On a rainy November morning, more than one hundred people are gathered in a parish hall at St. Thomas More Catholic Church in Chapel Hill, ready to be pressed into service. Tables are stacked high with canned goods, boxes of mac and cheese, and jars of pasta sauce—$17,000 worth of non-perishable groceries, all donated by local residents.
More than two thousand paper bags, donated by Harris Teeter, are doubled-up and waiting. An assembly line forms, and in less than two hours, the bags are packed and ready to be delivered to food pantries and families across Chapel Hill and Carrboro.
The people packing bags are volunteers with PORCH, a local hunger-relief organization that spans hundreds of neighborhoods in the Triangle. While food drives are a familiar scene this time of year, PORCH is active year-round. In Orange County alone, donations from two hundred neighborhoods stock fifteen pantries and hundreds of families.
The magnitude of the outreach is even more impressive given that PORCH is a wholly grassroots organization facing complex logistics. It takes a holistic approach to fighting poverty, not only by feeding people, but also through community building, education, and advocacy.
Though it now has hundreds of volunteers, PORCH started in Chapel Hill eight years ago with three energetic and determined women: Christine Cotton, Susan Romaine, and Debbie Horowitz.
“Having seen the impact of food insecurity firsthand when volunteering in our children’s classrooms and volunteering for other hunger relief organizations in town, we were inspired to start PORCH,” Horowitz says. “We work in collaboration with other local nonprofits to fill a unique niche, giving fresh-food access to many families falling through the cracks because of barriers of access to other hunger-relief resources.”
The founders started on a micro level, inviting their neighbors and friends to put a non-perishable food item on their porch on a designated day each month. A neighborhood captain collects the goods and brings them to a central location where they are sorted and redistributed to local charities, food banks, and families in need. This small-scale food drive has grown into a large outpouring of community support, including donations of supplies and services from local businesses.
Some mornings, there are fewer volunteers, less food. The summer months tend to have sparser participation with school out and families away, but there are always enough people to help and plenty to give.
“Our goal is to equalize donations [over the course of the year] to provide a steady source of food. People aren’t just hungry at Thanksgiving,” Horowitz says.
Unique to the Chapel Hill-Carrboro PORCH chapter is the Food for Families initiative, which benefits four hundred food-insecure families. These families are 95 percent working poor, identified by school social workers, churches, and refugee-relief workers. They are families on the margins, who might not qualify for government aid, but for whom this monthly gift could make a huge difference. A week’s worth of groceries from PORCH might mean a utility bill gets paid or a holiday gift is affordable. Half of the non-perishable goods collected at the monthly sorting go to these families, which also receive fresh produce, milk, chicken, and eggs. This month, more than eight tons of fresh produce, milk, eggs, chicken, and ground beef were delivered to 1,762 people in time for Thanksgiving and the school break.
PORCH has approximately $16,000 a month for these groceries, which come from individual donations ($40 can feed one family for a month) and some donations from vendors like Farmer Foodshare and Maple View Farms. Other fresh goods are purchased at a discount or in bulk from local supermarkets and wholesale warehouses like Cliff’s Meat Market and Costco.
Food for Families regularly solicits feedback from recipients to learn how they can be better served by PORCH. From such surveys, they learned that Burmese refugees had little use for goods like peanut butter and preferred more bags of rice instead. The deliveries have also become a major source of community connections among recipients and volunteers, who exchange recipes and share stories through translators. A free flea market often pops up at the distribution site, with donations from Book Harvest and clothing from community members.
At St. Thomas More, Romaine introduces a guest from UNC Horizons, one of the food pantries served by today’s collection. UNC Horizons is a relatively new PORCH partner. It’s a residential and out-patient program for mothers or mothers-to-be who are in addiction treatment. This allows women to maintain custody of their children, who are provided with daycare or attend Chapel Hill-Carrboro city schools, while they receive counseling and classes in parenting and recovery. Many members get assistance such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, and the onsite PORCH pantry is a bridge for patients whose benefits haven’t yet kicked in. Horizons volunteer Ashley Wilson speaks to the shame many of these women feel coming out of addiction and the shock they experience when they learn that strangers are willing to help them.
The work done today is a drop in the bucket. Collections take place across the state every month. Shoppers at Weaver Street Market are regularly asked to round up their purchase to the nearest dollar, with the extra cents going to PORCH. Elmo’s Diner will support PORCH Durham on November 27, also known as Giving Tuesday, by donating 10 percent of all proceeds. New chapters are spreading through word of mouth. It’s as simple as neighbors helping neighbors, starting with as little as a can of tuna.