An Opelika man was once living his dream as a landscaper — a job he loved and had been working since he was 13 — until about 10 years ago when a stroke changed his life.
On a Saturday morning at the Community Market in Opelika, the love of outdoors that fueled his love for his job was eclipsed by the cold of the morning, which caused the right part of his body from head to toe — which is disabled —to ache.
The 51-year-old Opelika man, who requested his name be withheld, came to the market that morning so he could feed himself. Work ceased to be an option after the stroke, and $715 each month in governmental assistance didn’t cover the bills he had to pay.
He previously relied on his siblings to help him with food needs until he heard about the market about a month ago. He strolled down the aisles Saturday, filling his cart with nuts, meat, canned goods and more as he worked toward the market’s 75-pound limit on goods for a single-person household.
“I try to survive, that’s all,” he said, citing his faith in God and his habit of praying. For him, God gets him up in the morning and puts him to sleep each night.
Outside campus borders where students have $300-995 on a plastic card to spend on a number of campus dining facilities, about 27,000 people in Lee County — about 5,000 more people than the amount of undergraduate students enrolled at the University — are food insecure.
Food insecurity is defined as being without enough food for all household members and limited access to or uncertain availability of nutritional foods.
Feeding America, a national domestic hunger-relief organization, calculates a food insecurity rate of 18.3 percent in the Lee County based on the number of food insecure people in 2014. The county population has since increased, but food insecurity data has not been updated since 2014.
The Community Market is an extension of the Food Bank of East Alabama and one of several local outlets that serve the hungry in Lee County. Residents who provide proof of need can select their own food from the market four times each calendar year within set weight limits that correspond to household size.
Four aisles lined with canned goods, cereals, fresh fruit and organic food meet the back wall of refrigerators and freezers full of meat, dairy-free milk, vegetables and cheeses to create a supermarket-style environment in which people can choose items they need instead of receiving pre-made boxes.
The market served 2,768 households last year with 20 percent of people assisted living in Auburn and 39 percent from Opelika, according to a 2016 report.
For some, being able to use the market means having food on the table.
An Auburn mother pushed her cart past a shelf of applesauce, which caught the eye of her son, who was sitting in the shopping cart seat. His favorite foods, aside from applesauce, are yogurt and cereal bars, she said.
The single mother, who also requested her name be withheld, said she has worked at an Auburn hotel for about two years making minimum wage, which isn’t enough.
“This helps fill my cabinets up,” she said of the market, where she has visited since last year. Her 75 pounds of food, which she tries to ration, will last her more than a month.
Many people who face hunger do have full-time jobs despite some misconceptions, said Martha Henk, executive director of the Food Bank of East Alabama. Some jobs simply don’t pay a living wage.
Often times people face a balancing act of what to shortchange, as Henk discovered while driving to work one day.
Car lights flashing on the side of the road caught her eye, and she noticed a woman walking. When Henk asked the crying woman if she needed help, the woman explained that on her way to work as a transit driver, her car ran out of gas.
Henk offered her a ride to the gas station and on the way, the woman explained that her husband was disabled and stayed home to care for their 3-year-old granddaughter whose mother was in prison.
The woman was a few days shy of receiving her regular pay and knew she didn’t have enough gas to arrive at work, so she decided to ask a neighbor for money. When her neighbor gave her $20, she thought about the food they needed and tried to divide her resources for gas and food. But she had miscalculated.
And that is one of the many people Henk has come into contact with who was in need. She remembers a woman eating cat food and rice and a girl who said her father advised her to drink extra water at the water fountain if she felt hungry.
Sometimes it’s deciding what to do with the money you have, and other times, as Henk recalled another instance, it’s deciding between the apartment and the car, opting to use the car as both transportation and a living space.
“There’s this misconception a lot of times that these are sort of welfare queens that are sitting back and don’t want to work and they’re getting food stamps and they’re getting TANF [Temporary Assistance for Needy Families] and they’re just coasting,” Henk said. “But the truth is … about one-third of the ones that we see are the working poor.”
Others struggle with health problems, mental issues, becoming a single parent or losing a job.
Betty Wimberly, of Loachapoka, came to the market to get food for herself and her father, who has dementia. Since 2014, her full-time job has been taking care of him, though it was her health that pulled her out of her work.
Nerve damage, which her doctor told her is connected to her diabetes, causes her legs to hurt and go numb, which keeps her from standing for long periods of time. She could only work part time —15–16 hours — at the convenience or grocery stores and used food stamps that provided “barely enough.” After moving in with her father to care for him, she no longer qualified for the food stamps, but said the market is “a good help.”
She said she thinks it’s important to note “you’re not homeless.” Rather, people are making use of an available resource.
“Not everybody is in the system to take advantage of it,” Wimberly said. “Some people really do need it.”
The Food Bank of East Alabama, of which the Community Market is an extension, is a nonprofit organization that feeds people in need by partnering with different agencies. Of the approximately 224 partner agencies in the food bank’s seven-county coverage area, about half are in Lee County.
People can qualify for assistance at the food bank and its partner agencies through a variety of factors, such as whether they receive food stamps, TANF, Supplemental Security Income, or by assessing their income.
Henk often thinks of the Yiddish proverb that says, “If you sit in a hot bath, you think the whole town is warm.” It’s difficult for people who don’t experience a specific struggle to believe it exists around them.
Before being a part of the Auburn United Methodist Food Pantry, Reeder Dulaney admits she wasn’t aware of the hunger in the area based on the county’s affluence with the University and educated citizens.
The reality of hunger in Auburn manifested to Dulaney, now the director of the Food Pantry, when she saw a mother came to the Food Pantry whose son was in the same class as Dulaney’s son.
“And I was like, ‘There’s hunger in Jay’s class,’” she said. She listed off other stories of hunger that bled into her world — stories that she said stick with her. “It can be people right where you are, but they’re living week to week. … People need to know that there are hungry people here, and they look like you and me and you would never know it. They have a job, they have an income, but they’re living paycheck to paycheck.”
The Food Pantry, founded in 2000, receives from the Food Bank, businesses and corporations but also buys other goods with church funds.
Every Friday morning the doors of the Food Pantry open for families to receive and select food. Volunteers also deliver food to those who are unable to come to the physical location, such as through the East Alabama Services for the Elderly. Several people who visit the Food Pantry have diabetes, so the organization aims to offer more food options for diabetics.
“I’ve learned not to judge,” Dulaney said of what she’s learned through the Food Pantry. “You don’t know what they’re going through, and that’s been hard.”
She thinks of seeing people in need with cell phones or nice cars, something people criticize of the poor.
“It may be the last thing they have,” she said.
Martha Henk, executive director of the Food Bank of East Alabama, and Reeder Dulaney, director of the AUMC Food Pantry share their thoughts on hunger based on their experiences.
She’s seen people underemployed, working at fast-food restaurants and as hotel maids; people battling mental health issues; and disintegrated families leaving single parents to care for children. And she too disapproves of the welfare-receiver stereotype.
“They’re making decisions that I couldn’t even fathom,” she said, citing someone’s need to decide between enough food and enough medicine.
Some people get back on their feet, as Dulaney has seen over time. A man once stopped her at a Verizon store after recognizing her from the Food Bank and said he had gotten a job. She sees others return to the church, not for food but to give money or donate clothes. The food pantry saw the number of families served decrease by about 9 percent from 2015 to 2016.
But Dulaney acknowledges that the Food Pantry isn’t solving hunger in Lee County; rather, it’s serving as a “Band-Aid.”
A 13-year-old poem hangs on the wall of a cubicle-shaped station where residents receive assistance with the screening and intake procedures of the Community Market.
Anonymously written and titled “The Other Side of the Desk,” the poem confronts people with the reality that anyone — including you — could be on the “other side of the desk” receiving assistance. The poem, staff said, serves as a reminder to treat everyone fairly and with respect.
Gripping his right hand with his left, feeling the aftermath of the stroke, the Opelika man stood in the aisles of the Community Market and still offered a wide smile after deciding the one thing he would ask for if he could have anything in that moment: to be rich.
“I’d help people that need help,” he said. But what came to his lips several times was the reminder that he keeps trying to take care of himself, to “survive.” Yet he smiled again. “I try to be happy every day.”