1.3 million meals served? It’s just the start for Chatham Outreach Alliance

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CORA, the Chatham Outreach Alliance, found itself sorely tested by the onset of the coronavirus pandemic earlier this year. CORA’s mission is to provide food to individuals and families within the community who are in need during difficult personal economic periods. This week, as CORA kicks off a major funding campaign, we speak with executive director about CORA’s extremely busy year.

Melissa Driver Beard has been working in the nonprofit sector for 26 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 a very proud mom.

You write in CORA’s annual report: “The strength of our conviction that nobody should go hungry has been tested in unimaginable ways.” Can we start by discussing some numbers? First, 1.3 million meals served, and second, the fact that you served 50% more people (57,000) than last fiscal year. If someone had sat you down a year ago today and given you those figures, how would you have reacted?

I’ve said repeatedly during the past few months that it feels as though I’m living in a Dickens novel. It’s been the best of times and the worst of times.

The numbers are both worrisome and impressive. It’s troubling to know that so many of our neighbors, especially since the start of the pandemic, have faced hunger. It’s heartening to know that CORA, with the help of innumerable community partners and individuals, has been able to meet the increased need.

We did serve more than 1.3 million meals this year! That’s actually enough food to feed every single resident in Chatham County 16 times! We absolutely could not have done this without incredible community support.

Our numbers are actually more impressive than they appear. In FY19, we served 10,660 “unique” individuals. That means that across all of our programs — the Pantry, SNACK! and our Mobile Market — we served 10,660 people at least once. We served more than 24,000 individuals across all programs and all visits. So 24,000 is a duplicative number but represents the number of people who came to CORA for food and the number of times they came.

In FY20, we served 15,307 “unique” individuals. But we served more than 57,000 people across all programs and all visits. That number represents a 137% service increase over FY19 and demonstrates an increase not only in the number of people served, but the number of times people needed to visit the pantry.

Pre-COVID-19, the average client visited CORA one or two times per year. This past year, especially post-COVID-19, the average was four times per year. Visits have ranged to a low of one in the entire year per individual/family all the way to a high of 43 for an individual/family (for only one family reaching that extreme and having no other source of food).

CORA typically plans for a 15 to 20% increase in demand year over year. If you had told me that some months, the increase in demand for our services would go up as high as 65% and that the increase in demand across all visits and programs would 137%, I would’ve 1) thought you were joking; and 2) been extremely worried about how we would manage to meet that need from both a budgetary and staffing perspective.

Sometimes numbers like that are hard to fathom — they’re big numbers, they’re significant, for sure. But can you give us a sense of the scope, particularly in light of the fact that you’re a small nonprofit agency with a small staff, and you deal with the stressors that COVID-19 added?

The numbers are hard to put in relatable terms. As I mentioned earlier, 1.3 million meals would be like giving every single Chatham County resident 16 meals — almost one week’s worth of food. Those 57,000 people would fill up the Durham Bulls ballpark five times over and would almost fill up the stadium where the Carolina Panthers play.

In FY19, CORA served, on average, about 25 families per day. Over FY20, we have served as many as 48 families per day. On the busiest day in our 31 year history, we served 176 families or over 750 people making up those families.

For safety reasons, I made the decision in April to discontinue the use of volunteers and to split our staff up into two teams. Our facility is not large enough to house the number of staff and volunteers who, pre-COVID-19, were on site at any one time while also practicing social distancing. I could not live with the idea that our work might endanger our volunteers. I also had concerns about keeping staff healthy as well as maintaining operations.

Rebecca Hankins (CORA’s director of development & communications) and I have very much worked as one during this time in the event that either of us should contract COVID-19, the other could keep things running smoothly. Rebecca and several other staff members would work from home while my “team” and I would work from CORA on rotating weeks.

The desire to keep our staff and volunteers safe definitely impacted our ability to serve the public as we always have. We limited service days to Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. We changed service times from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. to 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. COVID-19 forced us to change our client choice model to a prepackaged, drive-thru model. From a staff perspective, the loss of volunteers and the changes in our choice shopping model were most significant.

While I’m extremely proud that we were able to demonstrate exceptional resilience and pivot to make these changes without shutting down for even a single day, I’m saddened by the fact that we cannot allow choice shopping at this time nor can we take the time to talk with our clients and volunteers as we once did.

All staff focused client services are cross-trained in new and very interesting ways. We all know so much more about each other’s roles and responsibilities and have a completely new appreciation for the manpower and expertise our volunteers offer. CORA’s small staff has worked seamlessly as a strong team and have remained committed to the mission (and to each other) in ways I couldn’t have previously imagined. I’m truly honored to be part of this group and can’t overemphasize how hard everyone has worked. Many of us were regularly putting in 16 to 18 hour days through the end of August to ensure that clients were served, funds were raised, donations of food were received, etc.

There’s no doubt that stress levels for both the clients and staff were much higher than usual. CORA has been incredibly fortunate to be part of this community where thousands of people donated both food and funds. Food donations were exceptionally important because for the first time ever, we could not buy food in bulk! Individuals, farmers, gardeners, businesses, foundations, and local government all played a key role in our ability to successfully navigate the day to day changes thrust upon us by COVID-19.

We’ve spoken with you several times before about CORA’s work, but can we take a moment and summarize what else new and different has happened with CORA in the past year? The Mobile Market in Siler City is just one example …

Since launching our Mobile Market in October of 2019, CORA has served more than 65,000 meals to 3,125 people. The Mobile Market has proven to be an effective model that we would like to scale for service other communities. CORA recognizes the importance of meeting the need where it is and believes it is crucial that we distribute food closer to the families we currently serve, and those families who find bridging the distance between their home and our pantry to be insurmountable.

To better address the demand for community-based resources, CORA plans to expand our Mobile Market to two monthly distributions — one to serve families in the western part of Chatham County in Siler City and one other strategically chosen location that will serve a vulnerable rural community. We envision that this second location may change monthly in order to reach more families. Food will be displayed much like it is at a farmer’s market (assuming no further complications from COVID-19) and families will be able to choose from several items in most categories (protein, vegetable, fruit, dairy, etc.). Each person will receive enough food for 21 meals at each visit.

Something you mention in your annual report that is particularly interesting is the fact that your supporters and the community at large responded to the pandemic with “resilience, kindness, hope, and FOOD!” You focus on the latter, of course, but can you share how resilience, kindness and hope have played a role in CORA in recent months?

In the early days of COVID-19, community members who were completely unknown to me would drive by our building, roll down a car window, and ask, “What do you need?” Depending upon the day, I might answer their questions with “food,” “money,” “canned chicken,” or any other number of specific items. Without fail, a check would be written, or the individual would come back in a few hours with a car full of food.

Volunteers just started showing up! Community members who found themselves jobless wanted ways to get involved and give back. Several were devastated when I made the decision to quit using volunteers but they’ve thankfully come back to us now that we’ve reopened to volunteers.

Many of our volunteers know each other quite well. One gentleman who used to regularly volunteer with us knew that another volunteer he’d come to know was driving to CORA almost every day to pick up food for members of her community who couldn’t get here for various reasons. He was so impressed with her commitment to serve her community that he gave her a gift certificate to a gas station so she wouldn’t have to pay for gas to and from CORA on her own every day.

And every single day, farmers and gardeners have called and come by with excess fresh produce. That fresh food has made a tremendous difference in our ability to continue to provide enough food, especially healthy food. We’re incredibly grateful for those who worked all year long to grow food and allowed our clients to benefit from their bounty.

There are endless metrics in the nonprofit world, but one — again, this goes back to your annual report — stands out: 100% of client requests filled. What does that mean?

That’s easy … we have never had to turn anyone away due to a lack of food at CORA. In March and April, there were nights I left the office wondering how we were going to provide for people the next day and somehow, we managed to get through. We never turned anyone away.

We’re in October now, which means your Hunger Heroes fundraiser is happening. What can you share about that?

We are excited about this month-long food drive to help those facing hunger in Chatham County. During the month of October, we will be partnering with local businesses and community groups to collect food for the food pantry. People can donate food at businesses around Chatham County and this list of businesses can be found on our website at: corafoodpantry.org/events/cora-hunger-heroes.

Also, we are having two drive-thru food drives mid-month. On Oct. 17, we will be at Bray Park from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. and on October 18 we will be at Central Carolina Community College from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. as well. We hope this will be a fun way for families to support our work in the community.


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