In Highland County, 20.2 percent of residents are estimated to struggle with food security, according to Feeding America.
The estimate was based on data from the 2010 American Community Survey and the 2001 to 2010 Current Population Surveys.
In 2010, that was 8,820 people in Highland County who were food insecure. People who are food insecure, Christi Hauke, the director of social services for Highland County Community Action Organization, Inc. (HCCAO), explained, may not know where their next meal will come from or may worry that, if they have food, that they won’t be able to make that food last.
However, Hauke said that percentage may not accurately represent the number of food insecure Highland County residents.
”With the American Community Survey, a lot of that is just estimates based on small samplings, and oftentimes that data isn’t super accurate for rural communities,” Hauke said. “It gives you a good picture. Each census year, which is coming up again, of course, we get a lot more really good data.”
In November, Hauke said HCCAO proved 350 Highland County households with food assistance.
“That’s a rather high number; that’s a lot of families who are struggling to meet their nutritional needs,” Hauke said.
There are many reasons why a person or family may be food insecure.
“There’s transience attached to some households, where one week there are two people living there; the next week, there may be six,” Hauke said. “In Appalachia, one of our cultures is to support our family, so it’s difficult for someone who’s already on the verge of not being able to meet their own needs to say no to family who also needs help, so that really stretches those resources. It means that, ‘What little bit I have, I’m going to stretch it even further to share with those who I feel are in a worse position than me.’
“Another piece of that food insecurity is families who are stretched in terms of their time and work resources. Mom and dad and maybe an older sibling are out working to just make ends meet while younger children are at home and able to take care of themselves for the most part, but not really able to utilize what food resources may be in the house to create meals that are satisfying and meet their needs, if at all.”
Families who receive food stamps, Hauke said, may appear to make poor purchasing decisions from the perspective of a food secure person, but they do so out of necessity.
“There’s that moment toward the end of a month when a family who receives food stamps does not have enough food still in the house because they typically have one opportunity to go shopping in the month, and they try to get everything that they can, but some things don’t last for the whole month,” Hauke said. “Food insecurity is making purchasing decisions that may not look like good choices to many of us but are the best reasonable choices to them when they have access to resources to purchase the food and get to the store.”
Hauke said these purchases include frozen meals.
“Young kids are being brought up on convenient meals because they tend to be cheaper than fresh products,” Hauke said. “Fresh products don’t last as long as a family needs them to last unless they have the skills, resources and time for canning and freezing. Folks out in the community tend to look down on some of these choices on the first or third of the month when someone purchases what might be deemed as junk food. It’s something that family knows is going to last them for the full month because they’re not going to be able to get back to the store, and they’re not going to have the financial resources to purchase additional items.”
Seniors are currently the most vulnerable to food insecurity, Hauke said, followed by children under 5.
“The group we’re seeing grow that will probably move up in the need category are folks from about age 50 to 60, who are often the ones who have lost jobs through layoffs and downsizing,” Hauke said. “They’re too young to participate in senior programs, but they’re also discriminated against in other areas. Finding additional employment that’s not entry level or minimum wage becomes more challenging as they age despite the laws that are there to protect them. Being able to provide services for that niche group that seems to unfortunately be falling through the cracks is really important.”
But assistance programs are frequently cast in a negative light, which can stop people from getting the assistance they need, Hauke said.
“There’s a perpetuated ideology that to be poor or in poverty means you’ve made bad decisions, or you’re not somehow worthy of dignity and access to the programs. That’s just not the case,” Hauke said. “About 89 percent of the folks we serve are working families. The rest of them are disabled or very young children. It’s difficult to really fight that negative stereotype that’s out there, so it’s important to us to make sure that when someone walks through our door, they’re treated with dignity and respect as well as respect for the resources they’re utilizing just to come to see us: time, transportation and child care.”
HCCAO works with people in what Hauke calls a “holistic approach.”
“When anyone comes in for any service in our department and generally throughout any of the departments in our agencies, they have the opportunity to speak to someone about their situation,” Hauke said. “It’s not just, ‘This is what I need today,’ so we then provide that service to meet that need. We really have conversations with the folks about, ‘Yes, you’re here for this, so tell me what’s been going on,’ that way we can get a good idea of what some of their other needs are or what some of the root causes for the needs are. Then we work to connect them to the more long-term services that really make a better difference for them.”
Within its emergency services department, HCCAO offers services like emergency intervention, crisis stabilization, home energy assistance, financial literacy counseling, default/foreclosure interventions, emergency utility payments, and transportation and food services. Hauke said people who come to HCCAO typically ask for food assistance no matter what other program they may be there for.
HCCAO’s emergency food program provides three meals a day for three days for each member of the household. Meanwhile, HCCAO works to connect them with other services, like food stamps or cash assistance, as well as employment and training to help stabilize them financially.
HCCAO also offers a senior nutrition program.
Though there are some programs, like the senior nutrition program, with waiting lists, Hauke encouraged people who need assistance to contact HCCAO.
She said there are many ways people who are food secure can help community members who are struggling:
Donate — “Any donations to food pantries are extremely helpful because folks who are food insecure do go to food pantries to bridge those gaps,” Hauke said.
Share — “Oftentimes, folks who are food insecure and really struggling are your neighbors, and you may not suspect it,” Hauke said. “Any time you can share that extra you have from your garden or canned items, that’s helpful for folks.”
Mentor — “There are a lot of opportunities in our community for folks who are food secure and financially stable to really be mentors to families who are struggling,” Hauke said. “That’s someone who will support them, be a sounding board for them and a role model who provides examples of what good decisions look like and doing it in a context where you’re valuing the other person’s experiences and the strengths that have carried them as far as they have. Oftentimes, that’s really all someone needs to make a better decision in moving forward.”
For more information about HCCAO’s services, go to hccao.org, call 937-393-3458, or visit their Hillsboro office, located at 1487 N. High St., Suite 500.
Reach McKenzie Caldwell at 937-402-2570.