It’s Thursday afternoon, and Amy Grimes has her head in a freezer digging around for a few things to add to the cardboard boxes at her feet that are already filled with food of various descriptions. A few yards away, volunteers scurry back and forth, bringing food to guests at the many table scattered throughout what was once a living room. With its cozy setting, plethora of set tables, and the inviting smell of chili wafting from the kitchen of this old house, it would be easy to mistake the scene for a mom-and-pop restaurant gearing up for the dinner rush.
But it isn’t. This is Sylva’s Community Table, where those in need can stop by four evenings a week to enjoy a hot meal, friendly company and — if they need it — some extra food to get them through. And most of all, says Grimes, handing one of the now-full boxes to a customer, they can do it with dignity.
While the Community Table has long been a busy spot in Jackson County, Grimes says her customers have changed over the last few years. As the recession has deepened, for many the long-promised light at the end of the tunnel has not come.
As recently as last year, the Community Table hosted up 40 dinner guests each night; now they’re serving around 100 people per night on a regular basis.
“For the entire year of 2009, we served 10,335 meals,” says Grimes. “This year, through October, we’ve served over 18,000. We’re going to more than double [by the end of the year].”
The requests to the food pantry have increased as well. Grimes said she received about one request a month for take-home food two years ago, if that. Now she gets up to 80 requests for boxes every month.
Lisa James, director of Haywood Christian Ministries, echoes those sentiments. Her staff and volunteers busily pack food boxes in the basement of their Waynesville building, working to keep up with the 60-to-80-box-a-day demand they’re currently seeing.
“Last month we had 315 families in October alone,” James says. “I don’t remember a month that we’ve had that many people.”
That change in volume has also been accompanied by a change in clientele. Historically, organizations like the Community Table and Haywood Christian Ministries have served the traditionally disenfranchised — the elderly living on fixed incomes, those with physical or mental disabilities, the long-term homeless. Now, however, working families are beginning to represent a greater portion of the needy in Western North Carolina.
It’s a fact that is reflected across the region in the percentage of kids who receive free and reduced lunch at school.
Free lunches: a barometer of the times
In Haywood, Jackson, Macon and Swain counties, more than half of public school students are getting their school meals free or at a reduced price. Jackson and Macon have been above 50 percent for the last few years: Jackson had right at 50 percent in the program in 2009, and it’s now climbed to just over 55 percent, while Macon is holding steady with 59 percent of its students getting free or cheaper food, up from 56 percent at the end of the 2008-2009 school year. Haywood County saw that statistic climb above the 50 percent for the first time this fall. The system now has 52 percent of its student body enrolled in the federal program, a 10 percent increase from just six years ago.
Free and reduced lunch numbers are often used as an indicator of how many children are living in poverty, but what, exactly, do they mean?
To get free lunch through the federal government’s National School Lunch Program, a family must be living at or below 130 percent of the national poverty level. For a family of four, that’s $28,665 this year. To get a reduced-price lunch, which amounts to 40 cents instead of the undiscounted price of $2, total family income has to be between 130 and 185 percent of the poverty level. This year, that’s anywhere between $28,666 and $40,793 for a family of four.
Lynn Harvey, Child Nutrition Director for the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction, says that these numbers aren’t isolated in the western part of the state. Children across the state have been hard hit by the slouching economy and depend on the food they get at school.
“Since late 2008, we’ve seen about at 10 percent increase in the number of students who qualify for free and reduced price meals,” says Harvey. “North Carolina now ranks second in the number of children and adults who are food insecure. That essentially means that these are children who literally do not know where their next meal will come from. That makes [school meals] a real lifeline for them.”
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, around 15 percent of the nation — 17.5 million people — are struggling to put food on the table, which translates into scores of children depending on outside sources of food to stave off their hunger.
Ginger Moore, the cafeteria supervisor at Jonathan Valley Elementary School near Maggie Valley, has seen this truth firsthand. She and her fellow cafeteria workers have noticed that, especially after long holiday weekends, many students come back desperately hungry.
“When a 6-year-old can eat four bowls of cereal, you know they’re pretty hungry,” she says. That, in part, is why the school has teamed up with Asheville’s Manna Food Bank to offer what they call Manna Packs. It’s a simple pack of kid-friendly food, like instant macaroni, that can feed a child through a weekend where they might not otherwise find a hot meal in front of them.
Back in Jackson County, they’re doing the same. Kids that teachers, counselors, cafeteria or social workers notice may need some food at home are getting sent away each Friday with a few things to sustain them through the weekend.
Poverty strikes children hardest
While the number of children slipping into poverty and hunger may be on the rise, the disproportionate effect of poverty on kids is nothing new. Dr. Lydia Aydlett is a psychologist specializing in children who has been working with kids and families since the 1970s. According to Aydlett, when the poverty rate increases, kids are the most at-risk.
“Children are going to be poorer than the population as a whole,” says Aydlett, and this is particularly true for Western North Carolina. Haywood County, for example, has a relatively low poverty rate of 14.5 percent, which includes everybody, from the nursery to the nursing home. But for the county’s kids — everyone under 18 — just over 23 percent of them live in poverty.
Macon County is much the same. They have a pretty low overall poverty rate — about 13 percent, the lowest among Haywood, Jackson, Macon and Swain counties — but nearly 24 percent of children there are in poverty, the highest among those four. This means that, while everybody suffers when a recession drags on, unemployment remains lackluster, and the available balance in nearly everyone’s bank account is dwindling, the consequences for the youngest are exponentially more dire.
“Living in poverty has some pretty grave consequences for kids,” says Aydlett. “In general, they’re likely to have poor education, they’re likely to have greater health problems, they’re likely to have lower cognitive skills, and that’s children across the board living in poverty. For little kids, the youngest kids, they’re the most vulnerable because their brains are still forming. As their brains are forming, they’re dependent on a good environment and good nurturing for them to reach their potential. And when kids are in poverty, there are huge family stressors.”
Being food insecure, then, isn’t just bad for the body, it’s bad for the whole child, says Aydlett, because parents are more likely to succumb to those ‘family stressors,’ to be more concerned with keeping children fed and clothed than tracking or nurturing their development. When a family is working just to survive, there is no time or energy left on which to thrive.
“Child development goes way down the list of important things when parents are worried about where the next meal’s coming from or how they’re going to pay the heating bill,” says Aydlett. She says research has borne out the theory that parents who are more financially secure are able to devote more time to their child’s development.
“There are all kinds of studies about language differences of parents who are in poverty and parents who are not,” explains Aydlett. “Parents who live in poverty tend to give children orders or directions, where middle-class families, they’re more likely to say, ‘well what did you do at school today, let’s talk about this.’ There is more conversation, more elaboration, more attention.”
Study reveals upside of economic security
A 2003 Duke University study done in Cherokee after following the casino opening found much the same result. Researchers discovered that, because of the small stipend provided by casino returns, parents were spending more time keeping up with their kids. The kids, in turn, acted out less and had fewer behavior problems, both at home and at school. Even if it didn’t have any effect at all on the parents’ lifestyle — workplace hours didn’t decrease, wages didn’t go up — that small extra measure of financial safety led to great changes for their kids.
“Exploratory analysis suggested that the quality of parental supervision was linked to parents’ sense of time pressure,” researchers reported in a university newsletter at the study’s release. “Although the casino income did not lead parents to cut down on their working hours, it did seem to help them feel less ‘pressured,’ which may have helped them to devote more attention to what their teenagers were doing. Moving out of poverty was associated with a decrease in frequency of psychiatric symptoms over the ensuing four years.”
However, Aydlett notes, being poor doesn’t, by default, deprive children of the nurturing they need to develop into healthy adults.
“It’s parent involvement. What really seemed to happen [in the Duke study] is that the money allowed the parents to be more involved, to monitor more, so you’re going to have bad outcomes, you’re going to have kids who are in trouble even in very wealthy families if they don’t have input and don’t have those relationships.
“If you’re poor but have a tight-knit family in a healthy community, even though you’re poor you’re likely to be OK,” she said.
That combination is what many programs in the community — like Head Start and even the free and reduced lunch program — aim to provide to low-income families.
Life on the edge of poverty
Charles and Karen Tucker say their family is benefiting from such programs. The Tuckers are regulars at Sylva’s Community Table, and they say it’s been a lifeline for them in raising their five children.
They’ve lived for years on the edge of sustenance, always working but never with much extra. But when the recession hit, Karen’s hours were cut at Roses, where she’s worked for 10 years, and the help they’d always occasionally taken from the Community Table became vital.
“We pretty much just live paycheck to paycheck,” she says. She is at the Community Table tonight, having dinner with her husband, still in her ‘Roses’ uniform polo and khaki skirt. Finishing her last few bites of cole slaw, she praises the efforts of organizations like the Community Table that have helped her family get by.
“If it wasn’t for them, we couldn’t make it at all,” says Tucker. She says that she and her husband, with help from their church and other community organizations, have raised their children without a poverty mindset. Although scraping by was tough, and continues to be, she has high hopes for her kids’ success. Her eldest son is in the military in Oklahoma, her oldest daughter is happily married and living in Georgia with three children of her own, and their 17-year-old daughter is currently investigating colleges.
“I’m really pushing my girls to go to college, because I don’t want them to end up like I have,” Tucker says. “It ain’t easy, I can tell you that. I mean, we’ve managed all these years, but it’s just a big struggle.”
Part of the challenge for groups trying to help families like the Tuckers is overcoming the stigma associated with asking for help, and Lynn Hunter with the state’s child nutrition program says that’s one of their greatest goals: getting food to kids who need it without exposing them to shame or ridicule.
“For any human being, when their self-esteem is compromised because they’re participating in a food assistance program, that’s a very painful thing,” she says. To combat that, Hunter and her team are pushing a breakfast-in-the-classroom program in schools statewide. If offers a low-cost breakfast to kids who don’t qualify for free or reduced price, and a discounted or free breakfast to those who do. But, Hunter says, it does much more to promote togetherness and health among all students, while quietly giving the hungry just what they need.
“It helps to remove some of the stigma associated with being the only child who arrives early to have breakfast at school,” says Hunter. “We’re trying to create an environment where all children participate, all children can enjoy.”
Schools are already halfway to this goal, no longer publicizing children who receive free or reduced lunch and offering whole-family applications for assistance, so older, more independent students don’t have to ask for themselves.
Amy Grimes of the Community Table is aiming for the same goal, trying to give help that isn’t a package deal, with shame and exclusion thrown in for free.
“It’s hard to come and ask for help anyway, so we want this to be the most welcoming, dignified environment,” says Grimes.
Many of her newer clients, she says, have never had to ask for help before and feel uncomfortable coming in. They are still working but aren’t making a living wage, and it’s those people who feel most heavily the stigma of taking help.
“They apologize for needing help, but everybody needs it sometimes,” says Grimes.
In Haywood County, Lisa James sees the same thing.
“We have seen an increase in the people who are unemployed who, in the past, have been giving to us,” says James. “Now they’re coming back and having to ask for help themselves.
“We’re seeing people who are working at $7 an hour, who were making 10 and 12. Minimum wage just doesn’t cut it.”
So as the economy continues to prove sluggish, organizations like the Community Table and Haywood Christian Ministries are striving to navigate these new waters, this paradigm shift from generational poverty to situational poverty that’s creeping steadily across greater parts of the community.
Aydlett firmly believes, even if there is no economic turnaround in sight, that the community can still help even the poorest children succeed if they are vigilant.
“Children show resilience if somebody — it doesn’t have to be parents — but if somebody really loves them, really thinks they’re the best thing since sliced bread,” she says. “We need to make sure kids have connections to grandparents, aunts or uncles, neighbors, somebody that can help provide love and support for those kids. Everybody needs that kind of person.”
How you can help
In Haywood County:
Haywood Christian Ministries
150 Branner Avenue
Waynesville, NC 28786
Donations taken: food, clothing, financial gifts
Volunteers needed? Yes
In Jackson County:
The Community Table
127 Bartlett Street
Sylva, NC 28779
Donations taken: food and financial gifts
Volunteers needed? Yes
In Swain County:
Bryson City Food Pantry
c/o Bryson City Presbyterian Church
311 Everett Street
Bryson City, NC 28713
In Macon County:
130 Bidwell Street
Franklin, NC 28734
Donations taken: food, clothing, financial gifts
Volunteers needed? Yes