Residents wait in line to receive food at Chatham Outreach Alliance in Pittsboro on Friday. Kim Hawks / Carolina Public Press

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Chatham County, at the state’s geographical center, is home to 68,778 residents, 7,480 of whom are food insecure, according to data compiled by the Food Bank of Central & Eastern North Carolina.

In Chatham County, roughly one in nine people are struggling with food insecurity, which is slightly less than the statewide average of one in seven.

But economic conditions in Chatham and have created an insidious cycle of need in recent years.

In Siler City, MountAire Farms opened a new poultry processing facility earlier this year after acquiring the Townsends poultry processing plant in 2016. However, the plant sat dormant for eight years and the impact could be felt in the community, said Diane Smith, executive director of the West Chatham Food Pantry.

The nonprofit primarily serves the elderly population of Siler City as well as school-aged children, but more and more, people of working age are relying on food assistance.

“They’re out of a job, they have nowhere to live,” Smith said.

“People living off Social Security or a pension — they have to decide whether they’re going to eat, buy medicine or pay their electric bill.”

Meeting the need

As demand increases, Smith said she and her staff members struggle to maintain adequate number of volunteers to run the operation efficiently. In addition, West Chatham Food Pantry has hired a full-time grant writer to help bridge the gap between donations and cost of operations.

“I spend my entire weekends online searching for any and all grant opportunities,” Smith added.

Fortunately, West Chatham Food Pantry works closely with community partners to provide their clients with what they need to get back on their feet.

Smith cited the work of Chatham Cares Community Pharmacy in Siler City as integral in assisting seniors who are living on fixed incomes.

Falling through the cracks

The issue of food insecurity can be overshadowed by national labor market data that shows low unemployment figures and the American economy adding new jobs on a monthly basis, said Melissa Beard, executive director of Chatham Outreach Alliance or CORA.

Beard told the story of a client who arrived at CORA in need of assistance. The woman had a well-paying position at RTI International, an independent, nonprofit research institute based in the Raleigh area.

But she had suffered a traumatic brain injury as a result of a car accident. She tried to return to work, but simply couldn’t perform any longer and was laid off.

Shortly after being laid off, the woman’s husband was diagnosed with stage 4 cancer. The medical bills began piling up and the woman was at the end of her rope when she first arrived at CORA’s modest facility in Pittsboro, Beard said.

“When you haven’t been in this situation, you don’t know where to start,” Beard said. “And if you’ve never had to ask for help, I hope that we’re the first organization people think of.”

Volunteer Walt Sharp, left, delivers groceries Friday from West Chatham Food Pantry in Siler City to the Moffitt family — Madeline, Angel and Gary. Kim Hawks / Carolina Public Press

Low-wage economy creates food insecurity

Job insecurity is just one of a number of factors that create food insecurity. North Carolina’s post-industrial economy is comprised mainly of low-paying service jobs, which equates to greater numbers of people needing food assistance, said Jenny Moore of the Second Harvest Food Bank of Northwest North Carolina.

Understanding what hunger looks like in one’s community is the first step to overcoming misconceptions about those who are in need of food assistance, Moore said.

“What people need to understand is, it’s called food insecurity,” Moore said.

“It means I can’t reliably afford food on a regular basis. That’s despicable in a country that has no food shortage.”

Despite years of supposed economic recovery, Moore said demand for food aid at Second Harvest is at the same point as it was when Great Recession began in 2008.

“We are at or slightly below pre-recession levels,” Moore said. “For a whole swath of North Carolinians, things are not better economically.”

Increasing hurdles for food assistance

Being financially insecure is just one step away from being food insecure, Beard said, and the current political climate is only making her job harder.

Earlier this year, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) introduced new eligibility requirements for food assistance under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or SNAP.

Under the Trump Administration’s proposal, some states would be forced to decrease eligibility standards for SNAP benefits, better known as food stamps. Studies show the proposal could mean that 30,000 North Carolinians who are currently receiving food stamps would be ineligible to receive food assistance.

According to the USDA, only U.S. citizens and certain lawfully present noncitizens may receive SNAP benefits.

A significant number of CORA’s clients are undocumented, Beard said, and if the Trump Administration’s initiative to tighten broad-based eligibility standards is enacted, it will place an even greater burden on nonprofit’s like CORA.

“I honestly think if they cut back on SNAP benefits, especially as they relate to citizenship status, that we could wind up seeing a lot more people here because people are just going to need more to get over the hump,” she said. “They’re not going to suddenly be less hungry.”

Beard, who previously worked in development for nonprofits in third-world countries, said the current political climate as it relates to immigration creates yet another barrier to CORA and West Chatham Food Pantry fulfilling their stated mission.

“To me this is the easiest nonprofit mission I’ve ever had to fulfill as a director — feed people,” Beard said. “I don’t care if you come four times or 40 times, we’re just going to feed people.”

Recently, Beard had an interaction with a Chatham County resident about whether or not CORA assists people who are undocumented, and the gentleman was annoyed that her answer was “yes.”

“My response to him, ‘Well, they’re people. My mission is feed people. It’s not feed documented people or undocumented people, it’s not feed black people or white people — it’s feed people.’ ”

Volunteer Frieda Hackney works in the breads and cookies area at the West Chatham Food Pantry of Siler City on Friday. Kim Hawks / Carolina Public Press

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.

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Amara Touzel, 5, eats with the rest of the Touzel family as they attend a Thursday dinner at The Giving Spoon in Bryson City. Matt Rose / Carolina Public Press

Keith Barber

Keith Barber is a contributing writer to Carolina Public Press. He lives in Alamance County.

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