Food Bank Celebrates 30th Anniversary
Thirty years ago, the Sandhills branch of the Food Bank of Central and Eastern North Carolina opened in Moore County with a mission to ensure that no one in the community goes hungry.
Last Tuesday, about 100 people gathered at the branch’s office and warehouse in Southern Pines to celebrate 30 years’ worth of volunteers, new outreach programs and, most of all, the provision of food to those who would otherwise go hungry in the Sandhills.
Guests enjoyed food and fellowship, along with the music from A New Creation jazz group, while seated in the warehouse loading area. Around them, boxes of food lined shelves as a warm breeze drifted in through the open overhead door more often used for unloading donations.
After its founding in 1980, the food bank opened the Sandhills branch, its first one outside Raleigh, in 1981 to serve Moore County, as well as Lee, Richmond and Scotland counties. The branch opened in a small office and warehouse facility on N.C. 5 in Aberdeen, with a few volunteers trying to get the word out about the food bank as a community resource.
The branch eventually outgrew the facility and moved to its current location, a former electric company building on Sandy Avenue off Pinehurst Avenue in Southern Pines.
During the ceremony, Bud Wallen, a volunteer and former chairman of the food bank’s advisory council, as well as a former member of the nonprofit organization’s board of directors, described the move from the old facility to the much larger warehouse.
“It was kind of like driving a VW Bug (a Volkswagen Beetle) and moving up to a Cadillac,” he said as guests laughed.
Gilbert McGregor recalled volunteering at the food bank in its original location during the early 1980s, doing anything he could to help — cutting grass around the facility, hauling garbage and driving around to local grocery stores to pick up food.
As he stood before guests, the afternoon sun shining on his face, he became emotional as he tried to express his appreciation for the branch.
“It’s beautiful just being back,” he said. “I’ve met so many people here. I always just enjoyed being in and around the food bank.”
McGregor added that since he hasn’t been able to physically work at the food bank recently, he has found other ways to contribute by growing food in his garden and donating it to the branch.
“Even though I am not able to physically do what I used to to, I still want to help out in my own way,” he said. “I feel good. God’s blessing me.”
Paulette Ingram and Bernetta Whitley greeted McGregor after the ceremony.
“Do you remember us?” Ingram asked him.
The three smiled and laughed as they reminisced about “the beginning,” when volunteers didn’t have the luxury of organizing donations on shelves. They had to go “shopping,” as Ingram put it, going through piles of donations to assemble food packages.
“Down there, you just had to find what you could,” Ingram said. “It’s come a long way.”
Whitley added, “We were all like a family. This is like a reunion.”
Ingram and Whitley began volunteering at the branch soon after it opened when their pastor, Theodore Harrington, encouraged members of his congregation in Hamlet to get involved.
Harrington said the food bank was a resource that the area desperately needed.
“To me, it was the greatest thing that could happen,” he said. “It was an outreach. It really does something to me to be able to reach those out there who can’t get [what they need].”
The Sandhills branch has come a long way since its first months on N.C. 5.
Over the years, the branch has grown to serve as a primary resource for Moore County partner agencies, other local nonprofit organizations that provide human services such as the Sandhills/Moore Coalition for Human Care and local food pantries.
It also helps provide outreach services such as BackPack Pals and Snack Pak Pals, weekend food distribution programs for children and senior citizens, as well as Kids Cafe, which feeds children at risk for hunger in after-school programs.
But with the branch’s success has come a greater need from the community.
Michael Cotten, outreach coordinator for the food bank, joined the branch as its director in 2008 and has seen need grow considerably during his tenure.
“Last year, we distributed 4 million pounds [of food] at this branch,” he said. “So it’s quite a change. The need has increased so much.”
Cotten attributes the rise in need to the economic recession, but he adds that Moore County has always had pockets of poverty among its more affluent areas.
“There’s always been that difference in Moore County,” he said. “Some people don’t want to say they put their heads in the sand, but that’s kind of what it amounted to because it doesn’t hit them in the face every day. The realization just hadn’t hit home, but with the economy changing, we’ve seen people from all walks of life be challenged.”
Cotten’s colleague Jessica Ledbetter has been leading a campaign to bring aid to those in need by linking the branch’s partner agencies with off-site facilities, such as housing complexes, to reach “missing links” — people who should seek out a food pantry, but do not know where to go for help or who have no access.
So far, the results look promising. Two weeks ago, the branch delivered 13 pallets of food, including fresh produce, to 200 people living at Brookside Apartments in Southern Pines.
Some of the residents had no idea that they could receive that kind of aid in Moore County.
Ledbetter said the fight to erase hunger is an ongoing battle, regardless of the economy’s strength.
“This is nothing new,” she said. “It’s just highlighting the fact. These people have always been needing this assistance.”
As the branch looks to the next 30 years, outreach and expansion of services to raise community awareness, paired with fundraising, are the main goals in order to locate and address additional “pockets of food insecurity.”
For Cotten and his staff, moving forward will always mean continuing to make sure that no one in Moore County goes hungry.
Contact Hannah Sharpe at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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