By Ivey Schofield
When Susan Deans drives by a small, wooden pantry in downtown Whiteville, she can’t help but look inside. Sometimes it’s full of canned beans, baby formula and toilet paper. Other times it’s empty.
When the little pantry is empty, Deans gets an itch to fill it. She knows plenty of residents in this southeastern North Carolina community are in need of the free items.
“Food is such a fundamental, basic need,” Deans said. “And there are people in our county that don’t have enough food.”
In Columbus County, home to Whiteville, 17% of residents lack consistent access to enough food to lead healthy lives, according to County Health Rankings. That compares to 7% throughout the United States.
It’s why for at least a decade Grace Episcopal Church has made food its mission. Each Sunday, it collects canned goods and toiletries from its members and it gives away the supplies to anyone who needs them.
“We’re feeders, and we’re eaters,” said Deans, a member of the church in Columbus County.
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But the pandemic threw a wrench in the church’s routine. It used to open its food pantry twice a month, but the spread of COVID made it unsafe for the 80-year-old volunteers who ran the distribution event.
So Deans, a steward of several free little libraries, came up with the idea to construct a little wooden food pantry outside of the church on Madison Street in Whiteville. And she got others involved, including the self-proclaimed youth group of Grace Episcopal Church.
Tom Caperton was excited to contribute, building an intricate little pantry and even including a cross made by Haitian artisans. A member of Grace Episcopal Church, he says that food access has always been a problem in the region. And with inflation exponentiating the cost of basic necessities, he’s worried about the impact on low-income families.
“Do I put gas in my car, or do I buy groceries?” Caperton said.
He said the little food pantry can be a way for families to get some free food to help offset the rise in costs.
With an average income of $37,000, about one in every five households in Columbus County receives help from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, commonly known as food stamps, according to the American Community Survey.
Shadonna Hemingway at the county department of social services said she has been getting calls “like crazy” from people needing government assistance to feed their households.
Right now, because of a waiver from the state, households regardless of their incomes can get the maximum amount of benefits. But if a household with one individual gets $250 per month, that still might not be enough to cover the cost of a sufficient amount of food.
Healthier foods like fresh fruits and vegetables and organic and non-GMO (genetically modified) foods often cost more – which is difficult during a time of economic inflation.
Lindsey Haynes-Maslow, an expert in nutrition and food access at North Carolina State University, said she has heard low-income families say they would love to eat healthy foods – if they could afford them.
As a result, Haynes-Maslow sees food insecurity as a bigger issue. It’s not just about access to food, she says; it’s about access to healthy foods.
That’s why Grace Episcopal Church aims to provide nutritional food to the community members who need it. The church recently received a $10,000 grant from the North Carolina Community Foundation to establish a monthly distribution event with protein, dairy and fresh fruits and vegetables that will also include educational materials on healthy living.
People who receive SNAP benefits often can’t get those necessary supplies, said Lisa Richey, a member of the church and president of the local chapter of the NC Community Foundation.
“That’s going to change somebody’s life more than a box of macaroni and cheese,” she said. “We’ll really make a difference.”
Others can help
Six weeks into their food pantry venture, the youth group of Grace Episcopal hopes other individuals and organizations will join the effort. Their monthly distribution event – set to begin in September – will become weekly, and their little food pantry on the side of the road will always be full.
Until then, the group will continue to check on the little food pantry, watching items disappear within hours and hoping others will contribute what they can. But every few days, they’ll fill it themselves, knowing they’re making a difference in the lives of the people they feel called to serve.
“None of us seem to be able to leave it empty for very long,” Deans said.
Follow Ivey Schofield on Twitter: @SchofieldIvey