Food-relief organizations in Madison, Reidsville and Walnut Cove take holistic and collaborative approach against food insecurity
Fighting hunger with more than food in Rockingham, Stokes counties
Keith Barber, Carolina Public Press
On a bustling Friday afternoon at Lot 2540 in Madison in Western Rockingham County, Marty Roberts, the nonprofit organization’s executive director, led an informal tour through the vast facility — formerly a Food Lion grocery store — which provides food relief and other services in the region.
Ample floor space is taken up by the nonprofit’s thrift store, which underscores Lot 2540’s focus on sustainability.
“We’re constantly getting furniture donations, cleaning them up and repurposing them,” Roberts said.
The revenue generated by thrift-store sales provides roughly 60 percent of the overall budget for Lot 2540, Roberts said.
Toward the rear of the facility, he stopped to address three volunteers working in the Community Café — the heart of Lot 2540’s food assistance operation. The café routinely serves more than 1,300 free meals a month, Wednesday through Saturday, to those in need in the rural region, north of Piedmont Triad, along the Virginia line.
Sharing food is ‘doing life together’
“The Community Café is foundational because it’s where we break bread together,” Roberts said.
“It’s where we sit down and have time with our clients — it’s outside of services because we don’t believe the Community Café is a service. We just believe it’s doing life together.”
Food assistance is merely the first step on the road to self-reliance at the faith-based Lot 2540, Roberts said.
“When we find someone who is seeking help — let’s say we’ve stabilized them physically and helped encourage them and they want to be productive spiritually again, we’ll refer them back into a local church because they can receive some of the support they need not only spiritually but emotionally and physically,” he explained.
“We refer people into jobs through a staffing company we work with. We’re referring people into drug addiction services.”
James Carrafel, a volunteer, emerged from Lot 2540’s pantry area with a metal trolley loaded down with 67 pork shoulders. Roberts explained that his volunteers and staff were preparing for the nonprofit’s annual fall barbecue plate fundraiser, which took place Oct. 26.
Roberts walked through a large doorway to show off the pantry area, where clients in need of food assistance shop for packaged foods as well as a wide selection of fresh fruit and vegetables.
The need for food assistance has not waned since Roberts founded Lot 2540 in 2011, he said. Over the past nine months, Lot 2540 has distributed more than 200,000 pounds of food and served more than 2,400 households in Rockingham County.
“In eight years, we’ve never gone a month and a half with just the same people,” Roberts said.
Roberts said his vision of Lot 2540 is taking the holistic approach to combating food insecurity.
“A lot of folks who are struggling with food insecurity are also struggling with issues of self-worth and feeling like they’re not as able to be as productive as they want to be,” he said.
“Our goal is for them to find ways to do that and to empower them to do that.”
Social Security not enough
Roberta Tomlin, a retiree, said it wasn’t a specific life event that brought her to Lot 2540, but rather the inability to make ends meet on her Social Security benefits.
“Realizing that you have worked all your life and the Social Security is not what it was intended to start with,” Tomlin said. “You say, ‘Really? I’m in this position now? How did it happen? I’ve worked. I paid my part.’ Now I have to scrimp on the Social Security, and just accepting that you’re in that position — it’s hard.”
Tomlin said her friend Betty Mabe first suggested she come to Lot 2540 to receive food assistance.
On a recent Friday afternoon, Tomlin and Mabe, along with Phyllis Williams and Raye Ann Pack, participated in an adult coloring class at Lot 2540 where seniors express themselves artistically.
Mabe said she began working full time at age 16 as an inspector for a local textile mill and, after spending five decades in the workforce, still couldn’t make ends meet on her Social Security benefits.
“Through all my work I did from 16 years old until I retired at 67 — when I went out, my top pay was $12.25 an hour, but the Lord provided through all of it,” she said.
A single mother, Mabe raised two boys by herself and never needed to apply for food stamps. But once she began relying on retirement benefits as her sole source of income, Mabe eventually had to seek food assistance.
When she first visited Lot 2540, Mabe said she was touched by the faith-based approach of Roberts and his staff. Mabe now volunteers at the nonprofit three days a week.
Williams said she was first introduced to Lot 2540 when the mobile food ministry visited her apartment complex in Madison. Twice a month, Lot 2540 takes its mobile kitchen to area housing developments and feeds its neighbors.
For the past six months, Williams has served as a volunteer at Lot 2540, assisting with the mobile food ministry.
“Rockingham County is very needy of food,” she said. “A lot of people, they can’t get out — they’re wheelchair bound, no transportation. I’m lucky to live across the street (from the ministry) because I don’t have a car.”
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Williams said she encourages her neighbors who are in need of Lot 2540’s services to apply for assistance, but many of them are reluctant to do so.
“Some people are too proud — I wish they weren’t, but they are,” Williams said.
Pack acknowledged personal pride is a barrier to people receiving food assistance.
Pack also cited negative experiences with federal programs designed to address food insecurity like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, better known as food stamps, as additional barriers for those in need of help.
“When you go to get the federal help, when you’ve had a life crisis, you feel like you’re being shamed,” Pack said.
“Here, when you come to get help, you feel the love. You feel like they want to help you and you’re so thankful you want to become a part of it.”
Pack, a retiree, said she first came to Lot 2540 seeking clothing assistance and returned for the nonprofit’s various programs designed to promote self-reliance.
“I was looking for some warm clothes at a price I could afford and then I started coming back and socializing a little bit,” Pack said.
“I needed food but I hadn’t really asked for it, so they helped me out with some groceries.”
Pack, who is diabetic, said receiving food assistance from Lot 2540 was nothing like what she expected. In fact, the selection of healthy foods stored in the nonprofit’s pantry has helped improve her overall health.
“I’m never without now when I used to be without, so it was a real blessing to get the food,” Pack said. “You just feel like you’re cared for here.”
Pack said she could attest to the efficacy of the holistic approach to address the food insecurity and the other issues Rockingham residents face. Pack has sought counseling from Roberts and Pastor Jay Barrowclough of the Refuge Church in Mayodan, and the impact has been significant.
“It’s changed me a lot,” she said. “I’ve got a long way to go but it has changed me a lot. I’ve always been a type — I would isolate myself because I didn’t feel I was worthy and I’m coming slowly out of that where I do feel like I have something to offer and that people do care that I’m here and they see me. I was always afraid of being rejected, and they’ve helped me a lot here on that.”
The faith-based approach of Lot 2540 is borne out of Roberts’ and his staff’s passion for helping those less fortunate, but stories like Pack’s speak to the nonprofit’s mind, body and soul approach to ending hunger in Rockingham County.
“When we came into the work we’re doing, we didn’t want to re-create the wheel,” Roberts said. “We wanted just to make better use of what’s available. I believe every Rockingham County resident deserves a chance to access resources if they need them.”
Food needs growing with limited resources in Reidsville
Earlier this month, Reidsville Outreach Center held its inaugural Empty Bowl fundraiser at the First Baptist Church.
For $30 tickets, guests received their choice of soup and cornbread as well as a hand-thrown ceramic soup bowl crafted by local potters. Annette Bolden, executive director of Reidsville Outreach Center, said the fundraiser represented the first event of its kind during her 10-year tenure at the helm of the nonprofit. The event was borne out of necessity as ROC has watched its donor base gradually fall off in recent years.
“Our resources, as far as funding goes, is strictly donations,” Bolden said. “We receive a few small grants, but we’ve been fortunate to have just enough to meet the needs of our clients.”
The area around Reidsville in eastern Rockingham County features bigger towns than those in the western portion of the county but still remains primarily rural.
Reidsville Outreach Center collaborates with partner agencies like the Second Harvest Food Bank of Northwest North Carolina and the Rockingham County Department of Social Services to help ensure it is reaching the maximum number of folks in need in Rockingham, but the need for services shows no sign of waning, Bolden said.
“Everybody who comes here — they are in need,” she said.
“We get enough information from them to see they’re in need, and it’s a possibility they could’ve lost their job. They come in just to maintain what they have.”
Despite its budgetary constraints, the center’s food pantry still managed to serve more than 5,900 families in Rockingham County last year. Bolden said she hears similar stories from many of her clients as to what brought them to the center.
“What led them to us is that they’re unemployed or underemployed,” Bolden said. “They’re elderly and they need assistance. We have some clients that are working, too. Some of them are working full time — they just can’t make the ends meet.”
As with the people seeking assistance at Lot 5240 in western Rockingham County, many of ROC’s clients in the eastern part of the county are living on a fixed income in the form of Social Security, Bolden said.
“They may only draw a social security check for $700 or $800 (a month), and it’s not enough for them to keep that household going like that, so they come up here to get food,” she said.
Increasing need for food assistance in Stokes County
Amanda Dodson, executive director of East Stokes Outreach Ministry, said the need for food assistance in the eastern part of Stokes County has also grown exponentially in the past 10 years.
“In 2007, we served about 5,300 individuals, and in 2017, it jumped to almost 10,000,” Dodson said. “And we’re steadily staying around the 10,000 mark.”
In 2018, East Stokes Outreach Ministry provided food assistance to 9,915 people, which equates to 3,900 families.
“The need is there,” Dodson said. “We’ve been settling in around 9,000 to 10,000 individuals served every year.”
Dodson, who joined the nonprofit eight months ago, has noticed common threads among the ministry’s clients.
“The stories really do have a similar thread, and that is we have a lot of young mothers that are single mothers who are working a job — it’s possibly a minimum wage job, and they just can’t make ends meet,” Dodson said. “Another issue is we have a big elderly population in Stokes County and these folks — a lot of them have worked their whole career at a job and at the end, they just don’t have a lot to show for it.”
Similar to Lot 2540, East Stokes Outreach Ministry operates a thrift store at its Walnut Cove facility as a revenue stream to support their operations.
“Everything that comes through the thrift store benefits our food pantry, so we have that as a resource,” Dodson said.
“We also have churches, so we do have great partnerships that make it easier for us. There still is always a need. We could always do more.”
In an effort to expand the nonprofit’s reach, East Stokes Outreach Ministry, in partnership with Stokes County Department of Social Services, utilizes a web-based collaborative software program called Charity Tracker to make more efficient use of resources to better serve their clients.
“That is helpful for us to kind of see where our clients are going, when they’re going and what time and that kind of thing, but I think we could do a better job working together,” Dodson said.
Service born of personal experience
At Lot 2540 in Rockingham County, Roberts said he has a passion for helping others because of his own personal experience.
“Our family spent time in the (food) pantries,” he recalled.
“We managed to keep my marriage and keep my home, but hard times — I had a chance to kind of experience that.”
Roberts eventually landed on his feet and began working for an information technology firm in Greensboro. But he never forgot the kindness and generosity he received from his friends and neighbors, he said.
He began volunteering in area food pantries, soup kitchens and community gardens and was struck by the sheer number of people in Rockingham with little or no access to resources.
When Roberts decided to begin his own nonprofit to address the dearth of resources in his community, he decided to take a holistic approach to combating those seemingly insurmountable issues.
“I think that faith-based work is the way to go,” Roberts said. “We see the groups that are doing work with a strategy of relationships over just food distribution. I think it’s really important and something we’ve seen improve the lives of our clients.”
Roberts described his vision of Lot 2540 as helping clients move from dependence to self-reliance.
“We want to feed our clients but we also want to get to know our clients, and we want to include them in our community and help them be productive again,” he said.
“Because ultimately people that are productive don’t always have to have resources every month.”
Roberts said he attempted to extrapolate the problem-solving skills he honed as an IT analyst for a software firm into the nonprofit world but encountered a steep learning curve.
“Life doesn’t cooperate like that,” he said.
“So you’ve got to be able to be long-term partners for people and stand in the gap as they need it.”
Roberts said a number of Lot 2540’s clients will receive assistance and eventually achieve independence, but then an unforeseen life event occurs and knocks them back down again.
“A lot of our families will get healthy and then, eight or nine months down the road, their car dies or someone loses a job, and here they come again,” he said. “We lift them up, encourage them, stabilize them, steer them back into productivity.”
Challenges of transportation
Transportation for folks in rural counties like Stokes and Rockingham always presents a barrier to combating food insecurity.
Stokes county is just west of Rockingham County and is similarly sandwiched between the Piedmont Triad and the Virginia line. Parts of Stokes County are mountainous, due to the isolated Sauratown Mountain range, well southeast of the main Blue Ridge line. The terrain creates challenges in accessing different parts of the county.
“Transportation is huge,” Dodson said. “That is one of the things I didn’t realize until I came here. We have so many clients that want to come, but they just don’t have a way to get here.”
The Yadkin Valley Economic Development District offers limited bus service in Walnut Cove, but Dodson said it’s simply not enough to meet her clients’ needs.
If people without access to their own vehicle can somehow find a way to make it to the ministry, they struggle to find a way home.
Bolden described a similar challenge with transportation in Reidsville. She arrives at work and finds clients who have been waiting for hours due to a lack of transportation options.
“They’re coming here on bicycles,” she said.
“You have a few of them that are catching that Skat Bus, or they have to get a ride with someone else, or they’re walking from the other side of town just to be the first in line.”
Being able to get to a food relief agency is just part of the problem. Getting home with needed supplies may be even more difficult.
“Our issue is we have a lot of people that walk in, and once they get here, they have six or seven or eight packs (of food) to take with them, so that’s a challenge for them,” said Dodson in Walnut Cove.
“A lot of time they’re asking for rides in our parking lot, which breaks my heart, but I don’t have the volunteers to say, ‘Take that person home.’ So transportation is a huge challenge.”
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