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News Community Area food banks hard at work during the holiday season

Bruce Tallent, Nick Murphy, and Bonnie Elliot often volunteer their mornings at CareNet. Tuesday morning, January 20, the trio arrived early to get a jump start on preparing food boxes.The Community Table, Sylva’s local food bank, is gearing up for the holiday weekend and anticipate serving more meals this year than ever before.

The Community Table is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization and MANNA Food Bank Partner Agency, that has been serving nutritious meals to its neighbors in need since 1999.

“It is our vision that no one in Jackson County goes to bed hungry,” reads the organization’s website. The Table was founded to provide a welcoming place for all kinds of people to gather for a good, free meal. Everyone is welcomed at The Table, regardless of level of need, and there is never a fee for their services. Folks may dine-in, take home carryout orders, or both.

“Our mission is to provide nutritious meals to our neighbors in need in a welcoming environment. It is vital every day of the year that we provide not only nutritious food, but also a community environment,” said Amy Grimes, The Community Table’s Director. “Although dinner service begins at 4:00, our dining room begins to fill up by 3:00 with folks just wanting to come in and visit with one another, which we encourage. That kind of fellowship is especially important around the holidays for some of our guests who do not have family in the area.”

With the financial uncertainty of today’s economy, the Table has seen an increase in visitors over the past few years, and believes it’s more important than ever to give back to the community. This year, the Table will be open for a Christmas Day lunch and will serve a feast fit for a king. “Our Christmas menu includes turkey, dressing, mashed potatoes and gravy, cranberries, green bean casserole, rolls and dessert,” said Grimes.

After a record high number of guests during Thanksgiving, Grimes anticipates the Christmas meal to be one for the record books. “We have been open on Christmas Day in recent years, thanks to a group of volunteers who provide food and labor so that our two employees may spend the day with family,” said Grimes. “In the past we averaged about 25-50 meals served on the holiday, which is much less than a typical day. This year we have averaged serving 80-90 meals each day, with many nights going well over 100. However, we served almost 90 meals on Thanksgiving so we expect a record turnout this year. We are definitely still seeing many new folks seeking food assistance each week.” she said.

Leading up to Christmas, the Table will remain open during normal business hours. The Table is opened Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays, and serves dinner from 4 to 6 p.m. and provides food boxes at 11 a.m. and 6 p.m.

Food boxes are packages of food developed through the Table’s food pantry program that consist of nonperishable food items such as breads, fruits and vegetables, and canned food items to allow those in need to receive food that can be prepared at home.

This holiday season, the Table is mostly in need of financial donations to cover the overall operating costs of the soup kitchen. “Overhead operating expenses have been up this year while funding has been down, so financial donations are needed,” said Grimes. “The need for food boxes is also very high and it is difficult to keep enough food on our shelves, so donations of nonperishable foods are needed, too. In November alone we served 1,538 home-cooked meals and provided 238 food boxes for home use.”

Bruce Tallent divided up a cereal that was donated to CareNet in bulk. By separating the bulk quantities to individual servings, more families are able to be helped.With only two paid employees, the Table operates solely on a volunteer basis. As soon as the doors open each day, volunteers flood into the Table to offer any help they can. From cooking the food, to washing dishes, to serving guests, every element of the Table is all thanks to volunteers. “We always have volunteer opportunities available,” noted Grimes. “We welcome any help we can get!”

The Community Table is preparing to move to a much-needed, larger space in the spring, which will allow the organization to better serve more members of the community. “We are still in the same location, however we are in the process of renovating the former Golden Age Center next to Sylva Pool to be our new home. We hope to be moved in by spring 2012,” said Grimes. “We’ve run into a few unexpected expenses, so we still need financial help with the renovations to help cover additional costs for extra insulation and a new heating and cooling system. We are looking forward to moving to our new home with muchneeded extra space. We will be able to have a self-shop pantry, and room for classes and workshops on topics such as healthy shopping on a budget. We also hope to house the Jackson County Farmer’s Market on Saturdays during the winter months.”

CareNet serving more community members than ever

Like the Community Table, CareNet has seen record high numbers of community numbers in need this year. On Monday, CareNet’s soup kitchen served 117 meals in just three hours, which marks the most meals the organization has served in a day since its inception nearly 24 years ago.

The Macon County Care Network, also known as CareNet, is a non-profit, tax exempt corporation, established in 1988 by churches in the county.

CareNet is a non-denominational ministry, which serves as a central location to provide relief for those in crisis. When help from other agencies is either unavailable or insufficient, CareNet provides food and financial assistance with other necessities, such as prescriptions, utilities, fuel, and rent on an emergency basis.

CareNet volunteer, Bonnie Elliot arrives early almost every morning to begin preparing food boxes to be distributed throughout the day.“We have served more people in the soup kitchen and given out more pounds of food this year than ever before,” said Vanessa Bailey, CareNet’s Executive Director. “So far this year, we have given out 200,000 pounds of food.”

Bailey noted that several days in the past few weeks people had been lining up in the parking lot as early as 6 a.m., when the pantry doors didn’t even open until 10 a.m..

“That demonstrates how great the need is in our community,” she said. “People line up hours early just to make sure they get the items they need.”

The organization’s backpack program, which provides a small bag consisting of 8-12 items of food, which are distributed on friday's for those students that leave school and return on Monday hungry, has doubled this year and is in addition to the 200,000 pounds of food given out through CareNet’s pantry. Backpack items consist of can soup, instant breakfasts (oatmeal or grits), fruit, snack, and a kids with snacks and lunch items.

Although CareNet will not be open on Christmas, the soup kitchen will be open on the days before and after the holiday to serve hot lunches Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and Friday. Bailey noted that around the holidays, more people receive food boxes from the pantry, which allows people to prepare meals at home.

The Care Network is run mostly by volunteers, and according to Bailey, if it was not for community support the organization wouldn’t be able to help those in need this holiday season. “The biggest thing helping us prepare for the increased need during the winter months is overwhelming community support,” said Bailey. “This is the time of year that people get to spend time with their families and remember how blessed they truly are and then they want to bless others, and that’s where we come in.”

By the end of November, CareNet had already served almost 300 more families in 2011 than in all of 2010. The organization is projected to serve between 500- 800 families in December alone. According to Bailey, the thing they need most this year is volunteers.

“Because of the increase in need throughout the community, we have seen a decline in volunteers. Staffing has been down and we always need more helping hands,” said Bailey. “We especially need volunteers with any computer experience who can help us enter data into the computer and to help with the phones in the waiting room.”

Aside from needing volunteers in CareNet’s main soup kitchen, their thrift store and pantry are in need of a few extra helping hands to sort and stock donations from the community.

“We could always use more personal care items that our clients can not buy with food stamps,” said Bailey. “Laundry detergent, soap, tooth paste and other hygiene products are hard to keep on our shelves.”

The Share the Warmth program is one of the many programs offered through CareNet. Share the Warmth is treated every year as a grant, which runs from Oct. 1 through April 30. Duke Energy solicits matching funds from its users and in turn distributes this to local agencies which aid low-income individuals. This designated money is used toward qualified individuals’ sources of heat such as electric, propane, gas, firewood, or kerosene.

CareNet received its first allotment of Share the Warmth funds which is nearly $3,000 less this year than last year, meaning the organization will not be able to help as many families. “People often remember the holidays as a time to give back, but it is also important to remember what comes after New Year’s, the harsh winter months,” explained Bailey. “The colder the winters, the higher electric bills are and with less funding for our Share the Warmth program, we won’t be able to help as many families. For these programs, monetary donations are always wonderful because they allow us to make up for tightening budgets and less funding.”

“We have an amazing community here in Macon County that makes all that we do possible,” said Bailey. “We want to thank all of the community members and organizations for their support. Groups like Kiwanis and the Rotary club for supporting our programs and then the newspapers like you and The Franklin Press for helping raise community awareness.”

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