Haywood is hungry
There’s no denying that poverty and hunger affect people all over Haywood County. Anyone driving by a local community kitchen or ministry has probably noticed the long lines and packed rooms of people waiting for a hot meal, or even a place to get out of the cold.
So it’s no surprise that the issue of hunger in Haywood County claimed second place in the “Top 10” list of most popular stories of the year.
Statistics show that one in six people in Western North Carolina receives emergency food assistance, and food insecurity rates for WNC counties range from 15 to 20 percent. This means that many local families do not have a reliable, adequate source of food.
Patsy Dowling, executive director of Mountain Projects Inc., believes the issue of hunger in Haywood stems from each families' suggested average living wage in comparison to the actual minimum wage that people are paid. Minimum wage is currently $7.25 per hour.
According to calculations from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Haywood’s suggested living wage for one adult is $8.89 per hour. However, if the adult has a child, the living wage then increases to $18.50 per hour. If two children are factored in, the suggested living wage then becomes $23.22 per hour.
“There’s not a ton of jobs that start out paying that much,” Dowling said. “If someone has kids and then goes to work at Burger King where there’s no benefits, it’s hard to pay all the bills."
In addition, cuts made to the food stamp program has also affected families, Dowling said.
"If you only get $15 a month in food stamps, what is that going to provide?” she said.
Fortunately there are many programs and local organizations working hard to combat local hunger.
The food pantry at Haywood Christian Ministry is one example of a local benefit to the hungry community. As of November, more than 3,400 food boxes were handed out to those in need, and that number has no doubt grown over the past couple of months.
The Open Door Ministries not only feeds the hungry but also provides a safe Christian environment that offers educational programs and assistance. The Community Kitchen in Canton also gives food boxes to the needy twice each month, handing out about 96 boxes each time.
Though the economy seems to be getting better, community pantry directors still report seeing new faces every month. And though the pantries feed many people in need, they aren’t always stocked as full as they could be.
Statistics show that 28 percent of food pantries in North Carolina have had to turn people away for lack of food.
Mountain Projects Inc. allows senior citizens have a hot meal every week day through the Seniors Congregate Nutrition program.
The program currently provides meals to an average of 50 to 60 local seniors each day. Senior citizens visit one of three Mountain Projects locations in Canton, Maggie Valley and Waynesville to enjoy company and a nutritious meal.
“A lot of seniors count on that meal,” Dowling said. “Some of the seniors said it will sometimes be their only meal of the day.”
Budget cuts in Washington, D.C., withdrew about $1.54 million in funding from North Carolina programs that provide nutrition assistance for seniors, which has affected the program. However, Dowling said the program currently was still going strong thanks to donations from organizations like United Way and Bi-Lo.
“It’s been around for 30 years. It all started as part of the war on poverty in 1964,” Dowling said.
Students in need
With a slow economy and such high living wages, many parents are living in poverty, which directly affects our children. In fact, 2,340 children in Haywood County are considered “food insecure,” as shown in the most recent Map the Meal Gap Study.
Teachers and counselors discovered that food insecurity was an issue when they realized that students were having trouble learning and their focus was on food rather than school.
This means that some children in Haywood are depending on school breakfasts and lunches to feed them through the week, said Michelle Mull, a social worker with Haywood County Schools.
“Sometimes they won’t eat again until they come to school the next day,” Mull said.
In the past year, 54 percent of Haywood County School students were enrolled in free and reduced lunch, Mull said. A percentage of those students will go home on the weekends to a household without food.
One solution to feed the children over the weekends was to begin Haywood’s Hungry Kids campaign, which was started by the Waynesville Rotary Club. Other organizations now participate, as well, by adopting a school.
The campaign began in 2011 in partnership with MANNA Food Bank. Through the program, a qualified child receives a backpack filled with food items to take home every Friday so he or she would have some nutrition over the weekend.
“They look forward to getting the backpacks.” Mull said. “We have several organizations and donors who donate food. We get the pop-top cans and things that are easily accessible so they will be able to eat. We also have a storage pantry that we (social workers) can go pull from that at any time.”
The universal free breakfast program has also been implemented in the local elementary schools and has encouraged many more students to eat breakfast daily. The number of children receiving breakfast in the seven participating Haywood County Elementary schools has increased significantly, and they are now serving breakfast to 80-95 percent of students.
Head Start help
In addition to the Rotary and MANNA Food Bank, Mountain Projects Head Start program also helps fill the backpacks for the Haywood’s Hungry Kids campaign.
The Head Start program is a federally funded child development program serving 3- and 4-year-old children from low-income families. Every summer, proceeds raised during Haywood County’s annual Plottfest Festival goes directly to Head Start. This year the program was able to pocket about $20,000 for its children.
Holly Crawford, Head Start director, said the $20,000 had helped fill backpacks to give to Haywood and Jackson County children and their families. Head Start generally provides larger food items such as jars of spaghetti sauce and a box of noodles to feed more people.
“You never know who they have at home,” Crawford said.
Over the holidays, a total of 44 food boxes were sent home with children to feed them and their families over the two-week break.
Crawford said the number of Haywood and Jackson County students taking home food boxes doubled since last year.
“Hunger is a huge issue,” Crawford said, adding that the program also would be providing food boxes during spring break. “I try to make the (Plottfest) money stretch as far as I can.”
Some local residents got a little creative about how to put food on tables, and as a result, a gleaning network flourished this year in Haywood County.
Bill Walker, the Society of St. Andrew gleaning coordinator for Western North Carolina, reported that this year Haywood’s gleaners had collected 18,000 pounds of food, which had been distributed to a total of 35 different agencies.
Gleaning is probably one of the easiest ways to help give food to others. Volunteers gather crops from farmers, which would otherwise go to waste, and then donate them to families in need. It is a win-win for everyone involved — farmers don’t have to throw out nutritious fruits and vegetables and more hungry people are fed.
There are many ways you can help fight the issue of hunger. Whether you want to volunteer your time as a gleaner, donate canned goods to the pantry or financially support the programs, your contribution will go to good use.
To make a contribution to the backpack program, contact MANNA Food Bank at 828-299-3663. To help Head Start, call Crawford at 828-456-4546. To get involved with the Haywood gleaning program, Jim Geenan can help. Call him at 828-508-4289.