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op frBy Doug Wingeier • Columnist

For some years now I have been promoting fair trade products as a means of helping organic farmers and cooperatives in the Third World get just prices and living wages, improve living standards, educate their children, build stable communities, and protect the environment from toxic chemicals destructive use of land and water. 

My wife and I use fair trade coffee, tea, cocoa, and chocolate from farmers in Latin America, Africa, and Asia, and Palestinian olive oil — all organic, high quality, and reasonably priced. I sell it at cost, and have encouraged its use at church functions. My interest in this has grown out of visits to coffee farms in Nicaragua, Colombia and Chiapas, Mexico, where I have seen first-hand the struggles of farmers who operate at the mercy of the fluctuating world market with prices set in New York, unpredictable weather patterns, an invasive and destructive rust, and exploitative middlemen called coyotes who buy cheap at the peak of the season from small farmers with no storage facilities. I encourage you to join me in bringing your purchasing and dietary practices into conformity with the values of compassion and justice for the “least of these.”

fr opendoorOn Sept. 12, Jeff Clontz walked out of Haywood County Jail a free man. It wasn’t his first time, though. Jail, release and failing to pay child support comprised a cycle he knew well, but this time was different. When Clontz left the jail, he left behind more than just physical bonds. His spiritual bonds were gone, too. 

coverDark clouds hung above Cullowhee last Friday morning. And as the rain fell on the mountain community, tears slid down the face of Suzanne Stone.

“I’m numb,” she said. “I rotate between crying and disbelief. It’s like losing your home.”

fr maggiecharityThe mother lode of charity operations was less than 24 hours away, and the daunting punch list should have had Johnny Strickland sweating bullets.

fr clothesSylvia Russell remembers how crucial it was to wear the “right” clothes to school, how the “right” outfit could win the acceptance of peers.

fr gleaningAt the end of every crop’s season, farmers pick the fruits or vegetables that are pretty enough to sell in the grocery store. Once they are done, they plow under the leftover produce. 

fr firechiefsJackson County commissioners may be looking to change how fire departments are funded.

A group of folks allegedly raising funds on behalf of an out-of-state church have sparked complaints and questions from Franklin residents puzzled, and sometimes troubled, by the troupe’s origin and tactics.

art frFor Clark Williams, it’s all about giving back.

Owner of Frog Level Brewing in Waynesville, Williams is celebrating not only the first anniversary of starting his business on Dec. 14, he’s merging the milestone with the annual “Toys for Tots” drive, which collects donated items for children who might otherwise have a dismal Christmas.

A clean-cut looking Perry Matthews walked into the food pantry with a smile on his face. He wore a crisp, light blue, long sleeve button-up and tan slacks. His long, dark hair was pulled into a neat ponytail.

It is easy to mistake him for one of the volunteers who prepares meals or packs boxes with food. But Matthews, a 26-year-old employed chef and cooking teacher, is part of a new demographic of working poor in Western North Carolina.

Six months ago after finding himself struggling, Matthews started picking up food boxes from The Community Table in Sylva.

“Times got hard, and it’s everything I can do to get my rent and bills together,” Matthews said. “The electric bill was taking up way too much.”

For Matthews, meals have become a regular community event. His neighbors also frequent the Community Table for donations. Then they pool their food and cook meals that they all share together.

Matthews is not embarrassed to admit he needs help and suggests that others who are scrambling to pay their bills visit the pantry as well.

“You’re hungry, and they’re giving food. It’s plain and simple,” said Matthews, who is one of 17.7 percent of Jackson residents who in 2011 did not have continuous access to food.

Some first-time visitors are ashamed to come to a food pantry because of the stigma associated with it.

“Poverty has such a stigma, and a lot of people have the ‘blame the victim’ mentality,” said Amy Grimes, director of the Community Table. “There are so many factors beyond people’s control.”

So, the Community Table tries to create a happy, community atmosphere, where people can sit and socialize while waiting for food or collecting their food boxes.

“(People) probably think it’s a sad, downtrodden kind of place. No,” Grimes said. “It’s much more dignified.”

The new visitors are not part of the generational poverty cycle but rather lost their job or face unexpected costs.

“We are seeing a lot more situational poverty,” Grimes said. “People have a medical issue come up, and it turns their entire life upside down.”

Although many people enjoy the three-month summer that a job at a school affords, Martina Maldonado would rather work. Every year when Western Carolina University’s campus essentially closes down, Maldonado, a cook at the college, is unemployed and must used food pantries to compensate for the lack of income.

“Any holiday they close, it happens,” said Maldonado, a Spanish woman whose daughter-in-law translates for her.

Their number one customer, however, is still elderly people and mentally challenged individuals, who are usually both on fixed incomes.

The Community Table used to grow busier toward the end of the month when people’s food stamps ran out but now stays busy throughout since the federal government began staggering its food stamp release. Some people get food stamps at the beginning of the month, and others receive them in the middle or end of the month.

“We are just busy all the time now,” Grimes said.

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