By Tim Gardner
While expanding its services and adding new programs, the Feeding Avery Families organization has achieved milestones of astounding proportions the past two-and-a-half years. This was especially true in 2019, and FAF expects another record-breaking year in 2020 with even more future growth in the following years.
Founded in 2005, 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.
While FAF requires a total team effort from its dozens of volunteers, Executive Director Dick Larson is given credit by those most familiar with the organization for much of its success.
A Cornell University graduate (Class of 1966), Larson is an active member of the Banner Elk Presbyterian Church and the greater Avery County community. He volunteers at the Thursday evening concerts at Banner Elk and played an integral role in a multi-county capital campaign within the Presbytery of Western North Carolina.
As a retired U.S. 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.
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 new baby, Reid.
Church work and service to local nonprofits have filled Dick Larson’s time and interest in the more recent years. He has served 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.
In the summer of 2017, former Feeding Avery Families president John Cox announced that he would be retiring from the post that June, so therefore the organization would undergo a leadership transition.
FAF’s Board of Directors wasted no time beginning the search for a new Executive Director. Of those who applied for the position, the Board unanimously selected Dick Larson. And he has proven that few individuals could have been hired as qualified to lead Feeding Avery Families and perhaps few who could have made it as successful.
Dick Larson considers Feeding Avery Families as a mission “as close to his heart as any,” adding: “This is an organization that began with a small group of people doing wonderful things for people, and many great groups start like that. My hiring as Executive Director was kind of a watershed point for our organization. John Cox did a great job leading the FAF and with his leaving, it became a time to begin broadening our base and formalizing the structure of the organization.
“One of my main objectives when I took over was the immediate need for continuity in the organization, and I wanted see it grow and evolve in the future based on what came before, including expanded service and new partnerships with other community organizations. I’m proud we have witnessed all of those objectives become reality.”
Larson listed what he considers the milestone achievements of Feeding Avery Families during his tenure as its Executive Director. Those include: Change in food distribution to Client Choice; Increase in people fed from 1,000 to 1,300 per month; More than doubling the amount of food each family receives (from 27 to 60 pounds); Adding large amounts of fresh fruit and vegetables for each family; Substantially increasing the organization’s financial reserves; Assuming management of the school backpack program and establishing in-school food pantries; and Creating and stocking five Community Pantries on school grounds, available anytime, day or night, to anyone who needs food, and that were built by the skilled trades class in carpentry at Avery County High School, under the direction of Nick Daniels.
When asked about the future of Feeding Avery Families, Dick Larson noted: “I believe that feeding of the hungry is scripturally sound and the need in Avery County will keep growing as its population ages.”
Last year the number of individuals FAF served jumped from 1,100 to 1,300 in both November and December, according to its recorded data.
And for the entire 2019 year, the volume of food Feeding Avery Families distributed rose from an already mind-bogging 306,000 pounds to a total of 506,000 pounds. Feeding Avery Families took over the county’s weekend backpack food program in Avery County Schools, added food pantries to each school loaded with snacks and established five community pantries outside several local schools including those located at: Avery County High School; Newland Elementary; Riverside Elementary; Banner Elk Elementary; and Cranberry Middle/Freedom Trail Elementary. These pantries are open to anyone.
“We will likely go through 2,000 to 2,500 pounds of food per week in keeping them stocked,” declared Dick Larson.
At least a ten percent growth in those FAF serves is anticipated in 2020, he added.
Feeding Avery Families has made a total switch to allowing its clients to shop and choose what food they need and want with FAF’s volunteers.
Additional changes to Feeding Avery Families are upcoming as well. The organization recently leased more space, which is adjacent to its current headquarters. That created additional and needed extra storage areas for the food in its community pantries and to house other program initiatives.
Dick Larson said Feeding Avery Families also has hired a health consultant and is working on its partnerships with county and area businesses to provide further outreach and improve the health of clients and patients through nutrition education counseling and other health care services.
Dick Larson hopes partnerships with health care businesses will allow Feeding Avery Families to give more food to people in need, even getting physicians and other health care professionals involved to write prescriptions for food and give indigent patients boxes of food as well as referrals to the organization.
Various Avery County leaders and other prominent citizens are in awe of the work Feeding Avery Families does under Dick Larson’s leadership. Two such examples are from County Manager Phillip Barrier, Jr. and Banner Elk Kiwanian and former FAF Board Member Jim Swinkola.
“It’s very satisfying that our county has such wonderful volunteer service organizations like Feeding Avery Families,” Barrier said. “Dick Larson and the rest of this group does such a great job for our citizens and others who need food help that it’s almost beyond description. Sometimes governments can’t do it all in providing all the help we can to the county. But organizations like Feeding Avery Families help us provide much-needed assistance to those who need it and we’re most grateful for them.”
Swinkola added a thorough overview of FAF’s growth and achievements: “Over the last several years, I’ve witnessed a remarkable transformation of Feeding Avery Families. As a board member of this hunger-relief nonprofit, numerous and well-coordinated decisions were executed to improve both the quality and quantity of services to the food insecure of Avery County.
“The method of food distribution changed to a client choice model, resulting in both increased food distribution and improved food selection. The financial operations became crisp and solid, with the addition of an endowment fund to help guarantee future operations. Food pantries were added to public school locations, the backpack program was incorporated and improved, volunteer leadership was enhanced and additional grants were secured.
“Lastly, the Feeding Avery Families brand was enhanced and polished under Dick Larson as our Executive Director. Overall a remarkable transition; it’s been like a typewriter transforming into a computer!”
Still, Dick Larson deflects any credit he receives for Feeding Avery Families’ success and is excited about its future.
“Feeding Avery Families is not about me, but a whole team of wonderful volunteers, of whom we have approximately 150 in the spring, summer and fall months and about 75 to 80 year round.
“I also want to recognize the ace efforts of, and commend, our wonderful FAF Board of Directors who currently include: Cathy Fields; Tony O’Harrow: Carol Tuggle, Dr. Charles Baker, MD; Sheila Bauer; Laura Russell; McNair Tornow; and Tammy Woodie. And I also have a very efficient immediate staff consisting of Assistant Director Jo-Ann McMurray; Consultant Dr. Rachel Ward, Ph.D.; and Treasurer Georgia Hollis.
“Our Board of Directors members and immediate staff personnel also are all volunteers and with them and all our other volunteers, Feeding Avery Families would not have thrived as it has or even existed. I’m honored and blessed to have had the opportunity to work with anyone ever involved in any capacity with Feeding Avery Families.”
Larson added that the ultimate hope of Feeding Avery Families, himself and all the organization’s other volunteers is there is no longer a need for their work.
He remarked: “We would like to work ourselves out of this job in the sense that our work is no longer needed. But I don’t think that will ever happen. There’s always people who are hungry in almost every place you can name and that’s certainly true in Avery County. I and all our other volunteers enjoy our work and it is extremely satisfying and rewarding. But it’s always our goal for our work in feeding others to not be needed.”
For further information about Feeding Avery Families, call (828) 783-5806 or log onto its web site at: feedingaveryfamilies.org.