The mission of CORA, the Chatham Outreach Alliance, is to provide food to individuals and families within the community who are in need during difficult personal economic periods. This week, we speak …
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The mission of CORA, the Chatham Outreach Alliance, is to provide food to individuals and families within the community who are in need during difficult personal economic periods. This week, we speak with Melissa Driver Beard, CORA’s executive director, about growth and changes in the organization’s work.
Driver Beard has been working in the nonprofit sector for nearly 30 years at local, state, national and international levels. After working for many years in developing countries, she made the decision to address the issues of poverty and hunger closer to home and began her work with CORA in 2019. Beard is a North Carolina native, a UNC graduate, a self-proclaimed “travel addict” and proud mom.
Let’s start with the new building. What can you tell us about it, how it will be utilized and how it fits within your growth plans?
This year, thanks to overwhelming support from our community, our new building is finally under construction. The new 2,800 square-foot building will sit adjacent to the existing food pantry and will serve as both a food warehouse and pantry.
The new building will double our current space to store food. This larger space will allow us to streamline operations, and more safely and effectively provide the maximum level of support for CORA’s programs. We are excited to have a place to store pallets of food and a forklift. The new warehouse will enable faster food transport, efficient storage and the ability to handle greater inventory.
The new building will also greatly enhance our pantry operations. The pantry will be much larger, almost double in size, and allow for a more pleasant shopping experience. The space will have freezers, refrigerators, shelving and produce bins that will display a wide variety of food and other products from which families can choose. We envision the new space as an enhancement to our choice model that will provide a welcoming experience designed to promote shopping for fresh, healthy food.
How will your existing building be re-purposed?
Although CORA is getting a new building that will serve as both a warehouse and pantry, the organization will need to re-purpose our existing building to better serve those facing food insecurity and poverty in our community. Each year we serve over 15,000 individuals in Chatham County. CORA is committed to serving nutritious food in a welcoming community space that brings people together to grow, cook, share and advocate for healthy food.
We want to create a spacious reception area in which families can comfortably talk, share recipes and receive nutrition information while they wait to shop in the pantry. CORA can serve more than 80 families a day and wait times may fluctuate. It is our plan to establish a warm, friendly environment for all of our shoppers — even the little ones! We intend to set up a safe and fun area where children can play, read or just relax with their families. We also envision the creation of a welcoming space where people can connect with one another, receive support services and nonprofit resources. Our holistic approach to helping those facing food insecurity will include the following:
• Nutrition classes and cooking lessons to expand tastebuds and help families make healthier food choices
• Life skills classes that will serve as building blocks and strategies to help people move out of poverty
• Volunteer opportunities to reduce social isolation and build relationships within the community
• Community spaces for meetings and additional administrative offices to accommodate organizational growth
We’ve spoken a lot in the last year about the increased demand for CORA’s services. What’s the latest on that subject?
Last year at this time we saw a huge increase in demand for our services. In February 2020, prior to the pandemic, CORA was serving on average 185 families per week. In March and April 2020, we were serving approximately 275 families a week. That is a 49% increase. In May and June 2020, we saw service numbers normalize as families received assistance from stimulus checks, enhanced unemployment benefits, increased SNAP benefits and the (P-EBT) program for families whose children normally receive free and reduced-cost lunch at school.
However, as time has passed, we have seen the numbers level off a bit. In recent months, we have reverted back to our pre-pandemic service levels, averaging 185 families per week.
Due to a change in our service policy that now allows for up to 24 visits per year, families are visiting CORA more often. And thanks to generous donors of both food and funds, we are distributing more food than ever. We expect to serve more than 1.9 million meals this year. However, for us, the most important thing is that CORA is fulfilling 100% of requests for assistance and exploring new and creative ways to reach those facing food insecurity in our community.
You’re expanding CORA’s Mobile Market from once to twice per month. What has driven this change?
Roughly 25% of the families who visit CORA cite transportation as a barrier to receiving our service. Many families borrow vehicles from friends or family and carpool. In order to overcome this barrier to service, CORA launched a Mobile Market in Siler City in October 2019. Approximately 50% of CORA’s clients live in Siler City and more than 60% live in the western part of the County. The lower-income areas in western Chatham County are home to several food deserts. By operating our Mobile Market in Siler City, the disparity in access to fresh, healthy foods is reduced. Using our truck, we set up the monthly “markets” to distribute food to members of our community.
Since launching the pilot phase of our Mobile Market in October of 2019, CORA has served an additional 178,500 meals to 8,500 people, many of whom are new to CORA. The Mobile Market has proven to be an effective model. We expanded the program from once a month to twice monthly in January 2021. The second Mobile Market rotates to strategic points around the county where food insecurity is the greatest and will specifically target areas of need in the northern part of the county. In the first three months of 2021, CORA’s second Mobile Market served 539 individuals more than 11,000 meals through this expansion.
The COVID-19 pandemic has created other changes for you as well, including operationally. What can you share about delivery of your services in terms of changes in curbside work?
As a temporary measure, while we navigate through the COVID-19 pandemic, we have restructured our direct service strategy. The client intake process is conducted outside, and clients receive their groceries curbside in a drive-through manner. We are distributing pre-packed bags of shelf-stable food including canned fruits and vegetables, rice or pasta, soups, breakfast cereal or cereal bars and a variety of other nutritious food. We supplement these staples with fresh produce, bakery items, milk and eggs. Our client service hours have also changed to 10 a.m. to 1 p.m., Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Each person receives enough food for breakfast, lunch and dinner for 21 meals each time the pantry is visited. This year we have expanded the number of visits from six to 24 times per year.
With these changes we have learned that some families enjoy the convenience of curbside. We hope to offer various different services when the new building is complete, including choice shopping, grab and go groceries and maybe even concierge style service.
Summer’s not too far away, which means the start of your annual SNACK! Program. What will it look like this summer, and how can families participate?
In Chatham County, approximately 50% of public school children receive free or low-cost meals through the federal school lunch program because their family income is at or near the poverty level. More than 4,450 school children in Chatham County won’t have adequate replacements for these meals during the summer of 2021. SNACK!’s goal is to increase the accessibility of nutritious meals to food-insecure Chatham County children during the summer by providing each participating child 21 nutritious meals each week mid-June through mid-August.
In 2021, SNACK! will be modified in response to challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic.
• Client identification and enrollment: Families with children who receive free or reduced lunch are notified about SNACK! through Chatham Public School and partner agencies. Families enroll their children online or in person to receive food from their choice of eleven distribution sites located throughout the county.
• Food Distribution: SNACK! runs from mid-June to mid-August for 10 weeks. With input from Chatham County’s Feeding Coordinator, Chatham Health Alliance and Chatham County Schools, we will have identified 11 distribution sites based on their proximity to the greatest need in the community. Due to social distancing guidelines, we will distribute food curbside in pre-packed boxes.
• The Food: Children will get enough food for 21 nutritionally-balanced meals and snacks each week during summer break. This includes fresh local produce, shelf-stable foods and proteins.
If people are interested in registering for SNACK!, they can visit www.corafoodpantry.org/our-work/snack/ or pick up a registration form at our office or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
More than half of the food CORA distributes has been donated. Tell us about those donations and how your efforts to solicit donations is going?
We have been very fortunate to have a committed community supporting our efforts to feed those in need. We have expanded our PORCH communities from 19 to 24 in the past year. PORCH is an all-volunteer, grassroots hunger relief organization whose mission is to collect and distribute food to hungry families. PORCH Chatham provided CORA more than 89,000 pounds of food last year for distribution. You can find out more about PORCH at https://porchcommunities.org/chatham.
In addition, the Food Bank of Central and Eastern N.C., grocery stores, churches, organizations, businesses and schools donate food to CORA each month. So far this year we have received 630,000 pounds of food. If you would like to host a food drive and participate, visit https://www.corafoodpantry.org/ways-to-give/donate-food/.
What are CORA’s biggest needs right now, and how can people help?
As we get ready for SNACK! this summer, we are hosting a SNACK! Food Drive in May. We are asking people to help in three distinct ways.
• Organize a food drive and collect soup, canned vegetables, canned chicken, and individually wrapped snacks (granola bars, raisins, pretzels, etc.).
• Register for our Virtual Food Drive. No food drive bins. No food drive trucks. No visits to the grocery store. Just go online to select your choice of healthy food items in our Virtual Store and pay at checkout.
• Participate in our “Drive-Through SNACK! Food Drive” between 9 a.m. and 12 p.m. on May 15th at CORA. Come on by and donate foods to children facing hunger.
You can find more information on how you can participate and donate to CORA at www.corafoodpantry.org.
Also, we need volunteers! You can check out the opportunities on our website or email Meredith@corafoodpantry.org.