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Feeding Avery Families to Open New Operations Center as Anticipation Abounds for A Most Productive Year in 2023 After Last Year’s Success Detailed

The new, state-of-the-art Feeding Avery Families Operations Center is scheduled to open in late winter or early spring this year. (Photo courtesy of Dick Larson).

By Tim Gardner

Feeding Avery Families (FAF), Inc. is a non-profit Christian-based organization in Avery County dedicated to eliminating hunger by any means possible, including monetary donations, volunteerism and food donations. And this most worthwhile and needed ministry will be moving into a new headquarters in late winter or early spring this year. A definite opening date has not been set.

The new $1.2 million Feeding Avery Families Operations Center will be located at 189 Vale Road in Newland, doubling the size of the current facility across town. The new 10,000 square foot, one-story headquarters will be a state-of-the-art facility that will provide the return to client choice and many additional programs.

While Feeding Avery Families requires a total team effort from its dozens of volunteers, its Executive Director Dick Larson (since 2017) is credited by those most familiar with the organization for much of its success and for the efforts in obtaining a new operations center.

A Cornell University graduate (Class of 1966), Larson is an active member of the Banner Elk Presbyterian Church and the greater Avery County community.

Dick Larson, Executive Director of Feeding Avery Families, Inc. displays a couple meats to be distributed to the needy. (Photo courtesy of Dick Larson).

As a retired United States Marine officer and pilot, Larson’s leadership skills formed as a young man. From the Marine Corps to Duke University School of Medicine, he made the transition to vascular surgeon and university professor. He practiced general and vascular surgery in Greenville, NC for nineteen years. After retirement from the medical profession in 2000, he excelled as a woodworker and has operated Larson’s Fine Furniture for a decade.

Church work and service to local nonprofits have filled Larson’s time and interest in the more recent years. Besides his work with Feeding Avery Families, he has volunteered with Avery Habitat for Humanity as a worker and a board member, and has also served on the board and as president of the Avery Partnership for People at the End of Life. He also played an integral role in a multi-county capital campaign within the Presbytery of Western North Carolina.

He and his wife, Carol, retired to the North Carolina High Country in 2000. He and Carol have a son, Chris, who along with his wife, Julia, live in Zionville with their son, Reid.

Larson commented about the new headquarters and the organization’s continued and expanded efforts while offering thanks for what it has accomplished: “Feeding Avery Families is incredibly blessed with phenomenal community support. Without that, we simply don’t exist. When we began planning this new facility, all of us realized that we didn’t simply need a bigger warehouse. We needed a facility that could grow and grow with our community and that we could share with, and be shared by, our friends and fellow collaborators. We wanted a place in which we could continue to grow the outreach efforts that run so strongly through our community. I hope we will have succeeded (in those goals).

“We will be inviting all of our sister, supporting agencies to join us in helping our neighbors find the assistance they need. We hope this place will provide some common ground for discussions, planning and growth. When we grow together, we all rise. We have had tremendous support from our County Manager Phillip Barrier and all the county commissioners. I have spoken with many other food pantry directors, and I can say, without exception, that we are better supported than anyone I’ve met. Thanks be to God and to all of you. Together we can make this place even better, especially for our most challenged neighbors.”

Feeding Avery Families has received more than $400,000 in donations for its new complex, including $100,000 from the Cannon Foundation, $90,000 from High Country Charitable Foundation and $75,000 from Arbor Dale Presbyterian Church. These donations are in addition to $500,000 previously raised, Larson shared.

Feeding Avery Families also recently received a Challenge Grant of $100,000 to match up to a total of $200,000. Larson said that would pay off the organization’s current bank loan and make it debt free. Additionally, the necessary paperwork has been finished for obtaining grants to pay for paving a parking lot at the new headquarters.

Larson added that Feeding Avery Families is working with Avery County Emergency Management officials to equip the new operations center as an Emergency Disaster Relief Center for people forced to leave homes due to fires, natural disasters or power outages.

Feeding Avery Families began its ministry in 2005. As has every year since it’s been in operation, 2022 was a very busy and productive year for Feeding Avery Families (FAF), which provided more than $700,000 worth of free food to the hungry in Avery County.

Larson provided thorough and detailed statistics about Feeding Avery Families accomplishments in 2022. The organization gave away 441,718 pounds of food, about 18 percent less than 2021 due to supply issues and higher food costs that affected its primary source of food, MANNA FoodBank. However, the 2022 distribution total was still enough food to create approximately 400,000 individual meals.

A total of 5,486 families (13,425 individuals) served were served on Feeding Avery Families’ 48 Distribution Fridays during 2022. That was an increase of 12 percent from 2021. Each family received an average of 50-plus pounds of food, including boxes of groceries, frozen meats, produce, bread and more items. That included 70 tons of fresh produce distributed to promote healthier eating habits.

Larson noted that Feeding Avery Families received $10,000 in grants to purchase more items from local farms, including TRACTOR Food and Farms Cooperative in Spruce Pine of neighboring Mitchell County and Trosley Farm in Elk Park.

He added that Feeding Avery Families secured 63 percent of the food for distribution at no cost, a value of $443,018. That was a decrease from 88 percent in 2021 due to less donated food and fewer opportunities to secure free food through government programs. Still, thousands of Avery Countians benefited greatly from 10,000-plus volunteer hours from 350 volunteers distrusting the food to needy families and individuals in 2022.

Feeding Avery Families also provides colossal help to the county’s school students. Last year, the organization provided 125 children in Avery County schools with a pack of groceries weekly for weekend meals and stocked pantries inside each of the nine Avery County schools with snacks for teachers to give to hungry students during the school day.

It also served 125 families each second Thursday of the month at the Mobile Community Market in partnership with Avery County Schools and MANNA FoodBank. Additionally, 300 food packs were supplied weekly to YMCA Summer Camp program participants by Feeding Avery Families.

Larson shared that grocery stores have been most generous in donating items to Feeding Avery Families. Last year, Food Lion in Banner Elk gave a total of 42,697 pounds of food, including fresh meats and deli and bakery items in 2022, which were picked up by the organization’s representatives five days each week.

Also, 40,204 pounds of food was received from customers of Lowes Food in Banner Elk/Invershield, donated through the “Friends Feeding Friends” program.

Even free dog and cat food were offered to families at many weekly distributions.

Last year, Feeding Avery Families also began a partnership with the Community Association in the old Beech Mountain area to deliver food to residents there unable to travel to the current distribution center in Newland.

Feeding Avery Families also celebrated two successful and unique fundraisers in 2022: receiving $2,026 from Linville River Pottery’s Clay for Community and $6,000 from Woolly Worm Festival parking by volunteers.

Additionally, $70,000 was received in operation grants from Wee Kirk Presbyterian, All Saints Episcopal Church, Arthur Family Foundation, Kiwanis Club of Banner Elk, Avery County Rotary Club and others.

Like 2022, this year promises to be a busy and productive one for Feeding Avery Families. Larson said he expects more amazing achievements this year as this non-profit organization expands.

Besides moving into a new operations center, the organization is starting a new outreach program for the Latino community, and has hired Vanessa Benavides Phillips as Hispanic Outreach Coordinator to build relationships with the 600-plus Latino families living in Avery County. Phillips will be joining the Feeding Avery Families staff on February 6. Larson said she “is going to be a huge part of the future of this organization. “

Also, Feeding Avery Families will soon be sponsoring a Community Health Initiative, partnering with many sister agencies to improve health and quality of life for Avery’s citizens through improved nutrition, access to other resources and health follow-ups. Additionally, there will be expanded mobile food distributions to additional communities and locations for Avery County citizens who cannot come to Friday distributions at the operations center.

Fortunately, Feeding Avery Families not only provides food items to the needy in the county, but also various other personal necessities. The organization partnered with Project Dignity in Asheville, NC to offer free feminine hygiene products on distribution Fridays and personal hygiene care items such as toothpaste, soap, shampoo and related items thanks to $5,000 given by Dogwood Health Trust and more donations from local businesses.

Larson said that thankfully Feeding Avery Families has also kept the cost per meal to just 35 cents, due to its officials’ ability to secure top quality food at very low costs and using hundreds of volunteers to keep administrative costs low.

Larson concluded that Feeding Avery Family’s needs additional volunteers and always welcomes financial contributions. For more information about Feeding Avery Families, call (828) 783-8506, email FeedingAveryFamilies@gmail.com or log onto its web site at: feedingaveryfamilies.org.

Financial donations may be mailed to Feeding Avery Families, PO Box 1075, Banner Elk, NC 28604.