Carrboro Commons

Unsetting a TABLE of hunger

Posted on March 3rd, 2011 in Carrboro children,Food,TABLE by jock

By Michael Bloom

Carrboro Commons Staff Writer

About 90 elementary school children’s lives changed in 2008.

UNC volunteers at the hunger relief organization TABLE in Carrboro check locally grown potatoes for freshness (Photo by: Michael Bloom).

They no longer had to go hungry on the weekends. They now had a program that would bring fresh food directly to them.

All they had to do was go to an after-school program and pick up a backpack.

“When I would show up on Friday the kids would scream, ‘Oh, here comes the backpack lady,’” said Leighann Breeze, associate director at the Carrboro-based hunger relief organization, TABLE.

Now in its fourth year, the nonprofit volunteer service packs loaner backpacks for children from low-income families in the Chapel Hill-Carrboro school district weekly. Many of these students eat reduced price or free meals at school and rely on TABLE to feed them on weekends.

Every Friday, UNC-Chapel Hill student volunteers and community members drop off hundreds of pounds of food to elementary schools and apartment complexes in the district, feeding underprivileged children who would have had difficulty finding food elsewhere.

“We put food directly in the hands of kids so they don’t have to go through anybody else. And we guarantee they get the food they need,” said Breeze.

Breeze said TABLE is unique in that it provides children with local organic produce and non-perishables that would be difficult to attain elsewhere. She said there are plenty of opportunities in the community with food pantries and soup kitchens for children to be fed, but said kids are at a disadvantage because they have no control over whether their parents make use of those resources.

Breeze said TABLE gets permission from parents to supply their children with goods.

“Twenty-four percent of Chapel Hill families are living below the poverty line. That shows you that there is this huge gap — there are a lot of ‘have-nots’ and then there are very few that have a whole lot,” she said. “And so TABLE works to link the two together and have one provide for the other.”

UNC student volunteers carry bins full of food to multiple destinations around the Chapel Hill and Carrboro communities for underprivileged children (Photo by: Michael Bloom).

Breeze said the program is hands-off for the children and does not interrupt their daily routines. They just go to their regularly scheduled afterschool program and pick up a backpack. She said receiving food in backpacks, instead of grocery bags, gives children a greater sense of privacy. She said the best part is that the children do not have to travel to get them.

TABLE delivers to the Abbey Court, Trinity Court, Pritchard Park and Dobbins Hill apartments, the South Estes Farmers’ Market and various elementary schools. Food is sorted throughout the week in bins that UNC students deliver on their own time with their own vehicles. TABLE has about five to eight volunteers a day.

The “Weekend Backpack Project,” as it is called, supplies children with canned meat, vegetables, fruit, juice boxes, packaged breakfast food, snacks — like crackers and peanut butter — noodles and local organic produce. The menus alternate weekly so the children can get a variety of nutrients.

“It’s a fun way to eat healthy foods and get more exposure to healthy eating habits so when they [the children] grow up they will enjoy eating healthy, colorful foods,” said Monica Heiser, a UNC sophomore from Chapel Hill. Heiser has volunteered with TABLE since she was a freshman in 2009.

With TABLE’s newly installed “Farm to Table” program, local farmers donate excess fruits and vegetables to the relief. Breeze said they received a grant this year from BlueCross BlueShield of North Carolina to get lower-income families to practice healthier eating habits. She said the grant has gone a long way.

One of the farming associations is Eastern Carolina Organics (ECO) located in Pittsboro. Operations manager Todd Dumke said the amount of dollars spent on fresh food is declining and would like to see more people educated on the importance of sustainable agriculture. ECO provides TABLE with an array of locally grown produce.

“I think aside from the obvious nutritional value from getting fresh produce to more needy families, I think there’s a lot of benefit in the fact that it’s locally grown,” said Dumke. “And it’s important from the aspect that along the lines we are educating folks.”

Dumke said this has been a good outlet for both sides. He said there is a tax benefit for growers, but the impact they are making on the community stretches further. Heiser said getting donations from local farmers adds a unique tie because it is now a full circle operation.

Breeze said TABLE gets exterior donations from dozens of other groups. She said community members, churches, entire neighborhoods and apartment complexes contribute. She said other local elementary schools with community service clubs at the fourth and fifth-grade levels and birthday party donation drives also supply TABLE with non-perishables they need.

“We’ve really been fortunate in that we haven’t had to go out and buy food or run to the food bank because we’ve run out,” she said. “People have been generous and do take care of us.”

Breeze said the largest donations she has seen in her four years of service have come from the organization People Offering Relief for Chapel Hill-Carrboro Homes — or simply PORCH. She said their most recent donation was 2,200 pounds of food. TABLE gives out about 300 pounds of food per week, so 2,200 pounds goes fast, Breeze said.

TABLE director Joy MacVane said the relief has grown much faster than expected. She said she is surprised how much the kids actually enjoy the food because she initially thought it would be difficult for them to enjoy organic produce.

Locally grown turnips are ready to go (Photo by: Michael Bloom).

“Now kids often say to me, ‘What did the farmer bring us this week?’ And it’s so rewarding to hear that,” she said.

The relief is also an advocate of community. Besides supporting locally grown produce, TABLE encourages UNC and local high school students to volunteer and allow the students to sign-off on volunteer hours.

“The fact that TABLE is located in Carrboro is awesome because it’s such a tight-knit community,” said Heiser. “The locals are the ones that are just as intimately involved with this organization as the people who run it.”

Although they help hundreds, TABLE is a small organization. With no full-time and only a handful of part-time employees, the organization relies on volunteers to help keep the effort afloat.

But it’s the volunteers who like doing the dirty work.

“There’s just something you feel about being able to connect with the kids even though you can’t really see them. But you know the food you’re putting in each bag is contributing to their health and well-being,” said Mazare Rogers, a senior at UNC. She is in her fourth semester volunteering with TABLE.

A veteran at TABLE, Rogers said she loves meeting new volunteers as she councils them on how the effort works. She said TABLE’s best assets are the UNC volunteers.

“We’re all young so it’s like we’re growing with the program year by year,” Rogers said.

And as for its name, Breeze said TABLE is not an acronym for anything.

“We wanted to find a place for everyone at the table,” she said. “And I think that’s were it got drawn in.”

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