Nonprofit Edition: YMCA of WNC
As an increasing percentage of our local community struggles to put food on the table, local nonprofits have stepped up to it, meeting the challenge of keeping our communities filled and fulfilled. Cory Jackson, Executive Director of Community Health at the YMCA of Western North Carolina, speaks to the adaptations and impact of the org on food security in our region.
Q: Tell us a bit about how the YMCA adapted to COVID in the early days of the pandemic, and how those adaptations have evolved in the past two to three months.
Y: As soon as the Y voluntarily decided to close its wellness facilities in mid-March, our association mobilized to expand our emergency relief efforts. In addition to providing childcare for working families, we also met urgent food security and health equity needs.
Our community health work in food outreach began seven years ago, and we now offer 32 monthly produce markets and nutrition programming across the region. Thanks to generous donations, these farmers market-style distributions are free to our neighbors in WNC with no questions asked. We made the decision early on during the pandemic to keep all these markets but to offer pre-packed bags. This switch meant a large number of volunteers and staff had to prepare the bags in advance and distribute them directly to the public.
As part of our feeding program, we have historically provided a nutritious “super snack” to our network of after school sites across Buncombe and McDowell counties. Once the stay at home order was issued, we had to adapt this program. We rallied several sites across Buncombe County to do a dinner service in tandem with Buncombe County Schools, which was providing breakfast and lunch. Volunteers and staff assembled these meals at the Asheville YMCA and sent them out to a large network of meal sites.
We did this for several weeks but eventually needed to operationalize to a more sustainable service. Fortunately for us, we were able to connect with Marta Santamaria, owner of The Venue catering and event space in downtown Asheville. She graciously opened her doors for meal preparation. We were there until the last week of May, when we pivoted to our summer feeding program for six YMCA day camp sites. We were thrilled to secure catering contracts with three local vendors, two of which are owned by minorities. At these sites, kids will receive free breakfast and lunch each day and their healthy meals will include locally sourced food.
Finally, Wicked Weed Brewing invited us to participate in a collaborative effort with their team and Food Connection to deliver catered meals from Cultura. Within that partnership, we have been able to serve 5,000 meals a week to local seniors, first responders, veterans, and shelter residents.
Photos courtesy YMCA of Western North Carolina
Q: Food security is always a crucial initiative, but even more so in this era. How has the YMCA reacted to the needs of our community in terms of access to food?
Y: As mentioned, we maintained all our market sites and quickly mobilized several new meal sites in the community. The YMCA of Western North Carolina has been heavily involved in this work for years. We were pioneers of the mobile food distribution concept in 2013, so it was only natural that we could adapt quickly to meet community needs during the COVID-19 crisis.
One significant change we implemented was to place a higher priority on sourcing local food. We’ve always supported local farmers, but COVID-19 forced us to rethink our level of commitment. Over the past three months, we’ve purchased all our food from local farmers and growers. We typically receive a good deal of donated food products, often from large co-packing facilities in Florida, but often that product is unpredictable and requires a lot of time to sort. By investing donated funds in local farmers, we’re supporting the local economy as well as our neighbors at community markets.
Q: What has been the impact of those reactions?
Y:As of May 31, we had served a total of 138,322 pounds of healthy produce to 9,385 families and had delivered 37,309 meals through our feeding programs and Wicked Weed partnership. For perspective, during the entire 2018-19 program year we served a total of 250,000 pounds of produce.
The community response has been tremendous. Market attendance has increased dramatically, especially from the Hispanic community. Everyone who comes to our markets is anxious but thankful to have a steady source of healthy food during these unprecedented times.
Over the past 11 weeks, staff and volunteers have contributed more than 2,500 hours helping to pack bags, operate meal sites, and support markets. The in-kind value of their efforts is $63,575. This has been such a wonderful surprise, especially when the pandemic has caused a downtick in volunteer support elsewhere.
Q: Do you anticipate these adaptations will be incorporated into programming moving forward?
Y:As our community settles into Phase 2 of reopening, we’re making a few operational changes.
Effective June 1, people can pick out which foods they would like at markets again. In order to ensure safety, we are:
- Arriving early to mark lines for six feet of social distance
- Highly recommending masks and providing them to those who would like one
- Providing gloves for those who would like to wear them
- Assisting in spraying hand sanitizer on everyone’s hands before they choose food
We’ll also be closing some of our open meal sites and switching gears to our summer day camp locations. As mentioned earlier, we’re excited to partner with three local businesses to provide food for day campers at local schools. (Please see vendor details below.) Not only is this a huge win for our camp families because local food is being served, it’s also a win for our local economy because our state reimbursement dollars go directly to small businesses in the area.
About our summer feeding program vendors:
- Chef Clarence Robinson (Oakley and Avery’s Creek): With his business, Cooking with Comedy Catering, Robinson meshes his A-B Tech culinary training and a decade of back-of-house restaurant experience with a natural propensity for clowning around to craft a kid-friendly and nutritious camp menu.
- Chef Gene Ettison (Sand Hill-Venable and Reynolds Middle): The Ettison Investment Group is a business hyper-focused on entry-level job training for Buncombe County’s residents in underserviced communities. The partnership with the YMCA has provided consistent employment for veterans, mothers, and recent high school graduates.
- Chef Aaron Mathews (Pleasant Gardens, Marion): A family-owned downtown restaurant (McDowell Local) with a simple goal: provide friends, family, and neighbors with a relaxed dining experience that keeps folks coming back. They aim to bring customers fresh and tasty food, using locally-sourced ingredients whenever possible.