Hiking the Appalachian Trail had been in the back of Andy Smith’s mind for a while, ever since a coworker at Cherokee Hospital, where he was chief of physical therapy, told Smith about his 1989 thru hike. As 2014 dawned, Smith was 15 years retired and approaching his 65th birthday. He got to thinking that maybe it was time to try a thru hike.
“I really didn’t have a solid reason,” Smith said. “It wasn’t like a long-term goal that I’ve always wanted to do it. It’s something that’s been of interest, so I decided to do it.”
MANNA FoodBank will close its Franklin distribution center by October, putting three part-time employees out of work as the agency moves to streamline its system and cut overall operating costs.
Cindy Threlkeld, executive director of the Asheville-based nonprofit, blamed rising food and fuel costs and potential threats to federal funds the agency relies on. MANNA’s distribution center in Franklin served as a clearinghouse and pass-through point for food supplies bound for “partnering agencies” in the western counties for 20 years.
Franklin headquarters the only branch office of MANNA, located on Depot Street.
The nonprofit had to make hard decisions about how to maintain the same level of service while cutting costs, Threlkeld said.
“We are fully committed to providing the same level of service, or even more,” she said. Online ordering was already used by most of the 250 agencies that tap MANNA’s food stores across a 16-county service area.
MANNA FoodBank Board Member Amy Grimes, executive director of The Community Table in Sylva, said the online system works well. She said the agencies that haven’t made the transition yet seem to understand the difficulties faced by MANNA, “and people seem OK with it. Everyone is having to make hard choices right now.”
But MANNA will still need a pick-up point, a centralized location somewhere in the western counties where pallets of food can passed off to agencies. Threlkeld is currently hunting for such a site. It will not be a formal distribution center, however, such as the one in Franklin. The phase-out of the Franklin center will start in September, Threlkeld said.
On a more positive note, MANNA’s executive director said a couple in Henderson County has donated the entire production from a 5-acre orchard, contingent on MANNA handling the harvesting. Threlkeld said she foresees the agency ending up with some 150,000 pounds of apples, raising possibilities MANNA could trade apples with another food agency for other supplies.
With the latest increase in gas and grocery prices, the already long lines at soup kitchens and food pantries across Western North Carolina are growing even longer.
“The need is going up again,” said Amy Grimes, executive director of The Community Table in Sylva. “We could break another record this year.”
That’s not a record Grimes is particularly thrilled about: In 2010, the Sylva group served 20,393 dinners alone, double the number of dinners served at The Community Table the previous year, when 10,335 were given out. The surge, Grimes said, is directly attributable to the hard times individuals and families are experiencing as fallout continues from the nation’s long economic slump.
The story is the same across WNC. The need is getting greater and greater, even as many people’s abilities to help financially have become increasingly difficult. That widening chasm, and the best means of tackling the problem regionally, will be the focus of a forum on food security Monday, April 25, at Western Carolina University in the A.K. Hinds University Center.
Sponsored by WCU’s Public Policy Institute and MANNA Foodbank, the forum is intended to highlight the problems of hunger in WNC and outline possible regional solutions, said Paul Dezendorf, a WCU professor who is helping organize the event.
“North Carolina has one of the highest rates of food insecurity in the country, and the Asheville metro area ranks No. 7 in the country for food hardship among all metro areas in 2010. We all know that the rural counties are even worse, not better,” Dezendorf said.
There are two main objectives set for this forum at WCU: the first is to provide a public setting for discussing the problem and deciding how to improve the situation, and the second is figuring out how the academic community and those directly involved in feeding the hungry can communicate better.
A networking session for community organizations will be held in the morning. The public session is set for 1 p.m. to 4 p.m., and will include speakers from MANNA FoodBank and other area nonprofits, plus local experts on healthcare and sustainable agriculture. That event will take place in the theater of the University Center.
Dezendorf said he and other organizers hope the forum will evolve into an annual event focused on increasing food security across WNC.
The Community Table in Sylva needs assistance picking up boxes of donated food from Wal-Mart. Pickups are Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday. If you can help on one or more of those days, call Amy Grimes at 828.586.6782. Additionally, the group’s biggest fundraiser of the year is set for Friday, April 22, from 4 p.m. to 8 p.m. Tickets for the Empty Bowl are $20, available at the door, and include choices of handcrafted, locally made bowls; plus soup, bread and desserts from local restaurants. 828.586.6782.
Sixty-five runners started and finished the first Assault on Black Rock Trail Race at Sylva’s Pinnacle Park on March 19, raising more than $1,400 for the Community Table soup kitchen.
The 8.3-mile course boasts a 2,700-foot elevation gain and forced participants to use hands and feet to scramble to the craggy pinnacle atop Black Rock. Organizers hope the first-time event – which is basically uphill the first half and downhill on the way back, with the last half-mile of uphill featuring a ridiculously steep climb – will catch on in trail racing circles.
“I am very pleased with the turnout, although I am sure the good weather helped,” said race organizer Brian Barwatt. “… The thought that 65 people stood on the summit of Black Rock on Saturday (not including my volunteers) is awesome because I have been up there about a dozen times in the past couple years and have only seen three people on the trail up to Black Rock.”
Participants traveled from as far away as Atlanta and Raleigh.
The top three men and women finishers were:
(1) Chad Hallyburton, age 42 of Sylva, with a time of 1:31:17
(2) Andrew Benton, age 20 of Hickory, with a time of 1:33:12
(3) Sean Botzenhart, age 18 of Cullowhee, with a time of 1:35:19
(1) (11th overall) Ginny Hotze, age 50 of Asheville, with a time of 1:46:42
(2) (14th overall) Hannah McLeod, age 15 of Waynesville, with a time of 1:51:53
(3) (16th overall) Brenda Holcomb, age 38 of Cullowhee, with a time of 1:56:42
If you are looking for a trail race — with the emphasis on “race” — the Assault on Black Rock Trail Race might not be for you.
But, if you are willing to walk, crawl or yes, run, your way to the top of a very tall mountain for fun and in the name of a really good cause — supporting Jackson County’s Community Table soup kitchen — this is the event for you, so mark March 19 as a day to spend in the woods.
The Assault on Black Rock is the brainchild of Brian Barwatt, a climber who loves to hike up Pinnacle Park, a 1,100-acre tract of land owned by the town of Sylva and previously used as a watershed. The pinnacle is 5,008 feet in elevation, and Barwatt said the estimated 8.3-mile race (he believes the distance might actually be just over 7 miles in reality, signs to the contrary) gains 2,700 feet on the way to the top.
“It is a really hard trail run,” Barwatt said. “It would take a topnotch trail runner to actually run it all.”
But, don’t despair: Barwatt has asked Jackson County Emergency Medical Service personnel to stay for up to eight hours that day — plenty of time for even the slowest of the slow to get to the top and back down again. Even sliding down on your rear end if you must.
Barwatt said he wants to support the Community Table, which feeds the hungry in Jackson County, and introduce people to the beauties of Pinnacle Park. Prizes will be awarded to top finishers. Pre-registration is $25 (www.active.com, there is a $3.25 fee); race-day registration is $30. The race is at 9 a.m. March 19, starting at Fisher Creek parking lot in Sylva.
— By Quintin Ellison
It’s Thursday afternoon, and Amy Grimes has her head in a freezer digging around for a few things to add to the cardboard boxes at her feet that are already filled with food of various descriptions. A few yards away, volunteers scurry back and forth, bringing food to guests at the many table scattered throughout what was once a living room. With its cozy setting, plethora of set tables, and the inviting smell of chili wafting from the kitchen of this old house, it would be easy to mistake the scene for a mom-and-pop restaurant gearing up for the dinner rush.
But it isn’t. This is Sylva’s Community Table, where those in need can stop by four evenings a week to enjoy a hot meal, friendly company and — if they need it — some extra food to get them through. And most of all, says Grimes, handing one of the now-full boxes to a customer, they can do it with dignity.
While the Community Table has long been a busy spot in Jackson County, Grimes says her customers have changed over the last few years. As the recession has deepened, for many the long-promised light at the end of the tunnel has not come.
As recently as last year, the Community Table hosted up 40 dinner guests each night; now they’re serving around 100 people per night on a regular basis.
“For the entire year of 2009, we served 10,335 meals,” says Grimes. “This year, through October, we’ve served over 18,000. We’re going to more than double [by the end of the year].”
The requests to the food pantry have increased as well. Grimes said she received about one request a month for take-home food two years ago, if that. Now she gets up to 80 requests for boxes every month.
Lisa James, director of Haywood Christian Ministries, echoes those sentiments. Her staff and volunteers busily pack food boxes in the basement of their Waynesville building, working to keep up with the 60-to-80-box-a-day demand they’re currently seeing.
“Last month we had 315 families in October alone,” James says. “I don’t remember a month that we’ve had that many people.”
That change in volume has also been accompanied by a change in clientele. Historically, organizations like the Community Table and Haywood Christian Ministries have served the traditionally disenfranchised — the elderly living on fixed incomes, those with physical or mental disabilities, the long-term homeless. Now, however, working families are beginning to represent a greater portion of the needy in Western North Carolina.
It’s a fact that is reflected across the region in the percentage of kids who receive free and reduced lunch at school.
In Haywood, Jackson, Macon and Swain counties, more than half of public school students are getting their school meals free or at a reduced price. Jackson and Macon have been above 50 percent for the last few years: Jackson had right at 50 percent in the program in 2009, and it’s now climbed to just over 55 percent, while Macon is holding steady with 59 percent of its students getting free or cheaper food, up from 56 percent at the end of the 2008-2009 school year. Haywood County saw that statistic climb above the 50 percent for the first time this fall. The system now has 52 percent of its student body enrolled in the federal program, a 10 percent increase from just six years ago.
Free and reduced lunch numbers are often used as an indicator of how many children are living in poverty, but what, exactly, do they mean?
To get free lunch through the federal government’s National School Lunch Program, a family must be living at or below 130 percent of the national poverty level. For a family of four, that’s $28,665 this year. To get a reduced-price lunch, which amounts to 40 cents instead of the undiscounted price of $2, total family income has to be between 130 and 185 percent of the poverty level. This year, that’s anywhere between $28,666 and $40,793 for a family of four.
Lynn Harvey, Child Nutrition Director for the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction, says that these numbers aren’t isolated in the western part of the state. Children across the state have been hard hit by the slouching economy and depend on the food they get at school.
“Since late 2008, we’ve seen about at 10 percent increase in the number of students who qualify for free and reduced price meals,” says Harvey. “North Carolina now ranks second in the number of children and adults who are food insecure. That essentially means that these are children who literally do not know where their next meal will come from. That makes [school meals] a real lifeline for them.”
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, around 15 percent of the nation — 17.5 million people — are struggling to put food on the table, which translates into scores of children depending on outside sources of food to stave off their hunger.
Ginger Moore, the cafeteria supervisor at Jonathan Valley Elementary School near Maggie Valley, has seen this truth firsthand. She and her fellow cafeteria workers have noticed that, especially after long holiday weekends, many students come back desperately hungry.
“When a 6-year-old can eat four bowls of cereal, you know they’re pretty hungry,” she says. That, in part, is why the school has teamed up with Asheville’s Manna Food Bank to offer what they call Manna Packs. It’s a simple pack of kid-friendly food, like instant macaroni, that can feed a child through a weekend where they might not otherwise find a hot meal in front of them.
Back in Jackson County, they’re doing the same. Kids that teachers, counselors, cafeteria or social workers notice may need some food at home are getting sent away each Friday with a few things to sustain them through the weekend.
While the number of children slipping into poverty and hunger may be on the rise, the disproportionate effect of poverty on kids is nothing new. Dr. Lydia Aydlett is a psychologist specializing in children who has been working with kids and families since the 1970s. According to Aydlett, when the poverty rate increases, kids are the most at-risk.
“Children are going to be poorer than the population as a whole,” says Aydlett, and this is particularly true for Western North Carolina. Haywood County, for example, has a relatively low poverty rate of 14.5 percent, which includes everybody, from the nursery to the nursing home. But for the county’s kids — everyone under 18 — just over 23 percent of them live in poverty.
Macon County is much the same. They have a pretty low overall poverty rate — about 13 percent, the lowest among Haywood, Jackson, Macon and Swain counties — but nearly 24 percent of children there are in poverty, the highest among those four. This means that, while everybody suffers when a recession drags on, unemployment remains lackluster, and the available balance in nearly everyone’s bank account is dwindling, the consequences for the youngest are exponentially more dire.
“Living in poverty has some pretty grave consequences for kids,” says Aydlett. “In general, they’re likely to have poor education, they’re likely to have greater health problems, they’re likely to have lower cognitive skills, and that’s children across the board living in poverty. For little kids, the youngest kids, they’re the most vulnerable because their brains are still forming. As their brains are forming, they’re dependent on a good environment and good nurturing for them to reach their potential. And when kids are in poverty, there are huge family stressors.”
Being food insecure, then, isn’t just bad for the body, it’s bad for the whole child, says Aydlett, because parents are more likely to succumb to those ‘family stressors,’ to be more concerned with keeping children fed and clothed than tracking or nurturing their development. When a family is working just to survive, there is no time or energy left on which to thrive.
“Child development goes way down the list of important things when parents are worried about where the next meal’s coming from or how they’re going to pay the heating bill,” says Aydlett. She says research has borne out the theory that parents who are more financially secure are able to devote more time to their child’s development.
“There are all kinds of studies about language differences of parents who are in poverty and parents who are not,” explains Aydlett. “Parents who live in poverty tend to give children orders or directions, where middle-class families, they’re more likely to say, ‘well what did you do at school today, let’s talk about this.’ There is more conversation, more elaboration, more attention.”
A 2003 Duke University study done in Cherokee after following the casino opening found much the same result. Researchers discovered that, because of the small stipend provided by casino returns, parents were spending more time keeping up with their kids. The kids, in turn, acted out less and had fewer behavior problems, both at home and at school. Even if it didn’t have any effect at all on the parents’ lifestyle — workplace hours didn’t decrease, wages didn’t go up — that small extra measure of financial safety led to great changes for their kids.
“Exploratory analysis suggested that the quality of parental supervision was linked to parents’ sense of time pressure,” researchers reported in a university newsletter at the study’s release. “Although the casino income did not lead parents to cut down on their working hours, it did seem to help them feel less ‘pressured,’ which may have helped them to devote more attention to what their teenagers were doing. Moving out of poverty was associated with a decrease in frequency of psychiatric symptoms over the ensuing four years.”
However, Aydlett notes, being poor doesn’t, by default, deprive children of the nurturing they need to develop into healthy adults.
“It’s parent involvement. What really seemed to happen [in the Duke study] is that the money allowed the parents to be more involved, to monitor more, so you’re going to have bad outcomes, you’re going to have kids who are in trouble even in very wealthy families if they don’t have input and don’t have those relationships.
“If you’re poor but have a tight-knit family in a healthy community, even though you’re poor you’re likely to be OK,” she said.
That combination is what many programs in the community — like Head Start and even the free and reduced lunch program — aim to provide to low-income families.
Charles and Karen Tucker say their family is benefiting from such programs. The Tuckers are regulars at Sylva’s Community Table, and they say it’s been a lifeline for them in raising their five children.
They’ve lived for years on the edge of sustenance, always working but never with much extra. But when the recession hit, Karen’s hours were cut at Roses, where she’s worked for 10 years, and the help they’d always occasionally taken from the Community Table became vital.
“We pretty much just live paycheck to paycheck,” she says. She is at the Community Table tonight, having dinner with her husband, still in her ‘Roses’ uniform polo and khaki skirt. Finishing her last few bites of cole slaw, she praises the efforts of organizations like the Community Table that have helped her family get by.
“If it wasn’t for them, we couldn’t make it at all,” says Tucker. She says that she and her husband, with help from their church and other community organizations, have raised their children without a poverty mindset. Although scraping by was tough, and continues to be, she has high hopes for her kids’ success. Her eldest son is in the military in Oklahoma, her oldest daughter is happily married and living in Georgia with three children of her own, and their 17-year-old daughter is currently investigating colleges.
“I’m really pushing my girls to go to college, because I don’t want them to end up like I have,” Tucker says. “It ain’t easy, I can tell you that. I mean, we’ve managed all these years, but it’s just a big struggle.”
Part of the challenge for groups trying to help families like the Tuckers is overcoming the stigma associated with asking for help, and Lynn Hunter with the state’s child nutrition program says that’s one of their greatest goals: getting food to kids who need it without exposing them to shame or ridicule.
“For any human being, when their self-esteem is compromised because they’re participating in a food assistance program, that’s a very painful thing,” she says. To combat that, Hunter and her team are pushing a breakfast-in-the-classroom program in schools statewide. If offers a low-cost breakfast to kids who don’t qualify for free or reduced price, and a discounted or free breakfast to those who do. But, Hunter says, it does much more to promote togetherness and health among all students, while quietly giving the hungry just what they need.
“It helps to remove some of the stigma associated with being the only child who arrives early to have breakfast at school,” says Hunter. “We’re trying to create an environment where all children participate, all children can enjoy.”
Schools are already halfway to this goal, no longer publicizing children who receive free or reduced lunch and offering whole-family applications for assistance, so older, more independent students don’t have to ask for themselves.
Amy Grimes of the Community Table is aiming for the same goal, trying to give help that isn’t a package deal, with shame and exclusion thrown in for free.
“It’s hard to come and ask for help anyway, so we want this to be the most welcoming, dignified environment,” says Grimes.
Many of her newer clients, she says, have never had to ask for help before and feel uncomfortable coming in. They are still working but aren’t making a living wage, and it’s those people who feel most heavily the stigma of taking help.
“They apologize for needing help, but everybody needs it sometimes,” says Grimes.
In Haywood County, Lisa James sees the same thing.
“We have seen an increase in the people who are unemployed who, in the past, have been giving to us,” says James. “Now they’re coming back and having to ask for help themselves.
“We’re seeing people who are working at $7 an hour, who were making 10 and 12. Minimum wage just doesn’t cut it.”
So as the economy continues to prove sluggish, organizations like the Community Table and Haywood Christian Ministries are striving to navigate these new waters, this paradigm shift from generational poverty to situational poverty that’s creeping steadily across greater parts of the community.
Aydlett firmly believes, even if there is no economic turnaround in sight, that the community can still help even the poorest children succeed if they are vigilant.
“Children show resilience if somebody — it doesn’t have to be parents — but if somebody really loves them, really thinks they’re the best thing since sliced bread,” she says. “We need to make sure kids have connections to grandparents, aunts or uncles, neighbors, somebody that can help provide love and support for those kids. Everybody needs that kind of person.”
In Haywood County:
Haywood Christian Ministries
150 Branner Avenue
Waynesville, NC 28786
Donations taken: food, clothing, financial gifts
Volunteers needed? Yes
In Jackson County:
The Community Table
127 Bartlett Street
Sylva, NC 28779
Donations taken: food and financial gifts
Volunteers needed? Yes
In Swain County:
Bryson City Food Pantry
c/o Bryson City Presbyterian Church
311 Everett Street
Bryson City, NC 28713
In Macon County:
130 Bidwell Street
Franklin, NC 28734
Donations taken: food, clothing, financial gifts
Volunteers needed? Yes
The blue-plate special fundraiser is a tradition in Sylva. On the last Wednesday of each month, Jackson County residents sit down to lunches served on battered wooden tables at the soup kitchen and eat food donated by local restaurants. The money they give in return helps keep The Community Table afloat.
The need is great. Since the economy soured, the mainly volunteer staff has been dishing out an average of 100 to 120 meals a night, up from 25 to 40. And that’s not just a strain on the budget. The Community Table can only seat 30 people at a time at each of the four dinners served each week. Additionally, a food pantry is operated out of the small building the nonprofit calls home.
“They are crowded, and this is a light day for them,” said Jean Ellen Forrister, a blue-plate regular who was at the soup kitchen last week. “Sometimes people are standing in line.”
Though the answer is just a few blocks away, the fix won’t be simple. Town of Sylva commissioners agreed the soup kitchen could move into the former Golden Age center, which was vacated after the county built a new senior center late last year. But up to $90,000 might be required to renovate the old building and render it usable. Walk-in coolers, stoves and other kitchen equipment must be bought. That could cost an additional $30,000 if purchased new, $20,000 used.
Amy Grimes, executive director of The Community Table, and the soup kitchen’s other paid staffer, Kevin Hughes, have been roughing-out cost estimates. They are trying to figure exactly how much they’ll need to move The Community Table, and where that money will come from.
Grimes this month made the rounds nonprofit directors of local organizations all make when seeking dollars: first to the town board, then to the county board. Town leaders said they were strapped for money. They asked that the use of former Golden Age building be considered their contribution. Additionally, the town’s maintenance workers will help The Community Table fix up the building, if time away from regular duties can be found.
“I wish we had money, that we could write a check for you guys,” Sylva Commissioner Stacy Knotts told Grimes.
Grimes appealed to county commissioners for a contribution of $50,000 toward the work. They asked Grimes to provide a list of exactly what’s needed and the estimated costs. They promised to consider her request then.
County Commissioner Tom Massie said he didn’t mind spending county tax dollars to renovate a building owned by the town, given that The Community Table would use the building.
“It is serving Jackson County residents,” Massie said. “The majority of the clientele are residents of Jackson County whether they reside in the town of Sylva or not.”
Grimes said she has asked the town for a five-year lease on the building with an option to renew. That, if granted, should allay any concerns about the county’s participation, she said.
“They really need the space, and it’s a good location with lots of parking,” said Sara Hatton, a Jackson County resident who also ate lunch at The Community Table’s blue-plate special last week.
Both Hatton and Forrister expressed confidence that people in the community will donate the dollars needed to move The Community Table to the former Golden Age center, fix-up the building and furnish the kitchen.
“I’m always just amazed at the willingness of people to come forward here and help,” Hatton said. “The response to the library has just been phenomenal.”
When official fundraising started for the new Jackson County Public Library complex in May 2008, the Friends of the Jackson County Main Library had $140,000 in hand. The group, which is spearheading the fundraising drive, has since raised more than $1.7 million. This total represents a combination of grants, matching funds and private donations, said Mary Otto Selzer, co-chair of the capital campaign.
The shaky economy has forced many in Jackson County to seek help from the soup kitchen for the first time. Grimes said some construction workers, unable to find jobs, are relying on The Community Table for meals. So are a number of working people whose wages aren’t enough to make ends meet, or whose house have been cut.
Grimes said an annual survey revealed that many of those coming to the soup kitchen have been college educated. This represents a significant change from surveys taken in previous years.
Estimating when The Community Table will make the move is almost impossible at this point, Grimes said.
“First quarter of next year?” she said. “That’s probably too soon. The building is so old. We’re just really not sure what it is going to take.”
The first major fundraising event in support of The Community Table’s move to a bigger location will be held Sept. 15 at Bogart’s Restaurant in Sylva from 11 a.m. until 8 p.m. Harris Medical Park is sponsoring the event. WRGC 680 AM will be live on location for part of the day, and local well-known people are expected to stand on the roof until allowed down for “ransom” dollars.
In Sylva, the buy local mantra is being reinterpreted as grow your own.
Volunteers at the Community Table, a nonprofit that provides free, nutritious meals to anyone who needs them, helped to create the Sylva Community Garden six years ago as a way to supplement the kitchen’s supply of food.
The demand for free meals has increased dramatically over the 10 years the Community Table has been in existence, and consequently, so has the need for fresh vegetables. Last year, the Community Table provided an average of 40 meals per night. This year, the number is closer to 120.
For Kevin Hughes, kitchen manager and volunteer coordinator, ramping up the effort to feed more hungry bellies is all in a day’s work.
“It means getting here earlier in the morning to prepare, a lot more food, and a lot more volunteer hours,” said Hughes.
The mission of the Sylva Community Garden is community service. Using a 1/3-acre plot owned by Dr. Gwang Han, the garden provides a common space for local organic gardeners to ply their trade and at the same time provide food for local families that need it.
Over the past three months, 71 volunteers have worked the 20 plots that make up the garden. The individuals that maintain the plots put in countless hours cultivating food. Half of what they grow must be donated to the Community Table or other organizations that feed hungry people.
For Ann Tiner, who helps coordinate volunteers in the garden and serves on the Community Table steering committee, the result of the two organizations working together is amazing.
“I think it’s a magic show to watch these guys come into this tiny little kitchen and provide this delicious food,” Tiner said. “It’s fresh and it’s like you’re in a restaurant and you can just choose what sounds good to you.”
There is nothing institutional about the Community Table. People who come are given a choice of food and sit at common tables in a cozy room that feels like a tavern.
Likewise, there is nothing institutional about the Sylva Community Garden. It’s a loose collective of volunteers who grow what they want to eat. As the demand for fresh produce at the Community Table has grown, Tiner and Hughes have had to work harder to coordinate the harvesting, processing, and storage of the food the garden produces.
“A little sack of lettuce doesn’t really help,” said Tiner.
In addition, farmers and gardeners from the surrounding area make frequent contributions to the Community Table.
Hughes came in one day last August and found 500 pounds of fresh produce waiting for him on the doorstep. To him, dealing with the fresh produce may be challenging, but it’s also the point of his job.
“Seasonally, you come to expect things, but there’s always the surprise aspect of what’s coming in from local farmers and gardens,” Hughes said.
This year, St. John’s Episcopal Church and First Citizen’s Bank have collaborated to plant a vegetable garden in a plot behind the church. Tiner, a parishioner, and Patty Curtis, the pastor, are working hard in the garden to produce food that will end up at the Community Table.
Hughes loves working with local, organically grown food.
“It’s fantastic because our mission statement is to provide a nutritious meal,” Hughes said. “The fresh produce we are getting doesn’t have any pesticides, it’s not genetically modified, and it’s just that much better.”
Tiner said finding a way to bring the food from the community’s garden to its table is about more than having fresh produce. It’s about communicating the message that we are all responsible for our land and for each other.
“As much as the growth of the food is important, it is also about education and making people aware,” Tiner said. “I still fight the notion that this is a luxury. This is how it’s supposed to be. It goes back to the way things used to be.”
Community Table, Sylva’s nonprofit community kitchen, has outgrown its existing facility and is targeting a move to the town’s now-vacant senior center.
The county built a new senior center, freeing up space in the old one, which is owned by the town. The building is located downtown adjacent to the town pool and playground.
Last month the Community Table’s executive director, Amy Grimes, asked the Sylva town board if it would support the move so the organization could move forward with concrete fundraising goals for the building switch.
The board voted unanimously to “bless” the project.
Grimes said the Community Table served an average of 120 meals per night in January for a monthly total of 2,076 meals, triple last January’s number.
“We’ve got a lot of new faces every week,” Grimes said.
Community Table –– which serves meals four nights per week and operates a food pantry by appointment –– turned 10 years old last August. The Sylva Church of Christ has donated the current space to operate the kitchen, but Grimes said the Community Table needs more room to accommodate a surge in demand for services.
“We’re busting at the seams,” Grimes said.
Grimes said the Sylva board’s vote cleared the way for Community Table to get cost estimates for the move and undertake a fundraising drive. Grimes expects to get a building inspector’s estimate on the necessary renovations to the building next month.
“We are hoping the town, the county and the community will come together to help us, and we’ve always had tremendous support,” Grimes said.
Community Table serves warm, home-cooked meals to anyone who wants them from Monday through Friday every week.
Sylva Mayor Maurice Moody said the senior center had always been a building devoted to community service. If the Community Table could raise the money to make the move a success, the town would support it.
“What the board did was basically bless the idea if they want to move forward with it,” Moody said.