Ashe residents are increasingly turning to the Department of Social Services (DSS) and local food pantries to feed themselves, according to food assistance agencies serving the county.
“We have had tremendous inquiry,” said Ashe County DSS Director Donna Weaver, whose Food and Nutrition Services (FNS) staff has been struggling to keep up with growing demand over the past two years.
In November 2012 – the most recent monthly data available – FNS served 4,899 individuals in Ashe County through the federal Electronic Benefits Transfer (EBT) program. This represents a 95 percent increase since November 2007, when 2,508 Ashe Countians were receiving assistance.
Based on the 2011 U.S. Census population of 27,143, about 18 percent of the county now receives EBT.
Statewide numbers are similar. In November 2007, FNS’s caseload comprised 921,145 North Carolinians, versus 1,727,642 in November 2012 — an increase of 88 percent over the same five years.
Demand for assistance is growing in a context of modest population growth in the county of about 0.8 percent per year, based on census data. Unemployment has stayed above 10 percent since December 2008, but has slowly declined from a 17.1 percent peak in February 2010.
In 2013, about one in five N.C. residents are, in the formal language of social services, “food insecure.”
In plain English, “the economy has done untold damage to families…more and more people are having trouble stretching their food dollar, especially the elderly” Weaver said.
Food prices are on the rise globally. Food price inflation nationwide was 3.7 percent in fiscal year 2011, and is forecast at 2.25-2.75 percent for FY 2012, and 3-4 percent for FY 2013 by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).
Applicants for EBT are eligible based on income, household composition, citizenship/immigration status and resources, according to federal regulations. A family of four with a gross monthly income of $2,069 — 130 percent of poverty level — can receive up to $526, or $131.50 per week.
The U.S. Census Bureau listed 17.9 percent of Ashe Countians below federal poverty guidelines last year. As many as 40 percent live at 200 percent of poverty, and qualify for assistance through FNS.
“Our goal is to try to help folks, not only when they come in to determine eligibility,” Weaver said. “We give referrals to food pantries.”
‘Twice as many…half as much’
Both eligible and ineligible FNS applicants visit Ashe’s food pantries.
For 10 years, Ashe Outreach Ministries (AOM) has provided food to those in need. Currently, they distribute about 17.5 tons of food per month through their food pantry and other programs.
Executive Director Rob Brooks said AOM helped about 400 individuals per month five years ago. Today, it’s 1,000 per month.
Other county food pantries have also seen increased demand.
Ashe Really Cares (ARC), an outreach effort of Ashe’s churches, helps families in need with a food and clothing pantry, as well as other types of emergency assistance. Director Pat Miller said ARC currently serves as many as 250 families per month, and has seen about 12 new families each month for the past year or more.
Tim Starbuck, pastor of Jefferson United Methodist Church (JUMC), has seen “an exponential increase” in requests for assistance at his church’s food pantry. “I had eight folks calling for help this morning, which has become typical; I used to get three a week,” he said.
Each of the food pantries have two sources to fill their shelves; donations from individuals and food drives, and distributions from Second Harvest Food Bank in Winston-Salem, which serves pantries in 18 western N.C. counties.
Second Harvest’s food commodities come through The Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP), the USDA’s low-income supplemental food program.
According to Jenny Moore, development manager for Second Harvest, budget cuts to TEFAP have resulted a precipitous drop in available food for distribution.
“At our regional food bank, we are experiencing a 65 percent reduction in (commodities) over the first quarter of calendar year 2012,” Moore said. “We are now receiving approximately 175,000 pounds per month compared to 500,000 pounds.”
“We have been advised by the N.C. Department of Agriculture that this much lower level of product is what we should expect to receive through June 2013,” she said.
“The non-profit community cannot do it themselves,” she said.
Food pantry directors are hearing a giant sucking sound. As TEFAP drops off, so do donations, affected by the same economic forces driving budget cuts and increased demand for food assistance.
Ashe Really Cares finds itself purchasing more of its food, Miller said.
“We’ve tried to supplement through our congregation,” said Starbuck, who runs monthly food drives at JUMC.
Four or five years ago, AOM received three pallets of food per month from Second Harvest, Brooks said. Now they get one, plus some packaged frozen meats.
In the past two years, demand for food at AOM has risen over 55 percent. “You’re feeding twice as many with half as much,” he said.
Ashe Outreach Ministries sends Ashe County Schools students home with 3,000 pounds of food per month through their Backpack Program, Brooks said.
Through the Backpack Program, school counselors are involved in food assistance as well. Children at the elementary schools and the middle school who request them are given food parcels at the end of each school week to help see them through the weekend.
Lynette Stallings, counselor of Ashe County Middle School, distributes 45-50 bags of food to students weekly, she said. The bags are about the size of a gallon Ziploc, and contain an assortment of single-serving items like juice boxes, cereal packets, fruit cups, beans-n-franks and sometimes a candy bar.
Asked if she had been serving more students this year, Stallings said, “The numbers are about the same, but a lot of kids are asking for two bags.” In those cases, she said, she tries to give the extra bag to the parents.
Blue Ridge Elementary Counselor June Neaves also reported no increase in student requests for food, but noted “we have some families that have more than one student bringing home food.”
The Backpack Program is not in effect at Ashe County High School, but four years ago the school’s Interact Club started a food pantry with sponsorship from the Rotary Club. Teacher Christina Pennington said student-run food drives are used to fill a food pantry in the school’s office, which students can confidentially access by asking one of the school’s counselors.
Ashe County High School’s pantry, which was stocked to capacity just before winter break, Pennington said, was half empty Monday morning.