This year’s Thanksgiving at Deborah Gregory’s house will feature a traditional turkey, mac and cheese, green beans, stuffing, and three different kinds of pies.
But she wasn’t sure whether she was going to have anything on the table a couple of months ago.
She just started going to local food pantry Loaves & Fishes distribution sites this fall in Charlotte, like many people across the country forced into food insecurity because of the pandemic.
Food banks everywhere have seen a huge increase in demand since the coronavirus swept the country in March, and many of the visitors are newcomers, like Deborah. As the holiday season continues, food pantries across the country are experiencing, in some cases, miles-long lines.
North Carolina is one of the country’s hungriest states, and in Mecklenberg County, about 15% of families experience food insecurity every year — a number that continues to climb as the pandemic progresses.
Tina Postel, executive director of Loaves & Fishes, said though their data indicate that the number of Latinx people needing their services has nearly tripled since the pandemic’s start, Black clients continue to use the pantry in large numbers — the demographic they usually serve most often. According to USDA data, 19.1% of Black households experienced food insecurity in 2019, more than double the households of white Americans.
Before the pandemic, Gregory’s fridge was always full, her pantry always stuffed.
The mother and grandmother said cooking and eating is a big part of her family’s life. In years before, Gregory said the family has been “comfortable” and rarely worried about putting food on the table. And for years, she has been known for opening her door to hungry people, strangers and neighbors alike.
But since March, she’s had to cut back and focus on bills instead of groceries, and she has had to turn somewhere for help herself.
Her daughter’s cleaning business, her source of income, has slowed during the pandemic, and the two often pool their resources for groceries. While Dominique Brevard, her daughter, has been going to Loaves & Fishes food sites for the past year, Gregory started going just a few months ago for the first time.
“We just couldn’t do things like we used to,” she said. “The pandemic put a major shutdown on the family.”
Postel said need has only continued to increase, and the food pantry has seen an influx of first-time visitors. She thinks it’s likely because of financial instability because of job loss due to the pandemic’s impact.
“People who were gainfully employed are now being laid off at no fault of their own,” she said. “There’s just so many people who have had positions eliminated and hours cut, and it’s really fueling a lot of first-timers.”
Postel said the pantry runs almost entirely on cash and food donations from locals.
People who were donating before the pandemic are now turning to the pantry for food for their own families, and while those clients are often embarrassed, they shouldn’t be, she said.
“It’s such a struggle for folks who have always been on the giving end,” she said. “It’s so much harder to be on the receiving end.”
Because of increased need, the pantry has shifted its operations to accommodate more people. They’re now delivering food in addition to their drive-up mobile food pantries, which require a referral to use, and “food share” sites, which allow people to pick up fresh produce without a referral.
Postel said although people are hungry year-round, the pantry sees an influx of visitors every year around the holidays. Last year, they distributed about 1,000 turkeys. This year, Postel said they prepared for higher demand and bought 500 more.
They ran out within four days.
“There are so many people who just want to put a decent meal on their table during the holidays,” she said. “Nobody wants to skip meals at Thanksgiving or go to bed hungry or not take seconds. Every family, even if they’re struggling, wants to put a warm, hearty meal on their table.”
And Deborah is feeding more than just the five people in her home.
The front porch of Gregory’s home in west Charlotte is often dotted with bright produce.
Because the food that Gregory and her daughter receive is often more than they need, they band together and give their extra groceries away — either leaving them outside for people to come pick up or they sit in her driveway and pass them out.
And for those who are homebound or can’t leave their house, she and her daughter drop off the food directly.
“I’m blessed that we are able to do this,” Gregory said. “It feels great.”
Gregory said that when she was growing up, her mother was always cooking for her neighbors and trying to give back whenever she could.
“That was instilled in me because that was the way I was raised. In our home, we were always reaching out,” she said. “We’re used to giving back. No matter what we bring in, we try to break it out and divide it.”
She went to a food site run by Loaves & Fishes to pick up groceries on Tuesday and distributed them to several families the morning before Thanksgiving. She said one woman she delivered to just had hip surgery, and she was in tears when she got her food.
“She wasn’t able to walk to the store due to COVID and just having surgery,” Gregory said. “I told her, ‘That’s what I’m here for.’”
Brevard estimates she and her mother have fed a total of 25 families and nearly 100 people since September. Instead of calling them “groceries,” Brevard calls the food she picks up “blessings.”
“It’s a beautiful feeling,” she said. “It’s overwhelming.”
Postel said although she can’t see much of her clients’ faces at food pickup sites because of precautionary masks, their eyes tell her enough.
“You can just see it in their eyes, the amount of overwhelming relief,” she said. “They don’t have to worry about feeding their family for the next week, and you can’t put words to that.”
Gregory said she wasn’t sure how she was going to feed her family this Thanksgiving, and she’s grateful for the support she’s received. And she plans to pay it forward.
All that food her family’s cooking — the turkey, pies, and everything else — is for anyone who needs it.
“We’re just fixing it,” she said. “And whoever comes by can come on by.”