Planting seeds of love against food insecurity
By KAT FORD
Many of us enjoy the plateau's unique mixture of casual luxury, from dining to shopping, country clubs to hotels. The Highlands-Cashiers Plateau is the epitome of sophisticated comfort for countless residents and visitors- a delightful mountain destination. But for some of our neighbors and friends, making ends meet is a daily struggle. The dissonance between these two realities is the first point made when asked about misunderstandings in local food insecurity by the directors of plateau food pantries- many aren't aware that it is an issue.
Feedingamerica.org describes food insecurity as a household's inability to provide enough food for every person to live an active, healthy life. Many working families experience food insecurity, especially those that are on a tight budget. One unexpected event could be enough to force a household to decide between groceries and medical bills, unplanned car maintenance or rent. Layoffs, a cut in hours, or in tourist destinations like the plateau, slow traffic during the off-season (and the tips that come with it) are all factors for households balancing on edge. Many plateau employees work extra hours and multiple jobs during the summer to make it through the winter months. Stretching a budget can also be a factor for older community members. Even for those with housing that has been in their family for generations, it can be a struggle to afford property taxes, utilities and insurance on a fixed income.
Based on USDA data, in 2018, 11.1 percent of households and one in seven households with children in the nation faced food insecurity. The numbers close to home are a little more staggering. Feeding America's 2019 hunger report for North Carolina states that one in seven people and one in five children face food insecurity. In their Map the Meal Gap study, which uses data from 2018, Feeding America listed 22.7 percent of Macon County children as being food insecure, 20.7 percent in Jackson County. These numbers were pre-pandemic. In 2020 Feeding America created a map of projected food insecurity due to COVID-19, stating that while 37 million people were currently battling food insecurity, the numbers could rise to as many as 54 million nationally. As of the June 3rd update, the map projects Macon County numbers reaching 20.5 percent in overall food insecurity and Jackson County reaching 20.8 percent.
On the plateau, Fishes & Loaves Food Pantry in Cashiers and the Highlands Food Pantry serve community members of Jackson and Macon counties. Directors from both pantries note that they serve households coming from Cashiers, Franklin and Highlands and that currently, it is not necessary to qualify need. "Our goal is to assist those who step forward and ask for help, not to question their need and to treat those individuals with respect and dignity," says director of the Highlands Food Pantry, Marty Rosenfield. The Highlands Food Pantry is a program of the International Friendship Center (IFC), partnering with the Highlands Methodist Church, which provides the space for the IFC to operate the pantry's day-to-day. These operations are largely thanks to a robust group of volunteers who rotate through various job functions. Similarly, Fishes & Loaves Food Pantry partners with twelve area churches that provide volunteers each month. "We have a working board and several of them work each night the pantry is open as well as receiving, stocking, building boxes of food and cleaning up," says director of Fishes & Loaves, Larry Morris.
Currently, both food pantries are continuing to connect with local farmers and suppliers to source quality proteins, fruits and vegetables. When it comes to immediate needs, Fishes & Loaves has demand for dried beans and rice. The Highlands Food Pantry is looking for suppliers for grass-fed beef and pork, non-antibiotic chicken and good sustainable fish. According to IFC executive director, Taylor Ashley, in addition to utilizing donated land to cultivate fruit and vegetables for food pantry clients, the ultimate goal is to "reduce food insecurity by increasing financial security, by providing a bi-lingual (English and Spanish) professional development service to the unemployed and underemployed members of our community."
These two food pantries are not the only organizations assisting individuals in need. The Highlands Emergency Council, a nonprofit ran entirely by volunteers, has a long history of supporting the community- not just as a food pantry but also with household supplies, clothing and utilities. Their fuel fund provides fuel oil, propane, kerosene and wood to those who apply and meet requirements. Applicants are accepted twice a year; sign-up dates are advertised in local papers. According to Mary Anne Creswell, the Highlands Emergency Council has seen a jump in families in need – helping 80 in May and nearly 200 by mid-July, some coming from as far away as Franklin. Many of these items, such as furniture, come through donations- which are always welcome.
In June, pantries encouraged the community to #PlantForThePlateau and bring harvested crops to the pantries as donations. Fresh produce from local gardens and fruit trees help increase offerings and stretch donation dollars to purchase other items. A Facebook group titled Plant for The Plateau began for like-minded community members. The group has served as a think tank for plans, like saving seeds from kitchen waste, and as a way for local gardeners to share tips and resources with an end goal of sharing their yield with the local food pantries.
There are plenty of ways to plant seeds of love against food insecurity for those looking to help. Each food pantry has major fundraisers that they rely on for funds. Fishes & Loaves hosts a Big O'l Mountain Country Breakfast on the first Saturday of July. The Highlands Emergency Council hosts Blue Grass in The Park each August and Food for Fuel, which supports their fuel fund, is hosted on their behalf by the First Presbyterian Church of Highlands the first Sunday of each September. Both the Highlands Food Pantry and the Highlands Emergency Council benefit from the BBQ lunch every year after the annual Highlands Christmas parade. Fishes & Loaves and the Highlands Food Pantry are part of the annual Empty Bowls event held every October. Aside from fundraising events, donations and grants are essential for funding. Contributions, whether they be in time through volunteering, food or financial gifts, are beneficial to these organizations' missions. Awareness is also crucial, starting conversations, liking Facebook pages and sharing information are more helpful acts than you may think. Many things make the plateau a delightful mountain destination. The kindness of the people who choose to call this area home for a moment or a lifetime is one—May the goodness in our hearts plant seeds that yield blessings of love for generations.