Western North Carolina is awash in farms and renowned restaurants, food co-ops and grocery stores, but not everyone reaps the benefits. A study released in April shows that in the past two years, the number of people in Jackson, Swain and Macon counties who aren’t sure when their next meal is has likely doubled, and local agencies and nonprofits are struggling to keep up.


In March 2023, the nonprofit MountainWise, which supports healthy eating and lifestyles in WNC, partnered with local health departments to assess food availability in Swain, Jackson, and Macon counties through its Duke Endowment-funded Healthy People, Healthy Carolinas project. MountainWise enlisted Patrick Baron, an epidemiologist and public health researcher specializing in food systems and community health, to conduct the research.

Focusing specifically on the food-security status of low-income residents, Baron and MountainWise project director Nicole Hinebaugh interviewed representatives from 22 food relief and human services organizations in those three counties about trends in demand and barriers to meeting their communities’ food needs.

The pair then conducted more than 500 surveys of clients of those services about household food security and food access, use of federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits, food pantry usage, mental health related to food security, chronic disease status and access to internet service.

They discovered that overall, use of food pantries within Jackson, Swain and Macon counties had more than doubled since 2022 — evidence, they say, that the total number of food insecure households in this area has also doubled since a 2021 a community health assessment by the WNC Health Network found that more than one in five households in WNC were food insecure. The increases observed in hunger in the last two years were even greater among children included in the research.

Over 85% of the people using food pantries surveyed across the three counties said they sometimes or often don’t have enough food to stave off hunger, with close to 74% of adults saying they’ve skipped meals or cut portions because they lacked money to buy food. Nearly 45% of respondents reported losing weight due to food-access challenges.

Startlingly, these rates represent a substantial increase in the portion of food-insecure people who experience real hunger — when lack of food access begins to impact people physiologically — which averages 30-40% of food-insecure households, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

“For real hunger within food insecurity, usually [a rate of] something like 40% would be high,” says Baron. “But more than 80% of our food-insecure people in our sample are hungry. Wow. That’s crazy. But we have extremely direct evidence of this, and it’s repeated in variable after variable across the counties.”

Careful to reiterate the difference between food insecurity (food access challenges) and hunger (being physically impacted by not having enough food to eat), Hinebaugh says they anticipated higher food insecurity rates since the pandemic but not the sharp rise in hunger.

“It was shocking,” she says. “Previously, when you looked at community health assessments in our region, rates of hunger in these counties are in the single digits. That’s not the case anymore.”

Growing rates of severe food insecurity aren’t isolated to WNC — the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s 2022 Household Food Security in the United States report shows a more than 30% jump between 2021 and 2022 in the number of people nationwide who were having a hard time getting enough to eat. Therefore, Hinebaugh and Baron say, the trends identified in this three-county assessment are likely happening to varying degrees in other WNC counties as well.


Not surprisingly, the assessment also found that the nonprofits and programs working to feed people are struggling to keep up with demand. MANNA FoodBank, the area’s main hunger relief organization distributing food to more than 200 partner agencies across 16 WNC counties, says that between fiscal years 2021-22 and 2022-23, the average number of people it was serving monthly through local pantries increased 25%. This fiscal year, that number is up an additional 18%.

As pandemic-era disaster relief funding has ebbed away, MANNA’s ability to buy food has diminished, says MANNA chief development officer Mary Nesbitt. The organization, she says, is working hard to increase the amount of donated food it receives and projects a 6% increase in food distribution by July. But that may be just a drop in the bucket.

“We are still deeply concerned that the amount of food is not keeping pace with the 18.2% increase in the number of our neighbors who need our support,” says Nesbitt.

Amy Grimes, MANNA’a agency relations manager for seven far-western counties and the Qualla Boundary, calls the situation “heartbreaking” and “frustrating.” The assessment’s results, she says, reflect what she’s seeing and hearing from MANNA’s partner agencies as well as organizations that would like to get food from MANNA.

“We get calls every day from folks wanting to become a partner agency with us, but we’ve kind of had to halt that application process because we’re at capacity with the foods that we have in our own system,” she says.

As pantries strive to feed more hungry people with the same amount of MANNA resources,  they are resorting to desperate measures. “Every two weeks [in between MANNA deliveries], they’ve got a lot of empty shelves, and they are paying out of pocket for retail just to keep things on the shelves and deal with this ever-increasing demand,” Baron says.

With grocery prices up 25% since 2019, according to the USDA, food pantries and community meal providers are feeling the same economic pinch that’s driving the growing hordes of hungry residents to their doors. “It’s all a scramble, and they’re burning through their budgets,” he says.

The Community Table in Sylva, which offers free hot meals four evenings a week and operates a food pantry, has enough staff to meet the new onslaught of demand. “But food costs are through the roof,” says Paige Christie, executive director. “It just makes everything harder. It’s a constant balancing act.”

Christie notes that she’s observed a demographic shift that has accompanied climbing food insecurity over the past three years. While a large number of Community Table clients are still elderly folks living on fixed incomes, the biggest increase comes from working families with children — often two-income families.

“Every time I walk through the building and see who’s in line for the pantry, it just breaks my heart,” she says. “There are people working full time, and they — especially double-income families working full time — should not have to be standing in my doorway.”

Baron and Hinebaugh’s study found that Jackson County has a much higher number of food-insecure families with young children than Macon and Swain — more than 62% of the people surveyed compared with close to 48% in Swain and 44% in Macon, which has the highest percentage of food-insecure senior citizens.

‘Dire straits’

Steep price increases for groceries and other consumer goods since the COVID-19 pandemic is one of multiple sucker punches low-income folks — in WNC and across the U.S. — have taken over the past three years that have made food access challenging, according to Baron, Hinebaugh and all the nonprofit representatives contacted for this story.

Only about 45% of food-insecure residents surveyed by Baron and Hinebaugh were enrolled in SNAP. For those getting SNAP benefits, payments fell by at least $95 per month and up to $250 per month or more in early 2023 when COVID programs ended, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities

“We definitely saw that immediate increase [in need] off that SNAP cliff,” says Grimes. “We saw that success during the pandemic with those extra benefits, and then to have those taken away, that was really, really disappointing.”

But the biggest offender, say pantry directors, is the soaring cost of housing in WNC. In March, the N.C. Housing Coalition reported that statewide, only 40 affordable rental homes were available for every 100 extremely low-income residents. Consequently, 71% of extremely low-income renters in the state spend more than half their household income on housing.

“Housing costs in this area have just put people in dire straits,” says Christie. “People have this idea that because you’re outside the more metro area of Buncombe County that things are cheaper, but they’re really, really not. … People should not have to be working six jobs to keep a roof over their head, but I know people that are. And they’re working part-time jobs, because that’s all they can get, because of our seasonal tourist industry.”

The situation is similarly grim in Swain County, says the Rev. Wayne “Wayner” Dickert, who helps lead food distribution services at Bryson City Food Pantry and Restoration House. “It’s a national trend with the cost of living increasing, and the cost of housing has increased exponentially, especially with Swain County being kind of a tourism place,” he says. “I think housing and food go hand in hand, just basic necessities of life.”

Tim Hogsed, executive director of Macon County CareNet, is seeing the same challenges. Pre-COVID, CareNet’s food pantry and school backpack program distributed about 350,000 pounds of free food to Macon County residents each year, but just four months into 2024, it was on track to distribute 600,000 pounds by year’s end.

Hogsed attributes much of this skyrocketing need to rising housing costs. “It’s ridiculous,” he says. “Macon New Beginnings is in our building, and they deal with helping people with rent and things like power bills. I talk with them regularly, and they were telling me that a single-wide trailer right now in Macon County is like $1,300 to $1,400 a month. And, yes, some people are benefiting from that, but there’s a lot of people who are suffering because of it.”

Stressed and anxious

Also contributing to the problem, the assessment discovered, is limited or nonexistent internet connectivity among the food-insecure residents surveyed. More than 80% of respondents do not have regular, reliable internet access, including smartphones, and nearly 1 in 5 have no internet access or cellphone at all. The lack of connection means these folks have a much harder time accessing information about organizations and programs that could help meet household food needs.

Of course, all of this adds up to negative mental health impacts for the folks dealing with these pressures. More than 4 out of 5 pantry clients surveyed in the assessment shared that they experience frequent stress and anxiety due to their food access challenges. Seven out of 10 respondents said aid programs like SNAP and free and reduced-price school lunches and community food resources like pantries provide some relief from the stress.

FOOD IS LOVE: Cornbread & Roses Community Counseling Executive Director Jennifer Harr, right, understands the mental and emotional strain of food insecurity and takes steps to make clients of her organization’s free food services feel less stressed. Also pictured is volunteer Nancy Martin. Photo courtesy of Cornbread & Roses

It was a growing awareness of the relationship between food access and mental health that prompted Jackson County licensed clinical therapist Jennifer Harr to add food distribution services at Cornbread & Roses Community Counseling in Sylva. After launching in 2021 as a LGBTQI+ community center then expanding into a nonprofit counseling facility in 2022, Cornbread & Roses became a MANNA partner organization to meet the full spectrum of client needs.

“A lot of things started coming up,” says Harr, who is Cornbread & Roses’ executive director. “People were hungry, they needed resources. … Food became a big push for us.”

Cornbread & Roses, which Harr says is now feeding 1,200 people per month and growing, strives to ease the mental and emotional strain of food insecurity not only by providing free food to the community but also by recognizing and eliminating other accompanying stressors. For clients who are homebound or lack transportation, Harr delivers food right to their doors. The organization requires no identification and asks no questions of people who show up to the pantry, and it works to provide culturally appropriate foods to its many Latino clients.

Raising awareness about the nature and scope of the area’s food access challenges, says Harr, would help eliminate the stigma around accepting free food that causes anxiety and shame for many using her services. “It’s not that you’re lazy or don’t take care of your kids or whatever,” she says. “We just want everyone fed because we love everyone.”

Stemming the tide

The assessment makes several recommendations, starting with expanding the community food assessment to other parts of WNC to map food security needs across the region.

Other recommendations include campaigns to expand enrollment in SNAP and the federal supplemental nutrition program for women, infants and children, known as WIC; developing collaboration among community organizations for food buying, storage and distribution; and exploring the connection between food insecurity and other issues such as mental health, lack of internet and smartphone access.

The report also encourages advocacy at the state and federal levels for policies and programs aimed at helping residents at high risk of food insecurity. But Hinebaugh is especially excited about potential efforts at the local level. Using Asheville’s Food Policy Action Plan as a template, she is working with the Jackson and Macon county food councils to begin their own food policy action planning processes.

“Once you have a food policy action plan in place, you get that local government buy-in and the key stakeholder buy-in for the roadmap of what you’re going to focus on, what the priorities are for policy and action moving into the future,” she says.

The WNC Food Systems Coalition, a regional group supporting food systems collaboration and connection, is working to start a food council in Swain County.

Hinebaugh and Baron presented the food assessment results in an April 15 virtual meeting of the MountainWise Partnership for Health Coalition. At the end of the two-hour call, the group of nearly three dozen WNC nonprofit and health professionals, public health department staff, farmers, funders and concerned community members discussed next steps.

Many echoed Harr’s sentiments about raising awareness about the crisis and reducing the stigma around food insecurity. Other priorities included collaboration among stakeholders to develop food hubs, support of the new Macon County Farmers Market in Franklin, and expanding and replicating successful efforts like MountainWise’s Swain-Macon Produce Rx program, which delivers boxes of fresh, locally grown food to food-insecure households.

Baron says this assessment is just the beginning. “There’s a lot we can do just with what we know now that we didn’t know six months ago,” he says. “But longer term, this really becomes a road map for strategic investment, and there are definite returns on that investment.”

He points out that with nearly 87% of assessment respondents not receiving adequate nutrition, and 75% having a diet-related disease or chronic illness, healthy food programs that could potentially reverse diabetes and heart disease can have a significant economic impact.

“If 30% of the people who were going to become diabetic over the next 10 years don’t, there’s a huge savings to be realized in that, both socially and on an individual consumer level. And most definitely, for programs like Medicaid and companies like Blue Cross Blue Shield,” he says.

To view the Community Food Assessment of Jackson, Swain and Macon Counties Report, visit avl.mx/dpa.

Specially written for MountainWise
Author: Gina Smith