Confronting hunger in the face of a pandemic

We’re all about community here at ProBenefits, and so is the organization we’re spotlighting this month. We are incredibly proud to call the Second Harvest Food Bank of Northwest NC a partner. This nonprofit organization works tirelessly to attack hunger and food insecurity from all angles.

Founded in 1982 on the idea that hunger was more prevalent in the community than most people realized, Second Harvest received its first large donation of hot dog buns from the Piedmont Triad International Airport after their grand opening in 1987. Since then, Second Harvest has grown rapidly and expanded their impact on those affected by hunger in northwest North Carolina. This past year alone, Second Harvest distributed more than 41 million pounds of food to the community.

CEO Eric Aft takes pride in Second Harvest’s growth over the last few decades. “The growth has been substantial in our relationships,” Aft says. “People’s understanding of the challenge of hunger in our local communities has increased tremendously.”

A large part of the hunger battle is increasing awareness of the issue. “1 in 5 of our children are uncertain about where their next healthy meal is coming from,” Aft says. “It’s a situation where the need is much higher than people think.”

The Hidden Hunger 

Roughly 35-36% of households across our regions have income under $35,000 a year and find it hard to purchase fresh foods. This income gap complicates the issue of food access and contributes to the creation of food deserts, or communities where healthy, fresh foods are widely unavailable according to Feeding America, the national Second Harvest network to which Second Harvest belongs. The global pandemic has heightened these issues.

In light of these issues complicated by the pandemic, Second Harvest Food Bank has ramped up their food assistance services and filled access gaps within the community where people weren’t able to get the meals they need.

The organization transitioned to non-touch distribution methods and worked to address those who were most affected, like hospitality workers, many of whom lost their jobs and incomes.

“We did a special distribution in what we called ‘Heard Cafe’ and that’s kind of a nod to restaurant lingo,” Aft says. “We set that up so we were running meals to hospitality workers who were affected by the shutdown by providing them daily meals as well as additional meals and some produce to take home.”

Second Harvest served upwards of 400 families a week in the first few months of the shut-down. They also provided these families with information to help them figure out their next steps and navigate this tricky time, as well as communicating and organizing with their network of more than 460 community partners to assist in serving these families across the region.

Partners include area recreation centers, YMCAs and churches, which were mainly targeted to help feed children who were no longer getting regular meals through in-person schooling. These partners helped distribute more than 20,000 meals a week.

And they don’t plan to slow down.

“Early in the pandemic we were all hearing about the struggles for families who were losing their livelihood to either illness or because of the economic situation,” Aft says. “The community has really stepped up and helped us to be able to do a number of these things. I think the key is we know we’re going to be in this for the long haul. Even when the coverage diminishes, we’re still going to be here responding to what we see as a heightened need.”

Working toward a solution, together

Amidst all the chaos, uncertainty and hardship, Aft has seen the strength and kindness of the community shine through.

He recalls a morning he spent at a distribution site in early September. He came across two men who had arrived separately but learned they were friends from the same neighborhood as they chatted while waiting. Aft learned the men showed up at 5:30 am to wait for the distribution center to open at 8 am. They expressed things are a little tough right now, but they were so grateful for this food drive.

Aft asked them what they were going to do with the food, and was taken aback when they responded. They said we have a lot of neighbors we are going to share this with and some extended family.

“Here’s just two guys with a really positive, thankful attitude, and their own generosity was amazing,” Aft recalls. “They didn’t plan on just taking the food home and hoarding it, but instead they wanted to share it with friends and family. It’s just that spirit of giving and generosity is so powerful to me. It’s really about community and neighbors and helping each other.”

It’s people like these men who make Aft and the rest of the employees and volunteers at Second Harvest proud of their mission and motivated to continue this important work.

“We’re a dedicated group of people who are inspired by those who walk alongside us with their donations, their time, their energy and their care about this issue,” Aft says. “We’re really honored to do this work.”

If you are interested in joining us in supporting Second Harvest Food Bank, you can find information about donating, hosting a virtual food drive, and other ways of getting involved at