Clay County Food Pantry celebrating 30 years of service
By Jerry Sullivan Guest Writer
The early years
The Clay County Food Pantry began its community service in 1992. The founding members Mary Bratton, Kathy Smith, Meg Whitley and John Corn saw the need and working with the Good Shepherd Episcopal Church were able to secure a small room in the basement as their base of operations. During the start up they distributed five to 10 boxes of food every Friday. The food that was distributed was all based on donations made by individuals and local churches. This was truly a community grass roots eff ort and indicative of the volunteer spirit and sense of community we enjoy in Clay County.
In 1995 the Clay County Food Pantry became incorporated as a 501c3 non-profit organization. As a nonprofit we were able to apply and gain acceptance with Mountain Area Nutrition Needs Alliance Food Bank in Asheville which serves the 16 counties of western North Carolina. MANNA would provide bi-weekly shipments of food which greatly improved the number of customers we could support. Later in the mid 90s the volunteers qualified the pantry to receive The Emergency Food Assistance Program. This is a federal program that helps supplement the diets of low-income Americans. Through TEFAP the U.S. Department of Agriculture purchases nutritious, high quality USDA foods and makes those available to state distributing agencies. Getting all the necessary approvals for MANNA and TEFAP was a great deal of work and eff ort. TEFAP is also distributed through the MANNA Food Band and TEFAP was incorporated in our bi-weekly shipments from Asheville. By the late 90s, our food pantry was distributing between 30-40 boxes per week. Given the infl ux of food and clients we were quickly running out of space and began to store food at Oak Forest Church as well as the homes of our board members.
In 1999, Fred Sickel, current CEO, was chartered by the board to look for an alternative space to operate the food pantry. After much consideration, it was determined to be the Hinton Center, with its focuses on serving individuals, congregations and rural communities through retreat ministries, educational opportunities, and missional outreach opportunities. Outreach programs offered by the Hinton Center include safe and healthy home repair ministry, fire wood and garden ministries. With their focus on ministry and service within the community they seemed like an organization that might help support our facility challenges. Sickel and Bob Davis, another pantry volunteer, met with Clay Smith, Hinton Center Director, and explained that they needed space to build a food pantry and that the mission was to provide food assistance to individuals and families in need. Clay was very supportive and took the idea to the Hinton Center Board and got the approval for the pantry to be built on Hinton Center Property. For details about Hinton Center and the programs offered visit: www. hintoncenter.org. Great news, we had a location for the food pantry and all we needed was the funds to build it. Again, the community stepped forward. The pantry received overwhelming support from churches, businesses, and families to get the capital for the 3,100 square foot building. Steve Hindsman donated his time and equipment to clear the land and provided fi ll dirt to level the area. Tighe White Construction did the construction at a generous price point. Food pantry volunteers did the internal build-out of walls, shelves, and painting to make the building functional. Special shout out to Dave Miller, Gus Moran, Perry Steagal and Sickel for leading the build-out effort.
The new building was complete in early 2001. The pantry held an open house for the community and invited churches, The Chamber of Commerce and of course the Hinton Center. The Clay County Food volunteers (all denominations). In 2008 and 2009, the food pantry, staged large fund raisers to support the growing need. They had a Variety Show in 2008 and a Big Band Concert in 2009 at Young Harris College. Both events were a huge success and a special thank you to the college for their support.
With the strong leadership of our founders and the many board members over the years we were able to help satisfy a basic need within our county. Special thanks to the Hinton Center, our community of churches and the families and individuals who donate their time and resources to make the Clay County Food Pantry a remarkable success.
All businesses, profit and nonprofit must evolve or run the risk of failure.
As the demand for the pantry services continued to grow, our processes evolved. We implemented computers and programs to help us track and report for MANNA and other government agencies. This was a must as our volumes increased and proper tracking and reporting was required to maintain our food distributions form MANNA and TEFAP. This was no simple step to move from index cards to a software program. We had smart volunteers who led the charge. A board of directors complete with bylaws was established and quarterly meetings scheduled to review the last quarter’s activities and proposed changes for the upcoming quarter. Quarterly meetings focus on the current state of affairs including financials, challenges and proposed changes, always focusing on continuous improvement and how to best serve the community. As demand increased, we need additional cold storage. We are always on the lookout refrigerators/freezers to store the volume of meat and dairy items required support our clients. Like all things they would sometimes break down and need repair or replacement. Over the years we have built contacts and have been very lucky to receive some nice equipment to help our cause. We started with one refrigerator and one freezer and currently have eight of each.
Evolution to the choice program
One day, a food pantry client told us he had some food items we had given him that he wanted to return. The following Friday he showed up and had more than 25 boxes of canned goods he had collected over time. He explained that these were items he either did not like, were not in his diet or he did not know how to prepare. The realization that we were buying and distributing food that was not being consumed was an eye opener. We quickly moved from giving away prepackaged boxes to a Choice Program which enabled clients to choose the items they wanted. This program was a huge success and reduced our cost and allowed us to better serve the community as many items were not used and were returned or discarded.
In the front of the pantry, we added additional food and hygiene items for our clients to select based on their wants/needs. Outside, when available, we have pallets of produce and breads for our clients. We also partner with the senior center to provide boxes for those more than 60 years of age. The senior center distributes these boxes to those homebound seniors in our community. We also celebrate the holiday with special Thanksgiving turkeys and Christmas hams.
The pandemic was a challenge for all. The pantry has always been flexible and puts the needs of our community first. With the start of Q4 2020 and the outbreak of the pandemic, volunteers and board members reset processes to enable clients to receive provisions in a safe and friendly manner. Boxes were prepared on Thursdays, and we opened a drive through for clients to receive provisions while remaining in their cars. All volunteers and clients wore masks to help protect themselves and avoid spreading COVID-19. As the pandemic wore on, we stayed diligent in providing provisions and never missed a Friday distribution. 2021 showed our lowest demand in years, down 40 percent from 2019 and this is attributed to people staying away due to COVID-19 concerns and increases in food stamps and unemployment benefits as well as government stimulus.
During the pandemic we also did a one-time appliance give away. We created a list of appliances and asked our clients to select two items they would like to have. Items included microwaves, toasters, coffee maker, silverware, and other utensils. I remember one lady selected a microwave and stated now she can use the microwave popcorn we provide from time to time — she still used it, just made it in a frying pan. Another client said they cannot use a coffee maker as they have no electricity. The need is real.
As we moved into 2022, the United States began its great reopening from the pandemic. The food pantry was quick to follow. They eliminated many of the safety requirements and opened up the pantry for customers to come inside and shop with masks optional. The back to normal was well received and it was great to be able to interact with our clients on a more personal basis. The volume of people served for the first half of 2022 is in line with 2021 pandemic volumes. With the rising cost associated with inflation we expect demand to increase as personal budgets get stretched. If you or a friend need assistance, we are open from 9 a.m. to 12 p.m. each Friday. We are located at 2278 Hinton Center Road. If you wish to help, contributions can be either food assistance — non-perishable prepackaged and canned foods — or monetary donations. Food donations can be dropped off in person from 9 a.m. to 12 p.m. on Fridays. You can also add food donations to the drums located at the exits of the Hayesville Ingles. You can mail your monetary, tax-deductible contribution to The Clay County Food Panty, Inc. P.O. Box 853, Hayesville, N.C. 28904. If you have any questions, you can call (828) 389-1657.
The food pantry is comprised of all volunteers and has no paid positions. Current officers at the Food Pantry are Fred Sickel, President/ CEO; Bill Rice, Vice President; Sandy Jersey, Treasurer and Fanny Watson, Secretary. We currently have between 20-25 additional volunteers.