On the front lines at a North Carolina food bank

Said one elderly recipient: 'I haven’t got anything else to eat for lunch.'

In her 11 years working for the Food Bank of Central & Eastern North Carolina, Jennifer Caslin had never once made a food delivery. Her official job involves marketing the organization, which serves 34 of the state’s 100 counties. But on March 24, Caslin arrived before sunrise at the Food Bank’s Raleigh warehouse, where a staging operation was already underway. She loaded her Toyota SUV with boxes weighing up to 35 pounds, filled with shelf-stable foods like applesauce and canned beef, along with blocks of cheese and bags of oranges. With a folder of names and addresses, she drove more than an hour to the Sandhills town of Carthage.

It had been a tense week. North Carolina’s Covid-19 curve had just started bending upward. That day, the statewide caseload climbed from 297 to 398. By the weekend it would reach 935, and the state would report its first four deaths. As of April 6, North Carolina reported 2,870 confirmed cases and 33 deaths.

Normally, the Food Bank sends groceries to centralized pick-up sites as part of a federal feeding program for low-income people 60 and older. But the organization didn’t want to risk contagion, and some apartment complexes were telling their older residents not to leave home.

The phone was steadily ringing at the organization. “Seniors were so afraid they were going to get to the end of the month and not have this box, because they really, really rely on it,” Caslin says. “We have seniors who are taking care of grandchildren, so their budgets are stretched even more, or they use it to manage things like diabetes or high blood pressure.” Without the usual distribution system, the Food Bank called in employees, along with volunteers from a local veterans’ group, to drive the boxes directly to recipients’ homes.

Volunteers at the Wilmington Branch of Food Bank of Central & Eastern North Carolina sort food that has been donated by retail partners, making it easier for recipient agencies. Photo by Craig Hewett.

The Food Bank, a non-profit, distributed 82 million pounds of food last year. It partners with 900 local agencies, including religious groups, senior centers, and homeless and domestic-violence shelters. It prides itself on serving up produce from local farms, some of which restaurants and supermarkets reject for aesthetic reasons.

“At a steakhouse, you want your sweet potatoes to be the same size as your neighbor’s,” says Carter Crain, director of food partnerships. “So we lived heavily in the world of jumbos for a while. And then sweet potato fries came along and they were taking the jumbos. And so we lived in the world of sweet potatoes that were too small.”

Operating in North Carolina also meant learning how to respond to crises. The flat coastal plain, which overlaps much of the Food Bank’s service area, regularly gets pummeled by natural disasters. After Hurricane Florence plunged the region underwater in 2018, donations of food, trucks, and even warehouse space poured in. Out-of-state food banks sent employees. Volunteers arrived from as far as Texas. “Having those folks here to help move food in the warehouse, deliver product out, to pick up items for us and bring them back here, it was incredible,” says Larry Morris, the director of partner services. “If we didn’t have that help, it would have been a struggle.”

The past few weeks have been a struggle—both here and at similar operations around the country. Unlike hurricanes, which are location-specific, Covid-19 has upended everything, everywhere. Food Bank managers can’t reach beyond the geographic limits of the disaster for help, because there are no limits.

The first problem came with the supply chain. With consumers panic-buying, shelves emptied and supermarket companies had less to donate. So did food manufacturers who were racing to restock those shelves. The Food Bank’s model relies on product donations, but since the outbreak it has purchased more food outright.

The Food Bank has also had to limit the number of volunteers on its warehouse floor to maintain social distancing. Sorting fresh vegetables is labor-intensive, Caslin says, which means the Food Bank has had to shift toward canned and boxed goods.

Then at least 37 agency partners suspended operations. Many of them relied on older volunteers, who are at more risk of serious harm from Covid-19. Among those partners was Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Raleigh, which announced last week that it would shutter its food pantry until it could develop better safety guidelines. Nearby food programs, including the Food Bank itself, have reported an uptick in emergency requests.

The problem is nationwide: Bloomberg Law reported last week that 80 of the 400 emergency food programs run by the non-profit City Harvest in New York City had closed down during the pandemic. United Way of Southeastern Connecticut suspended its mobile food pantry, and Southern Colorado’s Care and Share Food Bank announced temporary shutdowns at 23 pantries, many church-based.

At the same time, demand is growing as businesses lay off millions of workers in response to the economic shock of the coronavirus pandemic. In North Carolina, during the week of March 1, the Food Bank’s web page for people seeking help had 188 unique page views. Two weeks later it had 3,430. Nor is unemployment the only issue behind rising food insecurity: Last week, the rural Duplin County school system temporarily disbanded its meal-pickup sites for children. (About 63 percent of Duplin students receive free and reduced-price meals.)

In response, the Food Bank teamed up with a community youth center in Duplin County to create a grab-and-go lunch operation. Caslin sees this as a helpful stopgap but not a panacea: “Typically, if there’s one child at home who has trouble accessing food, it’s the whole family.”

The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, which Congress passed and President Donald Trump signed into law March 27, allocates $450 million for community food-distribution programs. Feeding America, a network that includes the Raleigh food bank, says the infusion isn’t enough. According to Food Bank News, Feeding America says its members will need $1.4 billion to keep pace with the increased demand and diminished supply.

Faith Brodie (center), director of Public Housing with the Town of Chapel Hill, helps to fill the boxes at a food distribution point. Photo by Tom Simon.

Without the ability to solicit help from outside the disaster zone, the Food Bank of Central & Eastern North Carolina is trying to stay nimble and creative. A “virtual food drive” encourages teams of coworkers or neighbors to raise money together, or runners to raise money from their friends, which the Food Bank uses for its most pressing needs. And Crain, the director of food partnerships, is looking for bulges in the supply chain. With Gov. Roy Cooper ordering North Carolina restaurants to close their dining rooms, “we’ve got a lot of great restaurant suppliers in our area, and they all of a sudden lost their distribution channels,” Crain says. “They’ve got ton of excess that they don’t want to go bad… So we need to switch back into the world of perishables.”

Food Bank employees say they’re aware of how many North Carolinians are relying on them in order to eat. After one of the door-to-door runs, a volunteer reported talking with a woman in her eighties. “She actually told me, ‘Look, I was waiting for you because I haven’t got anything else to eat for lunch,’” he recounted to a videographer hired by the Food Bank. “That broke my heart… This is right here in North Carolina.”

Video posted on Facebook by Food Bank of Central & Eastern North Carolina

Lead image: Durham Branch Outreach Coordinator Jen Woods (left) of the Food Bank of Central & Eastern North Carolina works with staff and volunteers packing food boxes and loading them into recipients’ cars. The food is distributed in partnership with the Town of Chapel Hill’s Public Housing Department and PORCH Chapel Hill at the Hargraves Center. Photo by Tom Simon.

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