Plans for greater cooperation offer hope, but growing need is challenging efforts at Chatham food relief agencies in Pittsboro and Siler City.
Chatham nonprofits try to answer surging need for food aid
Keith Barber, Carolina Public Press
Bernadette Taylor said she never could’ve imagined being homeless at the age of 44.
Bernadette shared her story while volunteering on a recent Friday morning at Chatham Outreach Alliance, better known by its acronym — CORA.
Bernadette, now 52, said she first visited CORA’S modest yet well-appointed facility in Pittsboro several years ago with great reluctance.
“I was a little nervous and a little self-conscious because I never could’ve imagined myself sitting in a soup kitchen and eating and talking with other people,” she said. “But when I came here, they welcomed everyone with open arms.”
Bernadette said a simple life decision — deciding to assist family members by taking in her nieces and nephews — set into motion a chain of events that ultimately led her to CORA’s front door.
“I ended up — instead of helping myself — I was helping others so much, it put me in that bind, and then when I needed help, no one was there,” she said.
Natalie Stewart, director of operations at CORA, said Bernadette’s story is not uncommon. In a yearlong reporting project, Carolina Public Press is examining hunger and food insecurity issues in rural North Carolina, including childhood hunger in Western North Carolina and how isolation is a contributing factor to food insecurity.
“Many of our clients will come in and it is because they’ve helped extended family,” she said.
Natalie said she’s met many clients whose families had to separate to look for employment and ultimately wound up homeless.
“Very devastating situations have occurred just because one full-time job turns into a part-time job and it’s just gone from there,” Stewart said.
“It’s not so much unemployment but underemployment that has really eroded not only the confidence but the opportunity for families to provide and know where their next meal is coming from.”
For the past 30 years, CORA has endeavored to help fill that void for their clients. CORA currently serves nearly 11,000 people a year in Chatham County and distributes more than 1 million pounds of food annually.
Melissa Beard, executive director of CORA, said the stories she hears from clients on a daily basis have a common thread that all point to a sobering truth about food insecurity.
“I think a lot of folks simply don’t understand just how close (they) are from facing hunger or food insecurity,” Beard said.
“Almost everybody is a diagnosis, a loss of a paycheck, a loss of a job, a loss of a spouse — two or three things going wrong in one month — any of those things going wrong can throw you off-track and mean that you need help.”
A story of giving back
Maria relocated to Chatham County from Chicago 20 years ago with her five children to be closer to her mother.
With CORA Pantry Manager Liz Gonzalez serving as a translator, Maria shared her personal story.
She said she relied on her mother to take care of her young children so she could work 8 to 10 hours at her cleaning job.
However, when her mother became suddenly ill and passed away, Maria struggled to pay for childcare and her financial situation quickly deteriorated.
She arrived at CORA in 2000 in need of food assistance, and she’s been involved with the agency ever since.
Maria now volunteers at CORA and helps distribute food to 31 Spanish-speaking families in the Pittsboro community.
Maria said she first started bringing families to CORA to receive food assistance, but many of CORA’s clients were afraid to come forward for services due to their immigration status.
Bernadette has also endeavored to give back some of the kindness and generosity she received from CORA. Bernadette said she’s looking to coordinate with the Durham nonprofit, Healing with CAARE, Inc., to distribute backpacks filled with food and school supplies for local children and supply blankets to the homeless in the winter.
Stewart said the stories of Bernadette and Maria debunk the commonly held misconceptions about people who rely on food assistance.
Get independent, in-depth and investigative journalism in your inbox
Sign up for free and never miss a CPP news report, investigation, conversation or event.
“The belief is that people are gaming the system,” Stewart said.
“The belief is they could get a job if they tried a little bit harder or if they would live more frugally, and not spend their money on extravagant things they wouldn’t need assistance, when in fact, it was generally brought on by that medical bill or a child taking care of their mother or father.”
Stewart said the greatest challenge of working for a nonprofit that provides food assistance is trying to balance the growing need for services with dwindling resources.
“That means we’re stretching what we have as far as we can,” she said. “We’re making decisions about whether we are working with quantity or quality of food or both and that will have a long-term effect on the community as a whole in the extreme.”
If CORA sacrifices quantity then families won’t have what they need to eat, Stewart pointed out. However, if CORA sacrifices quality, that will translate to adverse long-term health consequences, especially for children.
“We’re not taking every person that we have to the height of their ability level — they’re being held back and that’s a terrible shame,” Stewart said. “That’s a real waste. I would think that as a society we’re at a place where we should be able to overcome that at this point. It just seems a shame that we’re still fighting the food disparity game.”
In recent years, CORA has seen a 13 percent increase from one year to the next, and in the past year, that need increased 17 percent. Beard predicts the need for food assistance will increase 30 percent in the coming year.
CORA was serving 25 to 30 families per day at this time last year. CORA now routinely serves on average 40 to 45 families per day, Beard said. Although CORA serves 11,000 people a year, there are roughly 8,500 people in Chatham dealing with food insecurity who are not being served, according to CORA’s estimates.
Food insecurity in West Chatham
Since 2007, the West Chatham Food Pantry has been endeavoring to help alleviate food insecurity in the Siler City area. Executive Director Diane Smith said her nonprofit organization is experiencing the same challenges as CORA. Funding and donations are significantly lower than in recent years, Smith said, which is direct reflection of the local economy.
When the poultry processing plant owned by Townsends shuttered its Siler City operations in 2011, local nonprofits felt the hit, Smith said.
MountAire Farms acquired the plant in 2016 and reopened the poultry processing facility earlier this year. MountAire Farms beginning its operations has helped improve the economy to a degree, Smith observed, but food insecurity persists in the county.
“It’s a huge, huge problem in Chatham County and I don’t think it’s going away,” she added.
Smith cited statistics to back up her assertion. Last month, West Chatham Food Pantry served 271 families and 793 individuals and distributed 10,438 pounds of food.
Smith said West Chatham Food Pantry has different criteria than CORA with regard to eligibility for food assistance.
Food is normally prepackaged and clients must be interviewed upon each visit to assess eligibility.
However, the need is tremendous in Western Chatham and with a dip in funding and donations, the nonprofit is struggling to keep pace with demand, she said.
“We’re looking at some serious financial problems,” Smith said.
Smith cited one of West Chatham Food Pantry’s most successful programs as evidence of how a dip in funding and donations impacts the community. The children’s backpack program has long been a cornerstone of the nonprofit’s operations.
“These children have no food,” Smith said.
“The backpacks are for them to take home over the weekend so they can have food on the weekends. Most of these children get their lunches at school — they’re relying on an assistance program for their lunches and a lot of times that’s the only food they have for the entire day.”
Last year, West Chatham Food Pantry delivered 250 backpacks of food to three different Siler City elementary schools. This year, that number is down to 160 backpacks.
Opportunities for cooperation?
Smith said she would like to see better coordination between county agencies and nonprofits to address the serious issue of food insecurity in Chatham, and to raise awareness of the resources that are currently available to the food insecure population.
“It would be ideal if no one needed food, but someone will always be in need,” she said.
Beard said her vision of CORA and its future direction closely matches Smith’s, and putting together a strategic plan to address food insecurity in the county is her top priority.
“Let’s just figure out a plan so that if we’re going to work together, we’re going to share resources, that we’re going to do this more efficiently and more effectively, that we’re going to know who’s doing what and where the gaps are,” Beard said.
Stewart said the gravity of food insecurity becomes crystal clear when one considers the long-term consequences of children going hungry in the wealthiest nation on earth.
“Every time we leave part of our community behind but particularly through poverty — through a lack of equity — it creates a divide among people and an inability to go back and replace that for that generation,” Stewart said.
“That will hurt all of us no matter where we are in that spectrum.”
On a recent Friday morning, however, when CORA was bustling with the activity of volunteers, staff and clients, Stewart said she and her colleagues felt very optimistic about the future of building a community where food insecurity simply does not exist.
“We are starting to see communities come together — agencies, families, just anyone who can from the grassroots level, from the individual independent neighborhood level — seeing people take care of each other, share resources in a way I haven’t seen,” she said.
“That’s something that gives me a lot of hope.”
About the project:
The Faces of Hunger project is a year-long reporting initiative from Carolina Public Press focusing on issues of food insecurity in rural North Carolina, including its impact, root causes and potential solutions. In addition to sharing the stories and experiences of people most impacted by hunger in the region, this in-depth project will include reporting on the issues and systems impacting hunger. Carolina Public Press will also offer opportunities for community dialogue and resource sharing.
Sign up for our free newsletter to learn about the reporting, forums, listening sessions and resource fairs coming up throughout the year. And if you have a story to share, a question to ask or a suggestion to make for this project, call our nonprofit, nonpartisan news team at 828-774-5290.