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Dual Purpose

By JAZMINE BUNCH

RCNH News Intern

Five children in different households wake up in the morning, but instead of getting ready to go to school, they prepare for another day of virtual learning due to COVID-19.

Four of these five children wake up to breakfast cooking in the kitchen, while one child will go without eating, because they rely on meals provided by the school.

This is the reality behind statistics of food insecurity. According to the NC Child’s county data cards, even before the pandemic, 1 in 5 children in North Carolina lived in families that faced food insecurity.

In Hertford County alone, 65% of children are part of families struggling with poverty before COVID-19 introduced an additional wave of widespread loss of income, unemployment, and food shortage.

With schools serving as a guaranteed two meals a day for children who may not be able to receive them at home, school closures have left them relying on hunger and nutrition programs.

Volunteers work to load boxes of produce into vehicles at the Ahoskie Food Pantry on Tuesday morning. Staff Photo by Cal Bryant

That’s where the Food Bank of the Albemarle enters the picture. They are a non-profit dedicated to fighting hunger and poverty in northeast North Carolina.

Serving 15 rural counties, including Bertie, Hertford, Northampton and Gates, the food bank has met the need stemming from the pandemic head-on. They’ve done so by increasing food distribution by 20% to all mobile pantries and active food pantries, according to communications and volunteer manager, Brian Gray.

“We moved our twice weekly food pantry to a distribution model where food was placed in the trunk of the client’s vehicle, for the safety of everyone and to limit interaction,” Gray said. “We’ve also encouraged all of our hunger-relief partners to utilize this model as well.”

There is a 40% increase in the households served by the Hertford Mobile Food Pantry in Murfreesboro. The development of two new mobile distributions have served almost 700 households in Northampton County.

Askewville Community Food Pantry in Bertie County is a member of the Feeding America initiative through the Food Bank of the Albemarle. Director Lynn Jackson continues to serve an increased population with only half of her volunteer staff.

“There’s normally six, but some of them aren’t volunteering right now; they’re up in age,” she said. “So, it’s basically three of us that are doing everything right now.”

People are being served as they drive up in their vehicles to follow social distancing protocols. The pantry also does home delivery for the entire county of Bertie, which they’ve especially seen an increase. They are open two Mondays each month from 10 am to 12 noon for distribution.

The pantry at New Haven Baptist Church in Murfreesboro has been similarly managing during the Coronavirus, adjusting service so that tables are set up six feet apart outside so people can grab-and-go.

Director Frances Thomas said the pantry has seen a steady amount of people come through, nothing that they aren’t used to. They operate every Friday after the second Thursday of the month from 9 am to noon.

Although traffic at respective food banks have varied by location, the pantries are open and equipped to serve the public during this pandemic.

Food insecurity is no stranger to northeast North Carolina, but neither are resources and support for those facing it, according to Ahoskie Mayor Weyling White.

“Even before COVID, I’ve been really proud of what churches and the faith-based community has done in regard to providing food for residents in our community,” White said.

White is a healthcare worker and lifelong member of Calvary Baptist Church, another food pantry in Ahoskie that he said has been working in “full force serving the community.”

In addition to supporting the pantry ministry at Calvary Baptist, White will be partnering with David Barnes and the Ahoskie Food Pantry, where efforts will be located at the Ahoskie Presbyterian Church. Starting Tuesday, June 2, they’ll be distributing 200 boxes of food each week to people in the community, making deliveries where needed.

“I wanted to have something where we can keep people inside, we didn’t want people to have to come out for anything,” he said. “Now since [the restrictions] are relaxed, we still want people to be safe and still be able to access food.”

This initiative will also include the distribution of personal protective equipment (PPE) kits donated by Enviva, consisting of masks, gloves and hand sanitizer.

Distribution will rely on volunteers and community organizations. White hopes to partner with churches and increase community involvement and efficiency over time.

“I want our community to take care of our community,” he said. “When COVID happened, I wanted us to be able to assist residents and think in innovative ways about the existing resources or programs we have.”

The Food Bank of the Albemarle also assists those seeking SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) benefits. Current SNAP recipients received the maximum benefit during the pandemic, balancing the need for assistance from local food pantries.

There hasn’t been a strain on the pantry’s food supply, so items are available if families need assistance at any point. Some pantries have closed or adjusted their operating times, due to lack of volunteers, but the Food Bank of the Albemarle has deployed mobile pantries in these areas or surrounding areas.

Although the pandemic has been hard on families previously facing food insecurity, the faces behind the fight to end poverty and hunger are working just as hard.

For a list of resources or food-relief partner locations near you, visit the food bank’s website at www.afoodbank.org.