By Nick Peters, AVL Watchdog
The main floor of Manna FoodBank’s warehouse in Asheville is a beehive of activity as scores of staff and volunteers pack, load and wrap food for distribution. Boxes, pallets, and forklifts still abound, but the vibe has changed.
In her office, Manna CEO Hannah Randall shifts in her chair. The data points she sees on her computer screen are staggering. The pandemic has amplified the scope of poverty and hunger in Western North Carolina like nothing before.
The data is also forcing a stark realization that both sourcing and logistics must be reimagined on the fly.
Randall estimates that to meet the spike in demand for Asheville and Buncombe County in coming months, Manna will need to distribute at least 508,968 pounds of food each month representing more than 424,140 meals.
“What we are seeing is that the number of people showing up at the local markets where we directly provide food has more than doubled from 1,932 in February to 4,380 in April,” she said.
“And that doesn’t include what is happening at our 200 partners across 16 Western North Carolina counties,” Randall added. “That data is still being collected.”
If that data matches what is happening at the local markets, Manna estimates more than 200,000 people in Western North Carolina will be wanting for food this year, up from 100,000 last year.
“While the need is immediate and significant, this is not just a short-term issue,” Randall said. “The pandemic will eventually be handled, but this new reality will go on for a very long time.”
“Asheville will be particularly hard hit compared to other areas because a significant portion of our economy is hospitality and tourism-based,” she said. “And you’ll only have tourism if people have money and decide it’s safe to travel. Less tourism will keep our demand levels high.”
Supply and Demand
More than 80 percent of Manna’s food is donated by grocers, farmers, manufacturers, produce pack houses, the government, and individuals. However, the nationwide supply of food has slowed to a trickle because of the impact on general food manufacturing and distribution operations, meaning less is available for donation from all sources. “While we are seeing these increases in the number of people requiring our help, the food supply chain has been in near gridlock,” Randall said.
To fill the gap, Manna has ventured into the open market and purchased $1.6 million worth of food since early March. “This is more than we would have purchased in a normal full year,” Randall said. So far, Manna has been able to recoup that cost with cash donations from corporations, foundations and individuals.
“We’re keeping up for now,” she said, “but the long-term impact is unclear. Giving is usually strongest at the start.”
The first consequence of increased demand and dwindling supply is less food, and some of Manna’s distribution points are running out regularly.
Marie Whitener sees first-hand the growing gap. As president of the Leicester Community Center, she collects food from Manna to hand out at her community’s Welcome Table.
“We opened at 9 a.m. the other day,” she said. “Sixty boxes of food were gone in 19 minutes.”
Other relief agencies are seeing the same uptick in demand. Since the end of March, a small crew with the nonprofit Grassroots Aid Partnership has been creating and distributing free vegan meals to anyone in need from a food truck parked on Haywood Road in West Asheville in front of the mostly closed Dr. Dave’s Auto repair shop. A sign on the street reads, “Food Relief Free Food Tues-Sun 4-7.”
“The first weekend we had around 100 people every day,” said a crew member who identified himself as Mason Everyone. “The next weekend it was 130 or 140, then 180, and then we were consistently over 260 every day in that three-hour time window.”
Swannanoa-based Hearts with Hands, a natural disaster relief agency, provides after-school meals to hundreds of Buncombe County children and needy shut-ins.
“The interrupted food chain from the likes of Sam’s Club and food plants is a major deficiency for us,” said Greg Lentz, the nonprofit’s president. “Re-stocking is running 90-120 days behind…. It’s sparse; it’s not happening.” Lentz is turning to his donors, asking them to buy extra food for his organization to distribute.
Having food on hand in case of an emergency like a pandemic is not feasible for a nonprofit, Lentz said.
“If we plan on overstocking food because we want to pre-empt another supply chain disruption like this one, what will we do if the food perishes or passes its expiration date? We can’t risk wasting funding on food we may need to discard,” he said. “That’s a challenge now and in the future when trying to plan ahead for something like this that may not happen again for a long time.”
Changing Labor Supply
Manna counts on volunteers — more than 7,000 each year — to help pack and distribute food. About 400 of those are regulars, volunteering at least once a week. And many are also retirees, who are at risk of serious illness from Covid–19 and are staying home.
A half-day shift used to draw 35 to 40 regular volunteers who knew the routine. Now, only 2 or 3 are regulars. Manna has simplified the workflow to accommodate the newcomers.
“The volunteer mix has definitely changed,” said volunteer Scott Williams of Mars Hill. “It’s unfortunate that many of the older, more experienced ones who are at most risk have stayed away, and new volunteers have had to replace them. A lot of institutional knowledge is gone.”
What lies ahead
The pandemic has brought a sharp focus to the need in Asheville and beyond. “You know, for years people have heard about people living paycheck-to-paycheck, people living on the edge,” Randall said. “And maybe that feels abstract sometimes. It’s not abstract right now. It’s very tangible when you have more than double the number of people showing up.”
Still, Randall is optimistic. “There’s already some real ingenuity happening in Asheville, and we’re just small enough that a lot of us all really know each other and connect in the food system,” she said. “That is allowing for some entrepreneurial spirit to spring out of this situation…and getting as many people back to work as we can.”
Elected leaders in Asheville and Buncombe County are in contact with Randall and other relief agencies, assessing the need and planning for what is likely to be a long-lasting crisis. “They’ve been asking what we are seeing so that they can think ahead,” Randall said. “We need to plan for significant impacts that go way beyond the stay-at-home order.”
Randall is counting on Asheville’s spirit of generosity. “We are extremely fortunate to live in Western North Carolina through this crisis because of the Appalachian culture of caring, of checking on neighbors.”
AVL Watchdog is a nonprofit news team producing stories that matter to Asheville and Buncombe County. Nick Peters is a former broadcast and newspaper reporter and producer and public radio news director. Contact us at [email protected]