By Abi Cole
Leicester – Economic fallout from the coronavirus pandemic has amplified the hunger crisis in the United States. One in four children in Western North Carolina are food insecure, says MANNA Foodbank. MANNA’s network of pantries, the largest in the region, are responding to the outcry of families financially debilitated by the pandemic.
A substantial May donation to the organization allowed for expansion to even more local pantries, including Leicester Baptist Church. MANNA works with hundreds of smaller nonprofit partner agencies to distribute food within smaller communities.
Coordinator of Leicester Baptist Church’s food distribution program, Alisa Runyan, has seen a spike in families coming to their pantry since the onslaught of the pandemic. Before COVID-19, 25-30 families would come to the church’s bi-monthly pantry. Now, 45-50 cars pull in each week for food. Last month, there were 12 new families.
Runyan has built close bonds with regular clientele since March 2019, when she took on the role as director. The families would come inside the church building and select groceries from tables of food. “We’d listen to them, we’d talk with them, we’d hug them,” says Runyan.
A lot has changed in a year
“It’s really hard because we had a relationship with the folks that came consistently. These folks may not have ever gone to our church, but that does not matter. We just want to support anyone in need and to be able to help the community” says Runyan. “That relationship is now talking through masks, no hugging, gloves on, six feet away from the car, but it’s still good to see all of them.”
With COVID-19 restrictions in place, Leicester Baptist volunteers aren’t able to connect with the food bank community face-to-face. Boxes of groceries are preloaded according to family size and placed in car trunks. Lines to pick up meals stretch down the curb twice a month. Runyan remarked that Leicester Baptist parishioners have made great bounds in financial and food donations to the pantry in recent months.
Leicester Baptist is just one pantry of many in the area. Before North Carolina transitioned into Phase 2, Sandy Mush Community Center offered a gourmet twist to a traditional food bank. Chef prepared meals from local restaurants were given to families. But this program was halted following the re-opening of restaurants.
Unemployment is soaring (13% in May) leaving many families more vulnerable than ever to food insecurity.
“One lady told me- ‘You know I never thought that I’d be coming to a food pantry. I never thought that I would have to do that in order to survive.’ And that just breaks your heart because this is America, we shouldn’t have these kinds of issues. As rich as this country is, we have some true issues,” reflected Runyan.
Leicester Baptist Church distributes food every second Tuesday of the month and an additional day each month based upon need in the community. The next distribution is on June 30th.