By Tim Gardner
Dick Larson is an interesting person and a highly successful one in many endeavors. Those who get acquainted with him are quick to learn of his love for God, his country and Avery County. And they also become aware of his heart of gold that is exemplified through his willingness to help with any project that benefits his fellow-man. And one which is among his most cherished is Feeding Avery Families, of which he serves as Director.
Feeding Avery Families is a non-profit Christian organization dedicated to eliminating hunger in Avery County by any means possible including through monetary donations, volunteerism or food donations. All assistance provided to Feeding Avery Families goes directly to Avery County families who still need help obtaining food after exhausting all other available resources.
Continue reading this article for a conversation between this reporter (my questions) and Larson (his answers) about various topics involving Feeding Avery Families and the great ministry it provides many Avery County citizens.
High Country Press (HCP): When and how did Feeding Avery Families originate?
Larson: When Avery County determined in 2005 that it no longer could continue to continue distributing surplus governmental food, because of a shortage of volunteers, county citizens Phil Shomaker and Jim Weaver took on that responsibility. They called the enterprise Feeding Avery Families. They each had to withdraw from this in 2007, and the operation was taken over by John Cox, with the assistance of Allen Clark, Paul O’Connell and Bobby Duke. In the subsequent ten years they grew the operation from one distributing a few boxes of food when available, to the distribution of approximately 500 boxes of food every month, plus frozen meat, desserts and bread.
In 2017, John experienced some health issues and had to retire, which leads to the next question.
HCP: How long have you been Feeding Avery Families Director and how did it come about for you to fill the position?
Larson: I was invited to interview for this position in July of 2017. I had known all four of the men who had led the program up until that time, and I was offered the position as director, which I accepted. They had recently expanded the Board to six members.
HCP: For those who want to learn more about you, what is your personal background?
Larson: After graduating from Cornell University in 1966, I spent nearly six years as a Marine Officer and pilot. I went from there to Duke University for medical school and surgical training, then spending nineteen years practicing general and vascular surgery in Greenville, NC. My wife, Carol, and I retired to the mountains in 2000, and I spent the next seventeen years as a furniture maker and woodcarver, while actively participating in the Banner Elk Presbyterian Church. I was particularly interested in missions and outreach. We have one son, Chris, who along with his wife, Julia, live near us in Banner Elk.
HCP: What is your favorite aspect and the one you consider most rewarding about your work with Feeding Avery Families?
Larson: We are blessed to have a wonderful corps of volunteers, who are enthusiastic, collegial and fun. The most enjoyable aspect of what I do is trying to use whatever gifts and experience I have to continue growing the organization’s efforts. Our clients are appreciative of what we do, and it is a privilege to be able to serve them.
HCP: What kind of organizational umbrella does Feeding Avery Families operate from… Does it also have a Board of Trustees or related type of additional leadership besides yourself?
Larson: We are an independent 501(c)3 non-profit organization. I spent much of my time during my first 1 1/2 years with FAF updating and refining our documents. We are now current with all necessary legal and organizational documentation, with a nine member, engaged and committed Board of Directors.
HCP: Approximately how many individuals and families do you feed each month?
Larson: Though that number varies, in December we fed almost 1,200 individuals, or approximately 460 families.
HCP: What’s the client ratio of those assisted by Feeding Avery Families as repeat weekly or monthly clients compared to those needing meals only periodically?
Larson: I don’t have those specific data, but the vast majority of our recipients come each month. There is an increase in demand in the winter months, when some of our area’s seasonal employment is idle.
HCP: How many boxes or pounds of food does Feeding Avery Families distribute every month?
Larson: In 2017 we distributed 16,700 pounds per month. In 2018 that number has increased to approximately 25,000 pounds per month. We distributed 28,000 pounds in November with our annual turkey distribution. With our Christmas hams in December, we distributed 35,000 pounds of much needed food, along with warm winter clothing and stuffed animals.
HCP: Generally, what food items are included in the distributions done by Feeding Avery Families?
Larson: Each family of 1-3 individuals receives a box containing approximately 20 pounds of non-perishable food (canned vegetables, canned fruit, pasta, rice, pasta sauce, peanut butter, etc.) along with frozen bread, approximately five pounds of meat, frozen desserts and approximately ten pounds of fresh produce and dairy products, usually totaling 42-43 pounds. Families of 4-6 receive twice that amount and families of 7 or more receive three times that.
HCP: What determines eligibility for individuals and families to receive food from Feeding Avery Families and how can those in need of food start getting it from your organization??
Larson: There are just two requirements to receive the food we distribute. Recipients must be residents of Avery County and meet the federal government’s income requirements to be eligible for “The Emergency Food Assistance Program”. We do not require proof or documentation for any of this.
HCP: Does Feeding Avery Families receive any Federal, State or County funding and other kinds of governmental assistance?
Larson: We receive no governmental funding. We do receive some surplus food from USDA (TEFAP) through our food bank in Asheville – MANNA, and some from the state of North Carolina the same way.
HCP: Feeding Avery Families has formed partnerships with a food bank and some grocery stores. In detail, what do those involve?
Larson: MANNA, the food bank in Asheville, is our primary food provider. We receive some free food from them and purchase the rest. We have strong relationships with the Food Lion and Lowe’s Food Stores in Banner Elk. We receive donated food from Food Lion four days a week, and Lowe’s holds a series of promotions, generating large amounts of donated food. We are also blessed to receive food collected by area organizations, such as Lees-McRae College, Mt Calvary Baptist Church, the US Postal Service, Avery County Schools and many of our communities and businesses.
HCP: How is Feeding Avery Families different than other such related organizations—if at all?
Larson: I suspect we are much like most other county food pantries, though the specific needs in any given county will certainly vary. We are blessed to have such wonderful community support that I believe we are able to do much more than most organizations like us.
HCP: Does Feeding Avery Families have annual fundraisers and what does each entail?
Larson: We hold an Empty Bowls fundraiser in August, as guests of our friends at Linville Land Harbor, and we raise money by parking cars at the Woolly Worm Festival in October. This year, for the first time, we engaged in a fund appeal campaign by mail. We will be continuing all of these efforts in the future.
Additionally, this past summer we partnered with Abigail Sheets of the Old Hampton Store during their Thursday evening concerts. This was quite successful in raising funds, creating community awareness and recruiting some volunteers.
HCP: Many lives of Avery Countians have been touched or impacted by Feeding Avery Families. How does the organization keep learning about those in need of food in the county?
Larson: Communication, like transportation, is difficult in Avery County. We have had many wonderful articles in the High Country Press, Avery Post and Avery Journal-Times. I also have been featured on WECR Radio in Newland with Phillip Greene. I am trying very hard to speak to as many churches and civic organizations as will have me. Most of our communication ends up being word of mouth. This article will certainly help!
HCP: What the top challenges for Feeding Avery Families… how does the organization keep operating?
Larson: Probably the biggest challenge is that there are approximately 3,000 individual in Avery County who are food insecure, approximately a fourth of whom are children. When we reach 1100-1200 of them, that represents little more than a third of the people in need. Avery County has a number of terrific agencies trying to help with this need. Our work is complementary to the work done by Reaching Avery Ministries, directed by Janet Milsaps and Voluntary Avery County, directed by Cindy Lindecamp.
Fortunately we are blessed to have generous, committed supporters and donors. If we keep articulating the need and make good-faith efforts to help, I believe these people will continue being supportive.
HCP: How can those wishing to contribute financially to Feeding Avery Families, volunteer of help in other capacities with this ministry do so?
Larson: As I indicated previously, Feeding Avery Families is a recognized 501(c)3 organization. All contributions are tax deductible. Our mailing address is PO Box 1075, Banner Elk, NC 28604. I can be reached at (828) 783-8506. We have both a web site (feedingaveryfamilies.org) and a Facebook page (facebook.com/feedingavery). We have many volunteer opportunities, many of which require no heavy lifting. We can use anyone who is willing to help. I would be delighted to talk with anyone interested in being involved.
HCP: Do you have additional comments you want to make?
Larson: 2019 will be a pivotal year for Feeding Avery Families. This coming summer we will be enfolding the Avery County Schools Back-Pack Program, hopefully building on the very productive efforts of Rev. Ted Henry and the UMC Avery Missional Network. We wish to open and operate a deeply discounted pharmacy, making needed medications both affordable and available to those we serve. We are also interested in undertaking a Community Health Initiative, demonstrating the health care value of good regular nutrition, as well as the fact that such an approach can reduce overall health care costs. Though these latter two initiatives will require funding we’ve not yet identified, we’re working on it.
There is much to be done, but we are blessed with terrific people and wonderful resources. The onus is on us to make things better.