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Despite Slow COVID-19 Spread, Graham County Hit By Food Insecurity

Graham_GracePlaceCommunityTable_Reece_cropped.jpg
Michelle Shiplet
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Pastor Eric Reece volunteers at Grace Place Community Table in Robbinsville on Wednesday.

At the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic in March, Graham County closed its borders.  BPR talks with a local nonprofit about economic struggles of finding food during the pandemic:

As one of the least populous counties in all of North Carolina, Graham County has seen a slower spread of COVID-19 than other areas.  It took until this month for community spread to occur. But throughout the pandemic, access to food has been an issue in the community.

“I’m standing outside the door hollering numbers and meals through the window and delivering boxes to vehicles.”

That’s Michelle Shiplet, director of Grace Place Community Table during food distribution on Wednesday.

“We have produce and meal boxes as well. We have 1,2,3 …. 10 cars in the parking lot right now,” says 

Graham_GracePlaceCommunityTable_cropped.jpg
Credit Michelle Shiplet
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Cars wait in the parking lot for their meals and produce boxes on Wednesday.

Shiplet.  

Shiplet is also pastor of Liberty Missionary Church and director of the nonprofit 'GREAT,' which stands for Graham Revitalization Economic Action Team.  Shiplet says the number of meals they serve has more than doubled since the pandemic started.

“We had some months that we were serving anywhere from 6,000 to 7,500 meals since COVID is that tells you the amount of increase,” explains Shiplet, who adds previously they were only serving a max of 150 once a week.  

That number of meals almost equals Graham County’s population, which is just under 9,000 people. Originally, Shiplet says the pantry served food on just Wednesday nights but now they offer it on Saturday as well. This week, the dinner was BBQ chicken and cheese wraps. All the food for the pantry is cooked on one residential oven.

“Unfortunately, Graham County is a community that is already a distressed community, economically. This just made it worse,” says Shiplet. Like much of Western North Carolina, the county relies on tourism - an industry that has been hit hard by COVID-19. Shiplet mentions the Latinx community and those without childcare have also been increasingly impacted by the pandemic. 

Pastor Eric Reece at Robbinsville United Methodist Church works with Shiplet. His church also partners with two others to distribute food from MANNA Foodbank. They call the partnership Graham Fellowship. He says the fact the county has just one grocery store is a big part of the problem.   

“The shortages really affected us a lot. It was strange. At first it was the toilet paper and hand sanitizer. Now the thing that you can’t find is canning supplies,” explains Reece, who adds that people must drive out of the county for some supplies. 

Shipplet says that the program is currently seeking funding in order to expand.

As of Thursday, there are 49 positive cases of COVID-19 in the county and zero deaths. In the county, less than half a percent (.058 percent) of the population have COVID-19. This is far lower than other nearby counties in Western North Carolina.

Lilly Knoepp serves as BPR’s first fulltime reporter covering Western North Carolina. She is a native of Franklin, NC who returns to WNC after serving as the assistant editor of Women@Forbes and digital producer of the Forbes podcast network. She holds a master’s degree in international journalism from the City University of New York and earned a double major from UNC-Chapel Hill in religious studies and political science.
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