No Christmas stocking should be empty — and no stomach should be empty, either.

According to Feeding America, more than 37 million people in the United States struggle with hunger — and 1.5 million of those live in North Carolina. An estimated third of that number is comprised of children, meaning one in five children in North Carolina struggles with hunger. For those in Dare County, Beach Food Pantry offers an option for help. The pantry is at 4007 N. Croatan Hwy., Kitty Hawk. It is open to clients from 2 to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday.

Since October 1992, Beach Food Pantry, which existed first as a ministry of St. Andrew’s By the Sea Episcopal Church, has been open and available to people who suddenly find themselves hungry because of an emergency or crisis.

“We are the only full client choice model on the beach and we’re also the only My Plate aligned pantry on the beach,” says Elisabeth Silverthorne, executive director of Beach Food Pantry. “The client choice piece of it means that it is set up like a grocery store would be, and they are able to walk around and, from what we have, pick what works best with their health needs and their family’s tastes.”

Beach Food Pantry also offers a team of volunteers who serve as personal shoppers to help clients find items that align with their specific dietary needs.

“They can also help them think about the nutrition piece of it, that is the My Plate-aligned portion of our pantry,” she says of the USDA’s nutritional guidelines that replaced the food pyramid.

The food pantry operates on an application process to both verify Dare County residence and identify specific food needs.

“We also ask them, because we are a crisis or an emergency food source, we also ask them what brought them to us, so we can provide some other community resources that might help them to bootstrap in their time of need. We really are a hand up, not a hand out,” Silverthorne says. “We recognize there are some chronic needs. Unfortunately, we can’t solve those chronic needs alone but we can try to help provide resources to help people accommodate their needs.”

“We have over 4,000 clients a year, and this year, we don’t know why, but we are actually trending up. We’ve had about 200 additional clients as of the end of September.”

Silverthorne clarifies that even the loss of employment because of the shift to the off-seasons qualifies as a crisis or emergency.

“That would be a considered a crisis to many people, even if it is something where they have been working in that field for a long time and they know that it does eventually dry up seasonally, it changes season to season.”

In 2018, Beach Food Pantry saw families affected by the government shut down.

“They were beside themselves,” Silverthorne says. “There’s always something like that every season.”

“This year we had a shorter season in some ways with Hurricane Dorian,” she adds.

2019 also included a special grant for the pantry to operate a free market for produce on Ocracoke Island for seven weeks.

“We have been able, through the generosity of the Outer Banks Hospital Medical Groups, to begin offering a once per month evening distribution from 5:30 to 6:30,” says Silverthorne. “Our rules are that you have to wait thirty days between visits and you can come up to four times per year, the fact that this evening distribution happens once a month is really all that they can come anyway.”

The bulk of the food on the pantry’s shelves comes from that Feeding America Retail Program that sends near dated food from local grocery stores.

“We wouldn’t be able to do what we do without our community,” she says. “It’s really beautiful the way the community supports the pantry as well as the grocery retailers being able to do it through that national program.”

“Usually it isn’t just a hunger problem,” she explains. “One thing we find, we are able through the generosity of the community — because all of this only happens through the generosity of the community — to offer pet food. One of the signs is that when people are starting to go hungry, they will feed their animals before they’ll feed themselves. If we’re able to provide the pet food, then it means there is an opportunity for them to make sure they get food in their belly, as well.”

Silverthorne is the only full-time paid member of staff at the food pantry.

“We have over 300 volunteers in the course of a year. We probably have at least 40 volunteers that are involved on a weekly basis,” she says.

“If people are interested in volunteering, we are sort of always filling in gaps in the regular rotation of people who volunteer every week. In addition to that, I have a list of volunteer dreams that is either people who have certain skills or just want to spearhead something new,” Silverthorne says. “In terms of funds, funds are always great. We do have to purchase over $70,000 worth of food for the pantry itself every year and then our Summer Food for Kids more than doubled this year, and it was over $20,000 in food for that.”

Beach Food Pantry also hosts fundraising events, like November’s Holiday Chef Challenge at the Pavilion at Pirate's Cove in Manteo.

“We are planning on June 13, 2020, we are planning the first ever Outer Banks Rum Festival. We’ll be releasing more details to come,” she says.

It is important to Silverthorne that people not feel ashamed to use Beach Food Pantry’s services. She and her team of volunteers work to ensure people can get help with dignity.

“Anytime someone’s never had to utilize any of these sorts of resources, it’s always a difficult choice and we really applaud them to be willing to take a step to walk through the door and get the help that we have available. It’s beautiful what our community provides, but without people coming and taking it, it’s sort of a waste.”

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