County applies for food insecurity grant

Jan. 30—Cars were already lined up along First St. in Crab Orchard around noon on a recent Wednesday, waiting for 1 p.m. when the Crab Orchard Care Center would begin distributing bags of food.

On that particular week, there was fresh produce, bread and other staples — enough for a few meals each week.

"If someone tells us they need food, we're going to help them," said Mary Nelson, executive director of the Crab Orchard Care Center. "So many people come through and thank us for being here. They didn't know if they could pay their bills this month or buy groceries. That's a heck of a thing to have to decide between."

She's seen the need for food bring more people to the center each week. They average 140 families a week.

A few miles away at the Peavine Care Center, the Wednesday distribution served 149 families.

That's a dramatic increase over 2021, when the center averaged 114 families a week. In 2022, the weekly average was 130 families, said Mary Lampugnano with the Peavine Care Center.

"That's food inflation," Lampugnano said of the increased need.

That's not only caused more people to seek help with food for their families but increased the costs to the agency.

"We were shocked. We spent three times the amount of money on food in 2022 that we did in 2021," Lampugnano said.

Both agencies purchase their food from Second Harvest of East Tennessee, which gives them the best possible price on food to distribute to the hungry. They also work with grocery stores to purchase foods and rely on donations and food drives.

"In March, we're doing a non-food drive," Lampugnano said.

That will include paper products, like toilet paper. About 90% of the Peavine Care Center's clients receive food stamps, but food stamps can't be used to purchase toilet paper or other paper products.

It's one way the organizations look to meet the needs of the people they serve.

About a quarter of the clients seen at Peavine Care Center are families with children younger than age 17, and a quarter are senior citizens. Some of the senior citizens have mobility or transportation barriers, so the organization offers some limited home delivery to those who qualify.

"In the five years I've been there, we have never turned anyone away," Lampugnano said.

Most of the clients go to the center weekly, though some will come only when they need a little extra help making it through the month.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, about 10% of households in the U.S. were considered food-insecure in 2021, the most recent data available. That figure represents about 33.8 million people. The percentage increased to 12.5% for households with children.

Feeding programs in Cumberland County like Peavine Care Center and Crab Orchard Care Center could benefit from a new grant opportunity. Amanda Mainord with Grassroots Planning and Consulting is assisting Cumberland County with writing a grant for up to $500,000 to assist programs that address food insecurity.

The money is part of $10 million allocated to the Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development, as part of COVID-19 relief funds.

"From January through November 2022, food costs have increased about 12%," Mainord said during a public hearing earlier in the month.

Money from the grant is earmarked to assist organizations with equipment costs and non-food supplies, like boxes or backpacks.

The money cannot be used for facility or construction costs or food costs.

The Cumberland County Commission approved a resolution to apply for the grant Jan. 17. Mainord expects funding decisions in February, with all money to be spent by the end of the fiscal year, June 30.

Mainord has asked organizations to send her a list of the equipment and supplies they need and estimated cost. The county will handle all equipment purchases, with participating groups entering cooperative agreements.

The Crab Orchard Care Center hopes to get some carts they use to take the food boxes to the car line and hand-carts to assist with unloading the Second Harvest delivery trucks. They are also asking for a truck to help pick up food from Knoxville, Cookeville and other locations.

"Our truck, it's in and out of the shop. A truck that we could depend on would be wonderful," Nelson said.

Peavine Care Center hopes to buy storage shelves and a year's supply of mesh bags for produce, which they hope will reduce food spoilage.

"We were losing a lot of fresh fruit and vegetables," Lampugnano said.

The feeding program uses fresh food "rescued" from regional grocery stores ahead of its spoil date.

Volunteers sort and pre-pack the produce into smaller bags. At Peavine Care Center, this takes place on Monday. They use plastic bags. By the Wednesday distribution, some of the food in the bags has spoiled.

The mesh bags help extend the life of that rescued produce, but they costs more.

While the grant will help local food agencies with equipment needs, they face ongoing needs providing food assistance. Monetary donations are always welcome, and volunteers are also important to meeting the mission of ending hunger.

"Donations help pay the bills and gets food in," Nelson said, adding that, "God has seen that we stay open and keep running."

Contact the Crab Orchard Care Center at 931-707-5616 for volunteer opportunities or to learn about signing up for food distribution. While Crab Orchard offers two distribution days per week, clients may only obtain food one day each week.

Mail donations to Crab Orchard Care Center, P.O. Box 274, Crab Orchard, TN 37723.

Lampugnano said Peavine Care Center has been blessed with an abundance of volunteers and a generous community. During the COVID-19 pandemic, donations were at a high. But increased costs have cut into donations at a time when the need is increasing.

Call 931-484-4570 or email for information about volunteering, donations, or to sign up for food.

Heather Mullinix is editor of the Crossville Chronicle. She covers schools and education in Cumberland County. She may be reached at