unclear how many people don’t have enough to eat each day, but hunger is the tragedy that’s marched through communities side-by-side with the spread of the coronavirus. The pandemic pushed long-established nonprofits to find new ways to get food to more people and sparked North Carolinians’ efforts to help their neighbors.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture has not published data on food insecurity for 2020. But researchers at Northwestern University used the Census Household Pulse Survey to estimate that food insecurity in the country doubled in April and May of last year.
In North Carolina, food insecurity soared from 12.9% of households in December 2018 to 24% last spring. North Carolina ranks ninth among states in the latest Household Pulse Survey for adults who said they sometimes or often did not have enough to eat in the last seven days.
Although food insecurity decreased as the nation recovered from the recession of 2008, the pandemic wiped out those gains.
“The efforts over the last 40 years had started to pay off,” said Gideon Adams, vice president of community health and engagement at the Food Bank of Central & Eastern North Carolina. “We started to see things coming down.”
Before the pandemic, food insecurity was down to 550,000 people in the 34-county area the food bank covers. It is now estimated that 750,000 to 780,000 people in the food bank’s coverage area don’t have enough to eat, he said.
Counties, food pantries, and other nonprofits were swamped by the sudden increase in demand.
The Food Bank’s outreach program that helps people apply for SNAP benefits saw a three-fold increase in applicants. “Many of those people had never applied before,” Adams said.
UNC community health workers give out lists of places to find food to people who come to COVID-19 testing sites and pop-up vaccination clinics. Those workers also follow up with patients released from hospitals who have trouble getting enough to eat at home.
“We have people who are new to having to find food and don’t know how to get it,” said Gwen Vinson, a UNC community health worker. For one older person living in a rural area, Vinson was able to find a pantry that made deliveries.
With inadequate public assistance, local nonprofits ramp up to try and fill gaps
The national response to the pandemic has included increases in federal SNAP benefits, commonly called food stamps, and emergency supplements for households.
But many who work on the front lines of hunger relief say SNAP benefits don’t buy enough food to get families through a month, and not everyone who needs the benefit gets it. Undocumented immigrants, for example, don’t qualify for SNAP.
Peter Morris, executive director of Urban Ministries of Wake County
Others who do qualify for federal food benefits are put off by the complicated application, or don’t want to identify people they live with who don’t have legal status, said Peter Morris, executive director of Urban Ministries of Wake County.
“These applications instill fear and people don’t fill them in,” he said.
Urban Ministries operates one of the largest food pantries in Wake County. Before the pandemic, most clients could get a week’s worth of food once every three months. Seniors could get food monthly.
The food pantry lifted those limits in the pandemic, and now lets people visit as often as they need to, Morris said. Most don’t come to the pantry more than twice a month, he said.
Social distancing required during the pandemic forced nonprofits and government agencies to come up with new ways to meet the increased community needs for food.
School districts started neighborhood food deliveries for students when the school buildings closed. And after its business cratered, Rocky Top Catering, switched to making and distributing ready-to-heat meals and produce to Wake County students, in partnership with Overflowing Hands, a Raleigh-based nonprofit. Later the groups delivered boxes of fresh produce and meat under a USDA program and with CARES Act money.
When the staff at Overflowing Hands started organizing food deliveries in Wake with Rocky Top Catering last April, they thought the project would last six weeks, said Chandler Ellis, the charity’s executive director. They’re still doing it.
As a large-scale caterer, Rocky Top had the staff to make meals and the equipment to deliver refrigerated food, said owner Dean Ogan. The catering company received a PPP loan that allowed full-time workers to remain employed, and does not profit from the food distribution operation, Ogan said.
“There is no overhead, “he said. “Overflowing Hands has no administrative costs. We don’t have a profit in any of this.”
Lori Richards, the food shuttle’s director of donor relations and communications
The Inter-Faith Food Shuttle started distributing large casseroles along with dried goods and produce at the mobile markets it sets up in church parking lots in the region.
The mobile markets “were actually a godsend for a lot of the people we serve,” said Lori Richards, the food shuttle’s director of donor relations and communications.
People using the mobile markets don’t have to provide income information or say whether they’re working, Richards said.
“If you drive up, if you’re there when we’re distributing and we have food, you get it,” she said.
Wake County used some of its CARES money to fund community food hubs starting last September. There’s money to continue the food hubs through June, said Sydney Klein, Wake’s food security program manager.
Wake County wanted hubs located in places without existing food pantries and emphasized the sites should provide culturally relevant food, Klein said.
“The hubs also provide information on other resources — Meals on Wheels to seniors, how to apply for SNAP. It’s a community information hub in addition to providing food,” she said.
In 2019, Chatham Outreach Alliance, or CORA, started a mobile market that goes to Siler City once a month, in addition to operating its food pantry in Pittsboro.
Traveling to Pittsboro can be a challenge in a rural county that encompasses 710 square miles. Though people using the pantry in the pandemic have come up with creative ways to get to there, said CORA executive director Melissa Beard, it can take a lot of time. As a result, the market plans to add more locations.
“It’s one of the most successful things that we’ve done in terms of getting to people who can’t get to us,” Beard said. “People feel more comfortable coming to a location they’re familiar with. We’ve just been able to reach so many more people that way.”
Volunteers seek to “disrupt food insecurity”
The need also inspired residents to help — some on a large scale.
Elijah King helped start the Durham Free Lunch Initiative last year, while he was a high school senior, with Grant Ruhlman, owner of Homebucha.
The free lunch initiative started soon after Durham Public Schools temporarily suspended its food distribution program last April after a worker tested positive for the coronavirus.
It has continued serving 1,000 lunches a week outside Geer Street Garden restaurant in downtown Durham, King said.
At the time organizers anticipated the program might end in a few months. Then they extended it through last fall, and then December, King said. It’s still going.
“The problem of food insecurity was here before COVID, during COVID, and it will be there after COVID unless we make big changes,” said King, now a first year student at UNC-Greensboro.
Katina Parker, a photographer and filmmaker, organized Feed Durham last spring. She and volunteers have prepared meals and delivered bags of groceries to shelters, food programs, churches, as well as individuals committed to delivering food to people living in hotels or in their cars for nearly a year. They’ve provided enough for about 43,000 meals, Parker said.
Parker said she wants the food to be of a quality she would serve guests in her home. “Part of what we’re pushing for is a higher standard,” she said. “People who are at any stage in life deserve the best we have to offer.”
Parker is considering how Feed Durham can create lasting changes that include neighborhood service corps to install raised garden beds, and collect clothes, blankets and household goods for people who need them.
“We will continue disrupting food insecurity as long as our volunteer family remains committed to it,” Parker said.
Though the increased pace of COVID-19 vaccinations has prompted experts to talk of a return to regular summer activities, the need for hunger relief will continue.
“The community we tend to serve, it takes them longer to bounce back than it does Wall Street,” said Adams of the Food Bank. “They are the first to be impacted and the last to recover.”