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April Hubbard helps prepare boxes of food for families in need in Watauga.
Lauren K. Ohnesorge | Watauga Democrat

Originally published: 2011-09-26 09:28:33
Last modified: 2011-09-26 09:30:50

Hunger torments hundreds of families

North Carolina's poverty rate is 17.5 percent, but in Watauga County it's worse. Here, 21.2 percent — almost a fourth of the population — officially live below the poverty level.

And as unemployment remains stagnant and food costs rise, 910 of those families find refuge at the Hunger and Health Coalition.

That's where, each month, 10,000 pounds of food are distributed.

Coalition spokeswoman Compton Fortuna was not surprised at U.S. Census data stating poverty is on the rise.

“I think it's easy to overlook people or just assume people are getting by and making it,” she said, “But when you look at the numbers, to quote (President Barack) Obama, ‘it's just math.”

The math is the problem, she said. During the past year, the number of families served by the coalition has increased 33 percent — and there's no sign of a decrease.

Watauga resident Heather Wilson is one of those clients.

“It helps us out a great deal,” she said. “I mean, anything helps.”

Wilson has a job, but has to support her disabled father.

“He doesn't have income,” she said. “I'm supporting two people on one income. Instead of feeding one mouth, I have to feed two mouths and I don't make a lot.”

It's a story Fortuna has heard before.

“When someone works a minimum wage job, if they're fortunate enough to have a job, there's no way they can even meet their most basic needs,” Fortuna said.

Part of the problem locally is the slowed construction industry.

“There's a huge number of people who were carpenters, painters, framers, that are just without employment,” she said. “What else are they going to do? There's only so many fast-food jobs and so many positions they can possibly fill.”

Add in reduced hours (“in some cases to three or four a week,”) and it's a bleak picture. 

“I don't think a lot of people realize how bad it is,” she said. ”Quite a few people, this is the first time they've asked for help because, apparently, up until now, things were OK. There's some point where the support runs out and you're no longer scraping by. You're not getting by and you have to look for alternative means.”

Hunger assistance, she said, isn't an idle hand out. No one wants to accept food. It's done out of necessity.

“I don't think I've ever encountered someone who legitimately has the money for groceries and is getting this for extra,” Fortuna said. “We make it as pleasant as possible, but it's still quite a step to say, ‘I cannot provide food for my family.'”

The vast majority of clients are just trying to survive, she said.

“Typically, we see a family for, in some cases, as many as three years, and then they just kind of disappear,” she said. “Things get better.”

But right now, things are not getting better, and the coalition, like other area nonprofits, is scrambling to keep up with decreased funding and increased need. 

Years ago, families could only get food once every three months.

“Now it's twice a month,” she said, adding that it's “an impossible situation” due to decreased donations. 

To be eligible for food, clients must live in Watauga County and have an income that's at or below 200 percent of the federal poverty level. The federal poverty level for a family of four is $22,350. That's despite the fact that it's estimated to cost $51,530 annually for a family of four to survive in Watauga County, including $676 monthly for food.

Families can take advantage of multiple aid services and still be eligible for hunger assistance from the coalition.

Food boxes contain between 35 and 50 pounds of food and the selection varies.

“In theory, it's supposed to last a week,” she said. “We're really only feeding you two weeks out of the month.”

While the boxes are made ahead of time, clients do get to choose what meat they receive, but only if the meat is available.

Hunger and Health Coalition food pantry employee April Hubbard is less than shocked at Census numbers. 

“With the prices of everything going up, it seems like it's everywhere,” she said. “A lot of people don't realize that Watauga County is one of the lowest paid counties, one of the poorest counties. … People would think, with there being the college here, that it would be one of the richer counties because we have Blowing Rock and the people out at Hound Ears.”

Hubbard doesn't think this.

“I'm one of those people,” she said. “I live way below the poverty level. It didn't surprise me there's as many people that come here as there are, because I see those people every day.”

Distribution at the coalition depends on donations. Without donations, the coalition is limited in the food it can purchase.

“We were allowed 35 cases of meat a week,” Hubbard said, adding that decreased donations have reduced that number to four cases. “Four cases of meat don't last.”

Especially with new families coming in every day.

“It's hard, you know,” she said. “When I go over to the freezer to get meat for families, I feel bad. I'm constantly apologizing to clients that come in.”

There are other options, options such as Food Stamps, or Food and Nutrition Services, a federal food assistance program that helps low-income families. In North Carolina, benefits are issued monthly via electronic benefit transfer cards. Food Stamps are distributed based on income and family size and cannot be used to purchase tobacco, pet food, paper products, soap products or alcoholic beverages. A family of four can receive up to $668 in benefits.

Food Stamps also require a more extensive interview process — something some families are uncomfortable with.

“They don't want to be part of the ‘system,'” Fortuna said.

It's a system full of formulas and conditions that Hubbard knows well.

Her husband started receiving his $600 disability check about a year ago.

“When he got that, they took our Food Stamps benefits,” she said. “They took our Medicaid benefits, except for our kids. … That put us in the hole $1,500. His check doesn't even come close to that.”But it could be worse.

“A lot of families go through that,” she said. “I'm just very grateful for what I have here.”

Fortuna has seen a rise among younger clientele, people in their early 20s.

“Typically, that would be a population that we didn't see as being greatly in need of help because they're young,” she said. “They're single, they can work. But if there isn't a job to work, what is a person supposed to do?”

Fortuna said she sees evidence of real poverty situations every day, and every day it has an impact.

“It's really frightening to listen to the women that come in and talk about why they have to be here,” she said. “Everyone here realizes we ourselves could be on the other side of the desk asking for help. You never know what life is going to twist and turn into.”

Misconceptions make a bad situation worse, she said.

“It's not always somebody's stupidity or laziness that has landed them in a situation … but rather several sequential events that, just when things could have gone better, they went worse.”

Car repairs, funeral expenses and layoffs can contribute to a breaking point, she said: “It's a series of little events, little changes like dominoes, just to gradually create a system that is not manageable.”