TRENTON — As Rose Strayhorn-Bell stepped inside the Disaster Recovery Food Pantry on the Tuesday before Thanksgiving, she peeled a yellow school visitor sticker off her blouse.
Hurricane Florence’s floodwaters caused severe damage to Strayhorn-Bell’s home in Pollocksville, and she’s been living with her mother in Trenton since returning to Jones County 11 days after the storm. Strayhorn-Bell likened her change in living situations to “moving out of the large can into the sardine can.” Substitute teaching is part of her effort to move back out.
“I’m just here to wish everybody a happy Thanksgiving,” Strayhorn-Bell said, greeting the volunteers sitting around folding tables set up to make a U-shape around the room.
From behind a pile of bags of Coco-Roos cereal, Rebecca Baines Cisse, who oversees the pantry, said, “You’re not going to pick anything up today?”
“If I do, I’ll probably pick up more cereal,” Strayhorn-Bell said. But after making her way around the tables, Strayhorn-Bell carried two plastic grocery bags, one laden with canned goods.
The Food Bank of Central & Eastern North Carolina’s Trenton pantry, the first of its kind set up by the food bank itself, represents one of many efforts throughout the state to address the lingering effect Hurricane Florence is having on food security. While about 720,000 people received temporary disaster food benefits in the three months following Florence, state and federal programs addressing food security often are geared toward the immediate aftermath of a disaster, not the long-term recovery.
That has left a mixture of nonprofits, volunteers and officials trying to fill holes the storm blew through pocketbooks, even as survivors scramble to save every dime to rebuild. The Food Bank distributed 15 million pounds of food, water and supplies for disaster relief in the first year after Florence, according to a report from the nonprofit. And Natalie Johnston launched the Pender Food Project after Florence, cooking donated food in her home kitchen and delivering meals to families living in rural areas around Burgaw.
“The more nourishment people get, the more motivated they are to tackle the really difficult tasks of fighting for insurance, fighting for contractors to (fix) their homes (and) fighting with the county for permits,” Johnston said. “Food as a good baseline is so key.”
Food bank in a trailer
The corner of Jones and Cherry streets in downtown Trenton seems at first blush like the traditional hub of small-town life. A Realo drugstore stands on the northeast corner, a BB&T bank on the southeast corner. In at least two directions, someone staring hard enough can see steeples peeking over the trees.
On the southwest corner of this intersection, on a bare piece of land behind a slim, two-story building, sits the trailer that houses the Food Bank’s disaster pantry. The Food Bank owns and supplies the pantry, the land it sits on is owned by Trenton Baptist Church and it is staffed by volunteers from Bryant Chapel AME Zion Church in nearby Cove City.
During October, a Food Bank official said, the pantry served 3,000 families. On its slowest day since opening after Florence, the pantry served 36 families.
Jessica Whichard, a Food Bank spokeswoman, wrote, “We’ll continue this for as long as our network of partner agencies tell us the need is there.”
Strayhorn-Bell typically visits on Tuesdays, occasionally making another stop later in the week.
“It depends upon what my menu at home is, how much I use. I don’t come every day just to get stuff and store it,” Strayhorn-Bell said, adding she tries to stretch the food.
Strayhorn-Bell has lived in Jones County for her entire life. Now, as she plans her future, she’s not sure whether she wants to return to Pollocksville. Ideally, Strayhorn-Bell said, her next home will be accessible for her husband, who has been living in a Pollocksville nursing home since suffering a stroke before Florence.
For those who remain displaced, like Strayhorn-Bell, a trip to the food pantry means energy to plot the next steps in a prolonged recovery, as well as the savings to afford them.
“If I can get the food, that’s my strength,” Strayhorn-Bell said. “That gives me the opportunity to sit down, try to strategize, make plans and things like that — how to do other things, how to go about getting out of there, trying to get money to get into my own place. I won’t have to take that to buy food, I can be trying to save.”
Food insecurity lingers
According to the federal Office of Disease Prevention, food insecurity is defined as the disruption of food intake because of lack of money or resources, potentially causing hunger. In Louisiana and Mississippi after Hurricane Katrina, researchers found that food insecurity among those who were forced to move by the storm was significantly higher than the state average in the following years.
The study, headed by Lauren Clay of D’Youville College in Buffalo, N.Y., found that food insecurity was higher among women, those in poor physical health, those in poor mental health and those with low social support.
Clay’s team also performed a study in New Bern after Hurricane Florence, conducting interviews immediately after the storm and again six weeks, four months and one year later. Interview subjects included local farmers, retail food stores, agencies responding to the disasters, and people affected by the storm.
According to a paper Clay’s team published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, Florence’s impact on food security in New Bern was not limited to those homes that suffered significant damage. For families with limited financial resources, a power outage or using savings to evacuate could cause food insecurity.
In North Carolina, food security efforts in the aftermath of a storm include emergency food and water supplied by N.C. Emergency Management and FEMA. Those efforts can then extend to mobile feeding stations set up by volunteer groups; if there is a federal individual assistance declaration, longer-term efforts such as the Disaster Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (D-SNAP) come into play.
A North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services spokeswoman said the agency accepted its last round of D-SNAP applications for Florence on Nov. 9, 2018, but noted that local food banks and pantries can offer aid.
Clay said nonprofits and other agencies that supply food described a persistent need long after Florence, while local emergency management officials typically believed the situation had improved. That wasn’t necessarily surprising, Clay added, as emergency management officials are typically focused on getting a community functioning post-disaster, while community organizations try to meet needs such as food.
“We need to shift to thinking about how we can build resilience and better plan for food so in the future, during subsequent events, families can plan better,” Clay said.
The Trent River at Trenton crested at 29.28 feet on Sept. 17, 2018, a record high for a river that reaches flood stage at 14 feet. Standing in downtown Trenton last week, Audrey Ervin recalled that records in the bank and pharmacy were destroyed in the flood and that her church suffered heavy damage.
Ervin has been retired for about a year, but has spent much of that time helping people around Jones County recover from Florence, including volunteering at the food pantry. Many in the area are still homeless, Ervin said, and others are living in homes without appliances such as freezers and stoves.
“They need help,” Ervin said. “They just cannot pay to get back in their homes at this time. Once they get in and start kind of living the life or getting back where they were, then we can kind of maybe see the food source go down some. But right now, it’s not lightening up. They’re really in need, desperately, of food.”
Rebecca Baines Cisse and her husband, Ibrahim Cisse, have overseen the disaster pantry since February. Like other food agencies, meat is one of the most popular items the pantry provides. Boost, the supplemental nutrition drink, is also in demand.
When people visit the pantry, Baines Cisse said, “They don’t just leave with one or two cans. We try to stock them up so that they can feel good.”
Baines Cisse stressed that by picking up food at the pantry, families with already stretched incomes can better save for repairs to their damaged homes. That’s particularly important in Jones County, where the U.S. Census’ American Community Survey estimates the median income at $37,526, well below North Carolina’s statewide median of $50,320.
Baines Cisse added that she’s heard that when those who are displaced arrive at the homes they’re sharing with friends or family members carrying a load of groceries, it can help create good will.
“They’re at least trying to show that, ‘We’re trying to get back where we were, and we’re also offering help to the people that are providing us with living accommodations,’ ” Baines Cisse said.
In New Bern, Abundant Life Community Services Inc. is among the food bank’s partners.
Hazel Royal, the nonprofit’s director, has long worked to address food insufficiency in the city’s Duffyfield neighborhood, where the agency and the church that house it are based. Duffyfield was hit hard by Florence, with every house behind the church still empty.
Many have moved out of the neighborhood, Royal said, sometimes leaving the city entirely.
“Even if you get social aid, that’s a process, and so you have to go through the process of getting your feet back on the ground again. ... Normally, if you move, there’s a cost to it, and then if you make an unplanned, unexpected move the financial hardship is even more,” Royal said.
After the storm, Royal added, Abundant Life offered trauma workshops to address mental health and the stress, as well as free childcare and a meal for kids while their parents worked to determine their families’ next steps.
Royal said Abundant Life gets daily calls from people looking for food.
A final delivery
About 76 miles south, Johnston of the Pender Food Project learned how to manage large-scale cooking and delivery on the fly, focusing on rural parts of the county off N.C. 53.
Before Florence, many in the area were either struggling with food security or just getting by. After Florence caused severe flooding, destroying homes, Johnston said, the food security situation was “100 times worse.”
“There is absolutely no food security at all, whatsoever,” Johnston said. “There is a zero public transportation, there are no cabs, no Ubers, there are zero corner stores, no grocery stores. Where people live, they’d have to go 10 to 15 miles away to get to a grocery store.”
This weekend, after 15 months of 80- to 90-hour weeks, Johnston is making the Pender Food Project’s final daily delivery. A grant she received through the federal government will expire that day, and Johnston needs to make a living.
Two months ago, seeing the end coming, Johnston started working with people she routinely delivers to on plans for how they’ll get food once daily deliveries end. Johnston intends to deliver groceries monthly, but is concerned that those living in tents or campers won’t have any place to store supplies.
“It’s been the biggest inner argument I’ve ever had,” Johnston said about the decision to stop. “I’ve done this for 15 months and nobody else has, and I need to be proud and thankful, but part of me feels horrible for stopping. ... I know they’re smart and resilient people and they’re going to find their way, but I’m worried.”