Editor’s note: Pittsboro resident Mila Mascenik wrote this story for a reporting class at UNC-Chapel Hill, where she’s a sophomore.
PITTSBORO — CORA (Chatham Outreach Alliance) is more than a food pantry — it’s a place of hope and compassion for thousands of people in Chatham County facing food insecurity.
Here, an empathetic ear, a supportive smile and nutritious food are given to those needing assistance.
According to the Food Bank of Central & Eastern North Carolina’s 2021-2022 report, 7,820 Chatham County residents — or 11% — are food insecure, lacking stable financial resources for food to live an active and healthy life.
A community without hunger
In 1990, CORA’s first full year of operation, the pantry served 253 families. According to CORA’s latest Mid-Year Impact Report, which reports data from July to December 2022, the Pittsboro-based organization provided more than 6,000 people with food assistance, distributing more than 700,000 meals across Chatham County. With every meal served, CORA is one step closer to achieving its vision: a community without hunger.
Heather Tompkins searched for volunteer opportunities when she moved to North Carolina from Farmingdale, New Jersey, and learned about CORA from the Nextdoor app. She was drawn to the organization’s cause and has been a volunteer there for the past three years.
“I don’t like knowing there are children or elderly people going to bed hungry,” Tompkins said. “Everyone deserves to be able to eat. It’s a basic need.”
While there are other private and church food pantries in Chatham County, they typically have limited hours and food choices. CORA’s food pantry operates from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. Monday through Thursday. It offers a wide selection of nutritious food, including prepackaged bags of shelf-stable food, like canned fruits and vegetables, pasta and soups. Clients also receive fresh produce, bakery items, eggs, milk and meat.
Rebecca Hankins, CORA’s development and communications coordinator, the nonprofits places a heavy emphasis on serving nutrient-dense and healthy foods to its clients.
“We work diligently to provide low-sugar, low-salt and culturally appropriate foods to the families we serve,” Hankins said. “Maintaining good health, consuming a nutritious diet, managing an existing chronic disease, or a combination of these can be a challenge for those struggling with food insecurity.”
Families which complete a self-reported application can go to the pantry twice a month for food and are given a CORA card to track each time they visit. CORA’s choice table allows clients to pick from an assortment of items in addition to the food they receive from the pantry. The table includes everything from fresh produce to diapers, school supplies and personal hygiene products.
‘Like shopping in a grocery store’
Volunteer Jamie Nunnelly spends most of her time in the bagging area, where shelf-stable foods are put into grocery bags or at the choice table. She likes how the table caters to each client’s individual needs.
“The idea behind the choice table is to make it more like shopping in a grocery store,” Nunnelly said. “The experience of choice is more positive as it gives the person control over what they are receiving.”
Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the pantry and choice table operate outside the building, with clients receiving their groceries curbside in a drive-through manner. Volunteers fill bags with the precise amount of food based on the number of people in the family. For example, a family of one to two people would receive one shelf-stable food bag, one meat item, two to three bakery items and one produce bag.
Nonprofit organizations are not exempt from the effects of high inflation. According to the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture, food prices are expected to grow more slowly in 2023 than in 2022 but still at above-historical average rates. In the last quarter of the fiscal year 2022, CORA served 38% more people than in 2021.
“I love that I’m helping the community during these challenging times,” Tompkins said. “I feel like I’m a part of something really important and I’m glad CORA is here with the resources they have.”
Community awareness about CORA’s services is critical now, as economists and financial experts also say high prices will likely last well into this year. Nunnelly would like to see community members get involved in any way they can to support CORA.
“I hope more people contribute to the wonderful organization, whether through food donations, money, volunteering or helping get the word out to others about the service they provide,” Nunnelly said.
CORA has several programs to assist individuals experiencing food insecurity and improve their quality of life. Serving children is a large part of CORA’s work, with 30% of its clients aged 18 and under. CORA has two programs for children — Summer Nutritional Assistance for Chatham Kids (SNACK!) and ReFuel/CORApacks.
According to CORA’s website, there are “over 4,600 children in our community [who] rely upon free or low-cost meals at school that may go hungry this summer.”
No Kid Hungry says that “without access to nutritious school meals … many children from low-income families turn to cheap, calorie-dense foods with little nutritious value.”
SNACK! runs from mid-June to mid-August, and each participating child is given 21 nutritious free meals each week at sites across Chatham County. Last summer, SNACK! served 1,300 children with more than 186,000 meals.
ReFuel/CORApacks is a new program that CORA acquired last year from community members which ran it. Children are served nutritious, kid-friendly food on the weekends and during school breaks. Each child receives a box of food monthly, containing three meals and two snacks each day they are not in school. The boxes are delivered directly to each household via DoorDash or by a volunteer.
“By delivering food to each child’s home, we hope to eliminate some of the embarrassment, anxiety and stress often associated with child food insecurity,” Hankins said.
Approximately 70% of the people CORA serves do not live in or near Pittsboro. Certain low-income areas in the western region of Chatham County, such as Siler City, are disproportionately impacted by food insecurity. They are home to several food deserts, making it difficult for people to come by nutritious and affordable food. CORA’s Mobile Markets are working to fix this accessibility issue.
“With our two Mobile Markets, CORA is getting out into the community and meeting the needs where they are,” Hankins said.
The Mobile Market is hosted the second Tuesday of the month from 4 to 6 p.m. at 326 Nature Trail, Chapel Hill, and the fourth Tuesday of each month from 10 a.m. to noon at Technology Way in Siler City. Families receive various goods, including fresh local produce, meats, dairy and bakery goods via a drive-through model.
Numerous volunteer opportunities
Volunteers are at the heart of CORA’s mission, and their hard work ensures the pantry runs smoothly. CORA offers numerous volunteer opportunities, including sorting through food donations, shuttling food from grocery stores and restaurants to CORA and even organizing your own food drive.
Tompkins usually packs food during her volunteer shifts; she appreciates the variety of work CORA offers.
“When you start getting bored with one task you can pick another, which is why I think a lot of people stay,” Tompkins said.
CORA collaborates with several other partners across Chatham County to ensure everyone has access to safe and nutritious food. Last year, the Human Rights Club at Northwood High School in Pittsboro addressed issues they consider fundamental human rights in the community — access to food and water being one of them.
Spanish teacher Christopher Lupoli oversees the club and says schools play an important role in teaching students about their communities.
“School is not simply a place where we educate students in the classroom,” Lupoli said. “It’s also a place where we educate students about where they live and be exposed to different socioeconomic and cultural groups.”
Alessia Iacono, a high school junior and president of the Human Rights Club, believes that when students are aware of the problems impacting their community, it can help them put their hardships into perspective.
“High schoolers often have a mentality that their lives are extremely difficult with their grades, social lives and schedules, which can be true at times.” Iacono said. “But being able to learn about true struggle and real-world issues surrounding us is a way to look at the bigger picture of the world.”
Iacono, club vice president Lily Kate Witcher and a few club members volunteered at CORA for the first time last November. They helped pack food for ReFuel/CORApacks that would be distributed to Chatham County students. Witcher says Northwood’s partnership with CORA reflects the school’s values.
“The fact that we have students at Northwood that are donating and then other students who are volunteering to me just demonstrates that we are a school that cares about Chatham County and helping other people,” Witcher said.
The club hosted a food drive for the first time at Northwood last fall. They placed boxes throughout the school for students to drop off canned foods. All donations went to CORA, and the club collected over 100 pounds of food.
Lupoli would like the club’s volunteer program at CORA to continue throughout the year so more students can have the opportunity to go there. He’s optimistic about the club’s future involvement with CORA.
“We’re at the beginning of what could be a great relationship with CORA,” Lupoli said. “This could be beneficial not only to those in the community who receive donations but also for our students to learn about people that don’t have some of the basic necessities to survive.”
A new facility
CORA has outgrown its current pantry because of the increase in demand. Given this space limitation, CORA has constructed a new building. At 2,800 square feet, it’s adjacent to the existing pantry on Camp Drive and will serve as a food storage warehouse and a grocery store. CORA is open for drive-thru service out of the new pantry, and staff and volunteers provide food for clients through the garage door. Any food donations will be dropped off in the new building.
“I am very excited to see that the new facility will be set up like a mini supermarket, and people will be able to shop the shelves and pick items on their own,” Nunnelly said.
The relocation of the pantry will allow CORA to repurpose its current space to create a comfortable shopping environment, with new additions such as community meeting spaces, a family waiting room and a technology bar with free internet access. Renovations to the existing building will begin soon.
CORA is aiming to open the new building and the renovated one in June or July of this year. Hankins said she hopes the transition to the new building and the renovations made to the current one will improve CORA’s services and better serve all who seek assistance.
“CORA has been helping Pittsboro and surrounding areas for so long, and now having the opportunity to expand with even more accommodations for people will only create a better outcome,” Iacono said. “The renovations put a positive idea in my head, and I assume the community feels the same way.”