Spotlight Exclusives

The Shelf-Life of Trauma

Joyce Nash Joyce Nash, posted on

In China Grove, N.C., a food bank has remade itself into a program that seeks to address the underlying causes of poverty and seek longer-term solutions. This story is co-published with The Assembly as part of a new content partnership with Spotlight.

People have always brought their grief to the big white house at 306 South Main Street in China Grove. For many years, families held funerals beneath its high-pitched roof. Now, community members gather in its wood-paneled rooms to talk about some of their most painful lived experiences in a novel approach to food assistance.

These workshops are hosted by the Main Street Marketplace and Meeting Place, which was formerly a food bank called the Main Street Mission. China Grove is a town of under 5,000 people located along I-85, where the Charlotte metro area gives way to winding country roads and acres of farmland.

Beginning in the late 1800s, people who once farmed found steady work in nearby manufacturing plants and mills. But in 2003, Kannapolis-based Pillowtex Corporation declared bankruptcy, laying off thousands of workers and plunging families throughout the region into crisis. Many community members found themselves lined up behind the big white house to receive boxes of food from the Mission.

From its opening in 2002 through 2020, the Mission was China Grove’s sole source of emergency food aid. Hope Oliphant joined as an employee in 2014, and by the time she became director in 2019, she had realized she was seeing the same people in line for assistance month after month.

Main Street Market and Meeting place executive director Hope Oliphant sits in on a “Getting Ahead” meeting recently. (Photos by Jon C. Lakey/ for The Assembly)

She was inspired to spearhead the organization’s transition from a food bank to the Marketplace, which operates a tiered-price market where the public can purchase meat, pantry staples, and fresh produce, including hydroponic lettuce from an on-site garden. That transformation also included workshops that address topics such as poverty and Adverse Childhood Experiences, or ACEs.

“To create lasting change, we have to address root problems,” Oliphant said. “Nine times out of ten, the root problem is trauma.”

In interviews, community members reported positive experiences with Marketplace’s new trauma-focused approach. But not everyone was pleased by the new direction, and some charitable groups were contractually unable to get on board with it.

Second Harvest Food Bank of Metrolina pulled its support in accordance with a standard agreement that bars the nonprofit from partnering with organizations that sell food rather than give it away. Kathy Helms, Second Harvest’s finance director, said Marketplace didn’t apply for a contract renewal in light of the rules.

Prior to the switch, Second Harvest’s donations accounted for 70 percent of the Mission’s food inventory.

Among volunteers and individual donors who took exception to the new strategy, concerns frequently centered on its effectiveness.

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