Author: Jessie Holmes
As unemployment and uncertainty soared early in the pandemic, so did the demand for food assistance. North Carolina’s regional food banks quickly rose to meet this unprecedented need by sourcing, storing, and supplying food to their networks in all 100 counties. Now the State is investing $40 million in federal American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds to ensure food banks can afford to continue their mission, even as they face new COVID-era challenges like supply chain disruptions, inflation, and decreased donations.
While the state’s economy has rebounded, 12% of our population still faces food insecurity. That’s according to Feeding the Carolinas, an organization that helps support the six regional food banks in North Carolina that received ARPA funds, which are also affiliate members of Feeding America. Executive Director Mike Darrow says while food insecurity already existed, the pandemic brought the issue to the forefront and exposed the need for investment in infrastructure.
“Our food banks have been strategically focused on leveraging this and other investments to increase capacity, both at the food bank level and locally by helping food pantries in our communities,” says Darrow.
Even before the pandemic, MANNA FoodBank in Asheville needed a larger facility. It had outgrown its headquarters along the Swannanoa River, reaching a critical mass for both food storage and its growing fleet of trucks. COVID-19 put those plans on hold, while simultaneously amplifying the urgency to expand. While most of MANNA’s American Rescue Plan Act funds are used to purchase food, a portion will soon help make that new facility a reality, with a groundbreaking scheduled later this year.
“We knew that we were going to need a new facility prior to COVID,” says CEO Claire Neal. “But with the increased need that came from COVID, we were just inundated with more food and the need to support our neighbors. So, the need for that new facility just ramped up.”
In 2022, MANNA served 68% more people each month compared to pre-pandemic levels. Neal says it would be difficult to meet this sustained level of need without the help of ARPA, especially as inflation raises food prices. Until their new facility is built, MANNA is also leasing additional space off-site to store and distribute all that extra food.
With a network of over 250 partner agencies across 16 counties, the funds invested in MANNA will filter into every corner of Western North Carolina and help prevent families from making tough financial tradeoffs, like how to pay rent or medical bills.
“It just makes such a difference in how people live their lives.”
Food Bank of Central and Eastern North Carolina
The Food Bank of Central and Eastern North Carolina has the largest footprint of the state’s regional food banks, spanning 34 counties from the Triangle to Wilmington. You can't effectively manage such a large service area without well-established practices, programs, and infrastructure.
"We already have the systems in place, we already have trucking routes, we already have efficient ways to get food to people in over a third of the state," says Carter Crain, Senior Director of Food Sourcing and Network Services.
That's why they invested their American Rescue Plan Act funds in what they already do best. For example, Crain says they are buying more fresh produce from local growers which supports the local economy and provides better nutrition for families. Funds also support transportation to quickly deliver that food.
Most importantly, these investments help ensure Food Bank of Central and Eastern North Carolina can continue to respond to food insecurity across its large service area, especially during a crisis whether it’s a localized natural disaster or another economic downturn.
“It's really important to make sure the food banks are part of opportunities like this because we are an emergency responder,” says Larry Morris, Director of Network Engagement. “We're part of the solution to helping make sure that when things like a pandemic do happen, that people are getting the resources that they desperately need.”
Second Harvest Food Bank of Southeast North Carolina
From their headquarters in Fayetteville, Second Harvest Food Bank of Southeast North Carolina serves a smaller region of seven counties but with a large need for food assistance. Food Bank Director David Griffin says COVID-19 caused half of their member agencies to shut down, which means fewer non-profits and food pantries available to help store and distribute food directly to neighborhoods. Griffin says a portion of their American Rescue Plan Act funds are going towards investing in that network to help them rebuild capacity and facility infrastructure.
“COVID-19 was very hard on us and the vehicle by which we go out and distribute food to people,” says Griffin. “The model changed.”
They’ve also used funds for capital improvements and increasing freezer space so they can house more healthy food, like nutrient dense proteins. Griffin says he’s grateful that food banks were included in the state’s allocation of ARPA because of the role they continue to play in helping communities recover and become more resilient.
“Our slogan is ‘hunger can’t wait’ and it means we can’t wait for a pandemic or massive disaster or anything that might come up to serve our neighbors and our community,” says Griffin. “I recently had a senior talk about eating dog food. We can’t have our elders going through that.”
Second Harvest Food Bank of Northwest North Carolina
In Winston-Salem, infrastructure was a large part of how Second Harvest Food Bank of Northwest North Carolina invested its American Rescue Plan Act funds. That includes increasing its cold storage capacity for a larger supply of healthy, yet perishable food so they can provide more nutrition to more people. CEO Eric Aft calls ARPA a “game changer,” especially at a time when demand remains elevated in their 18-county region.
“The challenges of COVID-19 have been with us since the beginning, and they are continuing today,” says Aft.
Aft says Second Harvest Food Bank of Northwest North Carolina saw more people needing food assistance nearly every month of 2022. So they’re also purchasing more food and investing in the necessary transportation to reach the people most in need, which often includes seniors and children. Aft says he’s proud of how his team and community have stepped up, and thankful they were provided additional funding to further enhance and expand the vital services they offer.
“This investment by state leaders is transformational,” says Aft. “It's helping today, but it's also going to be impactful for decades to come.”
Second Harvest Food Bank of Metrolina
Charlotte-based Second Harvest Food Bank of Metrolina continues to see the lingering impacts of COVID-19 on both sides of the state line. It serves 14 counties in North Carolina and 10 in South Carolina, where nearly half a million people live in poverty making them especially susceptible to economic and social disruptions.
When the pandemic began in 2020, like many food banks Metrolina turned to drive-thru distributions to meet higher demand more safely. With fewer volunteers coming out, staff members also took on additional duties such as packing boxes. Three years later, CEO Kay Carter says they’re still plagued by supply chain issues, on top of inflation and the recent end to expanded Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits. For that reason, Carter says 75% of Metrolina’s American Rescue Plan Act funds go directly to buying food, with the rest to build up storage capacity.
“In the long term, the construction of a large freezer in Rowan County will provide the opportunity to receive and store more protein-packed frozen meat, as well as increase the variety of frozen products we can receive and store,” says Carter.
Carter says it’s especially important that North Carolina invested its ARPA funds in food banks because of their unique role in supporting networks of other nonprofits. More than ever, these organizations have relied on the strength of regional food banks to help them weather the pandemic’s impacts.
Food Bank of the Albemarle
When Food Bank of the Albemarle saw more people needing its help in 2020 and fewer volunteers to meet the demand, they had to enlist the National Guard to sort, pack, and distribute food. Even now, Director of Operations Andrew Spencer says volunteer levels still haven’t fully returned to normal. There are other lingering effects too, which they’re tackling with the help of American Rescue Plan Act funds.
“Supply chain issues have caused food prices to skyrocket,” says Spencer. “Anybody that goes to the grocery store sees that, we’re no different.”
Donations are also down, as well as the amount of USDA commodities they used to receive. For that reason, securing enough healthy food is one of their biggest spending priorities. ARPA is helping absorb the added costs. Food Bank of the Albemarle is also using ARPA funds to provide grants to partner agencies for capacity building, especially cold storage.
“One partner purchased a refrigerated vehicle so they're able to mobilize their distribution and really get into some of those neighborhoods that otherwise might not have been served,” says Program Director Justine Koksal.
Investing in infrastructure will also help make their 15-county network more resilient and ready to respond to any future spikes in demand.
Strengthening Food Banks beyond COVID-19
With support from the North Carolina Pandemic Recovery Office (NCPRO), it’s the North Carolina Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (NCDA&CS) that directly oversees the spending of American Rescue Plan Act funds by food banks. Nobody was more expertly equipped to help with that role than Gary Gay, the former Director of Food Distribution at NCDA&CS. He came out of retirement to help food banks navigate this historic opportunity, providing on-site visits and assistance.
“I have 20-plus years working with the food banks in the state, so I know them very well,” says Gay. “I’ve seen them grow and develop.”
He’s also seen firsthand how food banks make the most of every dollar to equitably distribute resources.
“This is what they do,” says Gay. “And they touch all 100 counties in our state. They have food pantries set up in all the towns and communities. So when people need food, they know where to go.”
Helping the state’s most vulnerable populations, from children to underserved neighborhoods, is a key component of North Carolina’s mission to recover stronger and more resilient. Food banks have a history of ensuring everyone has access to healthy food, and this investment will guarantee they’re even better equipped for the future.