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In Plain Sight

After jobs move out, hunger takes root in factory town

Cliff Lambeth, right, checks individual bags to make sure each contains a sandwich, juice, fruit and a dessert for the bag lunches He Cares distributes. Spencer Bakalar
Mike Turner assembles sandwiches to be distributed in the next few hours. Before all of the 300 sandwiches were made, the volunteers ran out of meat, causing them to go back into the sandwiches and cut every slice in half. Spencer Bakalar

It is difficult to ignore the six abandoned and crumbling factories that dot the landscape surrounding Main Street in Thomasville, N.C. Less than a half-mile away from the faded storefronts, children race in the shadows of broken window panes, past the empty lumberyards that once brought the town to life.

More than 100 years ago, Thomasville was the furniture industry hub of North Carolina. It was the type of town that created generational jobs where grandfathers, fathers and sons could each work and prosper, knowing that the opportunity for employment would be there for years to come.

"It's all a lot of people ever knew," said Mike Turner, founder of He Cares, an outreach ministry in Thomasville that distributes bag lunches and food boxes to the community.

In the past 15 years, however, the town of roughly 27,000 people has lost more than 5,000 manufacturing jobs. Companies like century-old Thomasville Furniture Industries, Inc., Duracell, and others downsized, relocated or closed.

Edward McClatchen gives bags to a family in the poorest apartment complex in Thomasville. "This is the last stop before the streets," says Mike Turner. Spencer Bakalar

From 2007-2010 alone, unemployment spiked from 5.5 to 13.5 percent. Today, with an unemployment rate of 9.1 percent, Thomasville still ranks higher than the state and nationwide averages.

Mike Turner was laid off in 2005 from Thomasville Furniture, but found factory work in nearby town, much like many of his former co-workers.

"All of those guys were struggling," said Turner. "Some of them didn't even know how to read or write. Furniture was all they knew."

Edward McClatchen, left, and Mike Turner, right, pray with Frank Hill, center. Frank lives alone, but looks forward to seeing Turner every week. "No matter when I see him, no matter what is happening to him, he is always smiling," said Turner. Spencer Bakalar

The town’s economic hardship has since translated into a hunger problem. It touches those who cannot find work, those who are sick, single-parent households, traditional households, the elderly, and children.

And despite the best efforts of Turner, and other local organizations, sparse food donations, unapproved grants, and inadequate funding have made it difficult to provide enough food for the growing number of needy families. 

Changing face of hunger

Terri Nelson has seen a huge increase in the number of people coming to Thomasville’s Fairgrove Family Resource Center: from 50 people a month to more than 1,000 in the decade she has worked there.

"The face of hunger has changed,” she said. “Children are most affected because of the economy. Their parents can't find jobs, and if they do find jobs, they work as hard as they can and never make enough."

It’s a feeling Jennifer Beck Powell knows well. A 34-year-old single mom with four kids, Powell lives in Thomasville, where the grim employment prospects forced her to look elsewhere.

Like Turner, she found another job 10 miles away, in High Point.

Jennifer takes a break during her shift. Spencer Bakalar

Every morning she wakes up at 4 a.m. to take her children to school so she can arrive at her job on time for her 6 a.m. shift.

At the end of the day, after 11 hours on her feet, she picks up her kids from daycare and goes home to help them with homework and cook. Because Powell often works through her 10-minute lunch break, dinner is the first big meal of the day.

After dinner, Caleb, 11, Abriana, 10, and Macy Jeffrey, 16, wait on Jennifer to help them with homework. Spencer Bakalar

Sleep doesn't come until close to 11 p.m., and the next day begins five hours later.

Living paycheck to paycheck, with inconsistent child support from the fathers of her children, leaves little leftover for necessities like food.

After paying for daycare at the end of the month, "it just makes you sick seeing how fast it goes away," said Powell. 

Jennifer takes a quick break after getting home from a workday. Spencer Bakalar

‘Always breaking even’

Prior to working at her new job, Powell was making $10 an hour. Her pay has increased to $13 an hour, but because of this, her food stamps have been reduced by more than $200 a month.

Jacobie Powell pieces together his dinner while playing with his cars. Spencer Bakalar

She receives lunch bags every Saturday and food boxes once a month through Turner's nonprofit, He Cares. But it's not always enough, and by the end of the month the food supply is running low.

“Now that it’s summertime it’s even harder,” said Powell. “This week I have the whole week off. All the kids are home and we have no food or any money to even do…simple things like go swim at the lake where it’s free. It still takes gas to get there and I can’t take a bunch of kids somewhere with no food, drinks or snacks for them.”

The Powells are just one family among millions across the U.S. who cannot seem to break the cycle of poverty and hunger.

"For a few years I really had no idea where I was going to get food for my kids," Powell said. "I'm thankful for my new job, but I can never get ahead. I'm always breaking even."

Because she is overdue on daycare payments, Jennifer negotiates with the daycare to see how much of her current paycheck she has to give up. Spencer Bakalar
Joshua Gutierrez, 11, races with Juisten Anderson through their front yard. Gutierrez and Anderson live across the street from the former Thomasville Furniture lumber yard, long out of use and falling down. Spencer Bakalar