It’s easy to take for granted the luxury of knowing where your next meal will come from. But for women like Jo-Ann, Elizabeth, Gabby and Tina, their jobs put them face-to-face with families who are not always granted this luxury. These caring, dedicated, and passionate women have made it their mission to fight the battle against food insecurity in the High Country.
According to Dick Larson, executive director of Feeding Avery Families, one in seven people in the High County and surrounding region suffer from food insecurity. Facing food insecurity means that during the course of any given month, there are times when one will not know where their next meal will come from.
“There’s plenty of money in Avery County,” Dick says. “There’s plenty of food in Avery County. There’s no food shortage. Yet, we have people going hungry. There’s just no reason for it, and there’s absolutely no reason for any child in this county to be hungry and yet we do. The issue is distribution of course. The people with great mean generally have very little contact with the people with these great needs, and vice versa.”
This is the problem women across western North Carolina have joined together to solve.
Jo-Ann McMurray, co-director of Feeding Avery Families, plays a vital role in combating food insecurity in Avery County. After retiring from her job as a nurse, Jo-Ann was looking for a way to continue serving those in need. After connecting with Dick, she joined the team.
“Jo-Ann coordinates all our volunteers, and she is just masterful at it,” Dick says. “That’s a skill you have to have. You have to obviously like people but, it’s much more than just liking people, there is a real technique involved in directing and managing volunteers.”
Jo-Ann helps to coordinate volunteers for the Feeding Avery Families food distributions that provide those in need with free produce, meat, dairy items and non-perishable goods. She also helps coordinate a backpack program to provide children across the county with essential food items. A special project Jo-Ann and the Feeding Avery Families team have been expanding is the community pantry program. There are now seven free-standing storage buildings filled with food for anyone in need. These pantries are open 24/7, and Jo-Ann and Dick have been refilling them twice a week.
Jo-Ann said she is passionate about the work she does after previously witnessing single moms dealing with food insecurity at her husband’s family law practice.
“How am I going to feed these kids?” she thought.
“So I saw it all the time, and I didn’t know how to help,” Jo-Ann says. “And then, of course, Dick came along and I thought, ‘Wow this might be a good stepping stone to get involved in these problems.’ I thought this was the perfect opportunity.”
Elizabeth Young, executive director of the Hunger and Health Coalition in Boone, said serving in her role is an ideal blend of her passions and desire to serve her neighbors.
“Food and culture and caring for community have been touch points of my life since I was a child,” Elizabeth says. “This role felt like a marriage of my life’s greatest passions, really and truly. It’s definitely evolved to be just that. I come from a long term care background and had been working in assisted living for a number of years here in the area and ... heard about this opportunity, and it felt just like a perfect fit in every way and has been one of my life’s greatest joys.”
Elizabeth has been working at the Hunger and Health Coalition for seven years and has enjoyed laying out the strategic vision to forge new partnerships while adapting to meet the needs of the High Country community. Elizabeth said she is passionate about providing clients at the Hunger and Health Coalition with fresh, locally grown produce. Through a multiple-year initiative, she is supporting local farmers by providing their fruits and vegetables to clients as a part of the organization’s food assistance programs.
“If you’re showing up for your people, you have to do that in a multitude of ways, and we have the privilege of being able to connect our clients with gorgeous produce,” Elizabeth says.
Under Elizabeth’s leadership, a new role recently opened at the Hunger and Health Coalition — mobile delivery program coordinator. Filling that role is Candace Kelling-Salzler, who initially joined the organization as a volunteer before transitioning to a full-time role. Candace uses her skills and her kind and loving personality to help the Hunger and Health Coalition adjust to serving clients unable to leave their homes due to a variety of reasons including COVID-19.
Whether she is working on an exciting new partnership or handling the day-to-day operations of a large-scale food pantry, Elizabeth’s years-long passion to serve her community is evident.
Just beginning her work in the field of combating food insecurity is Gabby Maze an Appalachian State University student, who helps to combat this issue through her job at the Hospitality House of Northwest North Carolina.
Gabby serves as the food service associate at the Hospitality House in Boone, which focuses on serving the homeless and impoverished community in seven North Carolina counties including Watauga, Avery, Ashe and Wilkes.
After beginning as a volunteer, Gabby joined the staff and now works in the kitchen and with the distribution of food boxes. Hospitality House serves three meals a day each day of the year to those in need in the community. Gabby helps coordinate the meals including planning out the specific food that will be served.
When someone arrives at the back door of Hospitality House with a need for a food box from the food pantry, Gabby greets them with a smile on her face and helps put together a box of food to meet their current needs.
Gabby’s passion for her work stems from her love for people and getting to know their stories. As she takes steps to help fight food insecurity in the lives of those she’s serving, she’s seeking to get to know them better and show she cares.
“I absolutely love this place,” Gabby says. “It’s not even just the work I do, but the people that I’ve met. Both staff members and clients have been some of the most genuinely amazing people. When I get to speak to some of the clients, I get to hear some of their stories and it’s just mind-blowing what happened.”
Gabby said she enjoys being able to bless people with more than they ask for when they come to the door in need of food — a special way to show that she and the other staff members care deeply about all the people they serve.
“I do love making the meals and being creative, but my favorite thing to do is when people come and they say they just need one little thing and they don’t mean to bother me, but then I make them this big to-go bags of all different kinds of snacks and sandwiches and treats,” Gabby says. “They’re all such amazing people, and I’m just really thankful to be surrounded by everybody that I’ve met.”
Gabby said she gets to work closely alongside other women at Hospitality House committed to using their skills and passions to feed those in need. Clara Coffey is the garden coordinator/volunteer coordinator, and through her work in the garden, she provides fresh produce to the kitchen while also allowing Hospitality House residents to learn where their food is coming from.
Both Gabby and Clara serve on the Hospitality House team headed by Executive Director Tina Krause.
Tina began working with the organization in August 2011. Starting as the director of services at the time when Hospitality House relocated to a larger facility, Tina saw an 80 percent increase in the food pantry services and a large increase in the number of meals able to be served with a new full kitchen and dining room.
Six years ago, Tina took over as executive director but retained the responsibilities of the director of services so that she could continue investing in the lives of the people she served. She said her “heart really loves the people-side of this work.”
Day in and day out, Tina is encouraging her staff, ensuring programs are running smoothly, sitting in state meetings for homelessness and building relationships with Hospitality House clients.
Tina said since she was a young girl she has been passionate about storytelling. She is able to combine that passion with her work at Hospitality House by “hearing the stories of people, even though many of them are painful and traumatic, (and) watching their journey and watching them get to the point where they’re willing to share bits of their story, building that relationship of trust so that it takes down some of the walls that they’ve built up to protect themselves.”
Tina’s commitment to her Hospitality House clients allows her to see hope renewed in their lives. She says she enjoys “just watching that transformation in people as they get to know you and they realize that you’re not going to be one of those people that leaves them, that you’re going to be a part of their lives for as long as they’ll let you to help them in their steps.”
Through building relationships and connecting people to the programs at Hospitality House, Tina encourages those she speaks with and takes steps to combat food insecurity. Beyond passing out a food box or a warm meal, Tina wants those her team is serving to be filled with dignity. To do this, Tina has surrounded herself with strong women committed to the same mission.
“Many of the women that I’ve served with (are) inspiring,” Tina says. “They come from a place where their heart is looking at the whole person and understanding meeting the basic needs and allowing a person the dignity of having a meal in the same way that we would have it.”
Across the High Country, women are making a difference in the lives of men, women and children. Together we can combat food insecurity. Contact Feed Avery Families, Hospitality House, the Hunger and Health Coalition or Ashe Food Pantry to get involved.