WILMINGTON — NourishNC’s Greenfield Street warehouse is falling apart. “We literally can’t wait to get out of here,” said Steve McCrossan, the nonprofit’s executive director.
After humble beginnings serving 10 children out of a closet in Carolina Beach Elementary School 12 years ago, NourishNC has grown to provide meals to about 1,350 hungry children on a regular basis.
Operating out of its Southside warehouse for the past five years, groups of 40-plus volunteers share just eight parking spaces. Perishable goods are practically spilling out of limited storage coolers. The warehouse has just one loading bay door, a “wildly inefficient” obstacle.
“Right now, when we do distribution, if you open the cooler door, the food is almost ready to fall out on you – that’s how tight we are right now,” McCrossan said.
Last week, construction crews began demolition work on an old restaurant on Market Street, most recently Kowboyz Saloon and a China Buffet between ‘98 and 2017. The building will be renovated into office space for nonprofit staff, and the old kitchen was torn down to make room for an expansive, 12,000 square foot facility.
The NourishNC team searched for 18 months for a large warehouse space downtown. After realizing nothing was available, it settled on the 2.1-acre Market Street property, which it purchased in the fall of 2019 for $700,000. While the Greenfield Street warehouse does get foot traffic from those who use it, NourishNC volunteers or school social workers make deliveries to those with transportation barriers.
When the pandemic arrived, the team was able to fix up the building’s old coolers to be put into use for its no-contact grocery drive-thru. “The great thing about old Chinese cafes is they have huge walk-in coolers,” McCrossan said.
At the height of the pandemic, NourishNC served as many as 1,600 children on a daily basis. Once stimulus checks arrived, “we saw that number ease off,” McCrossan said, which has since returned to pre-pandemic levels. However, McCrossan isn’t certain whether the ratio of actual need has reduced. Before the pandemic, the ratio of children who struggle with hunger in New Hanover County was one in five, down from one in four when McCrossan joined the nonprofit several years ago.
“Before the pandemic, I was like, ‘Wow, we’re actually winning. We’re doing better. This is great. Let’s put ourselves out of business, right’?” he said. Now, NourishNC is waiting on data to learn whether the improvement was sustained or impeded by the pandemic. “We’ve been doing better, and now we’re all holding our breath to see what the pandemic’s done to that number.”
In normal circumstances, NourishNC identifies children in need of its services through social workers, pediatricians, and school personnel picking up on signs of food insecurity.
“That can be asking for more helpings when there is food available,” McCrossan said. “It could be showing up for school Monday morning and gorging yourself for lunch or breakfast until you get sick.”
When school is in session, volunteers deliver black plastic bags filled with eight meals, seven snacks, juice and milk every Friday to go home in the backpacks of select elementary students to last through the weekend; middle- and high-school students receive monthly boxes filled with meat, eggs, milk, fresh produce, and other goods.
Over the summer, the nonprofit offers summer-break boxes to families in need every two weeks, with boxes filled with two to four weeks worth of food. It amounts to three meals a day per child, all summer long.
“When I say meals, I mean real meals,” McCrossan said. “We don’t count servings – we want our kids around a table with their family, eating good food together.”
The new Market Street facility will allow the nonprofit to more than triple its fresh and frozen storage capacity. New plans include “gigantic” outdoor walk-in coolers McCrossan said “will take years for us to grow into.”
It will also include a free shopping area, where families and children can choose items that work for them. This model provides families with a dignified shopping experience that cuts down on waste and allows NourishNC to cater to more culturally specific food items. Planned on just over an acre on the 2.1-acre footprint, there’s room to grow in place — “When I say ‘forever home,’ I mean it,” McCrossan said.
To date, NourishNC is about $500,000 shy of its $1.9 million construction funding goal. The lease is up soon at the Greenfield Street warehouse – McCrossan hopes the new facility is move-in ready by early 2022.
“In a dream world, Jan. 1, we are in our brand-new facility, feeding kids, everything’s paid for, and we are off and running,” he said.
Made possible by the assistance of several community organizations and individual donors, McCrossan is grateful for the community’s longstanding commitment to feeding hungry children. “We’re very blessed here,” he said. “Every time we put some kind of project out into the world, this community has been great about responding to our needs.”
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