The Sylva Herald, by Jim Buchanan

The grind of dealing with a significant uptick in food need during the coronavirus crisis has led Sylva’s Community Table to take a short break to regroup and prepare for increased needs in coming months.

Paige Christie, the organization’s director, announced last week that the organization would close from Aug. 26-Sept. 2. The Table put out a notice for clients who would have normally had a food box pickup during the closure days to arrange for boxes in advance prior to the closure.

MANNA FoodBank, which serves 16 Western North Carolina counties, including Jackson, reports that even prior to the COVID pandemic, one in seven North Carolinians were struggling with food insecurity.

With the arrival of the pandemic and accompanying economic crash, those numbers have jumped.

MANNA reports that since the pandemic caught fire in mid-March, it has served a record average of 4,034 people each month in Jackson, a jump of 25 percent from pre-COVID distributions. From mid-March through June nearly 236,000 meals have been served in the county, and increased needs are predicted for the coming months.

All told, MANNA distributed 6.9 million meals across WNC in the same timeframe, an increase of 37 percent from the identical period in 2019.

Local providers like The Community Table have received a boost from efforts like Blue Cross NC’s collaboration with Feeding the Carolinas and six food banks across the state to help improve access to fresh produce and perishable food by providing refrigerators and freezers.

The Table has also benefited from a partnership MANNA created with the Katie Button Restaurant group and the World Central Kitchen, an organization out of Asheville that received a grant to put restaurant workers back to work at a fair wage. The venture creates up to 1,500 meals a month for distribution to those in need, with The Community Table receiving 200 meals a week. But despite additional help, The Community Table, running on a skeleton crew, has simply been worn down.

Christie said, “In the early days of the pandemic, we saw an immediate uptick of about 30 percent in use of all our services. Many new people visited us for the first time, mostly young families, or folks who had just been laid off. Once the extra financial assistance kicked in from unemployment, we stabilized at pre-pandemic numbers.”

With the end of the federal emergency relief package at the end of July and no replacement passed by Congress, Christie said “We are seeing a steady rise again, and expect that to continue into the fall and winter. We continue operating on a skeleton crew (two staff and two volunteers). Everything that needs doing, setting up and taking down tents and cones and banners, making supply runs, uploading trucks, sorting food and building boxes, running boxes and meals to vehicles, cooking and packing dinners, etc. is done by this small crew.

“The stress has been enormous, as we are striving to make sure everything that needs to get done gets done well, while keeping ourselves, our families, and our clients safe and healthy,” she said. “We have gotten very used to wearing masks and face shields for hours at a time. In the midst of all this, the support of the community has been mind-blowing. From businesses to individuals, to Eagle Scouts and farmers, we’ve received so much kindness and hard work and financial support that we almost don’t have words to truly express how grateful we are.”

But Christie saw the need for the organization to take a brief break to recharge its batteries and prepare for what appears to be a prolonged crisis.

“We don’t see this terrible health crisis going away anytime soon, and we are doing everything we can to be here for the long haul – including taking some scheduled breaks every couple months in order to be mentally and physically healthy enough to support those in need as we head into winter.”

The Community Table is located at 23 Central St. in Sylva. To learn more go to communitytable.org.