For the past 20 years, The Community Table has provided nutritious food to residents of Jackson County, North Carolina, including seniors, people with disabilities, children, and working families.
Paige Christie, executive director of The Community Table, says they’ve seen a 30 percent increase in new clients since COVID-19 started. Before the pandemic, The Community Table welcomed people into their dining hall where they received a menu, volunteers took their order, and they sat down to a hot meal prepared by a chef.
“We take pride in the connection to community that we bring, especially among our elderly clients. Often, the only time they could get out of the house was to come here and have a meal with us,” she says.
In mid-March, The Community Table closed their dining room and shifted to take-out meals due to the pandemic. They adapted their food box program so that people can drive up to the parking lot and receive a pre-packed box of food to take with them. The organization’s chef continues to prepare fresh and frozen meals that people can eat at home.
Just before COVID, The Community Table started an initiative to include farm fresh produce in their meals and food boxes. One of the first farms they connected with was Carringer Farms in nearby Macon County.
“We started working with the Carringers early on based on that. They were willing to deliver in the middle of a pandemic, and they were really responsive to us,” she says.
Don and Belinda Carringer grow a wide range of vegetables as well as larger quantities of potatoes. Before COVID, they sold mostly to restaurants, and this spring they found themselves with plenty of produce and fewer places to sell it.
“It started off as, hey, you got it and we need it. Then it just became a really good partnership. When the ASAP grants came up and we were contacted about that, they were the first folks we thought of because they had kind of been working with us from the start,” she says.
ASAP’s Appalachian Farms Feeding Families program connects local farms with food relief organizations to help people access fresh food during the pandemic, and also ensures farms get paid for their products. ASAP matches food banks, charitable prepared food services, and child and adult care feeding sites with local farms that have an abundance of products and fewer market outlets.
It’s a win-win for farmers like Don Carringer who normally sell produce to restaurants.
“We were excited about The Community Table because if the restaurants went down, the needs for The Community Table went up. So we’ve been doing that and we’ve been able to pull through this so far,” he says.
The Carringers also revamped their business model and started a drive-by market for local customers. Between those sales and partnerships with The Community Table and Pam’s Child Development Center through ASAP’s program, the Carringers no longer have a surplus of unsold produce like they had at the beginning of the pandemic.
Don is proud of the high quality vegetables, like zucchini, squash, cucumbers and red potatoes, that he grows to help feed his community. He looks forward to delivering the produce each week.
“They were tickled to death that I was going to deliver it myself. We thought that was the way we’re gonna do it anyway, because that’s what we do for the restaurants, too. So I just put it in the truck and we unload it and we talk a little bit about how things are going. It all works out really well,” he says.
During the pandemic, Page Christie has less contact with the people who eat at The Community Table, but she remembers how they reacted to one of the first meals they served with local produce when the dining room was still open.
“They were just so happy. There were some older folks talking about how they hadn’t seen this since they were able to pick something out of their grandmother’s garden, things like that that we were hearing. It matters to people. It matters to people on a core level. They know it’s fresh; they know the difference.” she says.
She says this isn’t a stopgap or temporary partnership for The Community Table. She sees it as part of a long term plan to support the local food system as a whole.
“Our mission at The Community Table has always been to deal with the immediate needs of the people who are hungry in front of us. But we are trying to look at ways through grants, through partnerships, that we can take what we do and impact the food system and make it more sustainable for the farmers and those involved in the food system at the base level,” she says.
Learn more about ASAP’s Appalachian Farms Feeding Families program and partnerships between local farms and food relief organizations at www.asapconnections.org
Aired: July 13, 2020