At NourishNC headquarters, a new shipment has just arrived. Pallets stacked high with cans, trail mix bars, produce, and other food stretch in a line down the center of the warehouse, and towering shelves of goods hug the walls. Two rows of tables flank the pallets; this is where the food will be packaged into the boxes and bags that will go to feed hungry children in New Hanover County.
“Everything started in 2008 with a school nurse,” says Steve McCrossan, NourishNC’s executive director, as he leans on the end pallet. “She noticed every Monday she got an influx of kids with upset stomachs, lightheadedness, dizziness. Eventually, she put two and two together: They weren’t eating over the weekend.”
News spread quickly, and soon a group of parents established a backpack program to feed 20 hungry children at Carolina Beach Elementary School. Since, NourishNC has grown into one of Wilmington’s most recognized nonprofit organizations—one that makes a point of working actively with the community. On January 21 NourishNC will partner with the 9th Annual Cold Stroke Classic, a paddleboarding race, to raise funds and spread awareness.
“These events get our name out there,” McCrossan says. “Most people just don’t know one in four kids are going hungry in our county, and when they hear that, they’re blown away.”
Since becoming a nonprofit in 2010, NourishNC has provided 710 kids in 35 New Hanover County schools with healthy food. They feed children on weekends and during school breaks. Just in the past six months, they have distributed over 24,000 pounds of produce to food-insecure youth. Also, they have installed a new walk-in cooler in their warehouse to provide families with a wider variety of fresh vegetables and fruits.
“If you’re hungry you’re not going to be able to concentrate in school, and you’re going to have a host of health issues,” McCrossan says. “If we can provide these children with healthy, fresh foods, we feel we can empower them to excel in school, do well in their community and to really succeed in life.”
For students in pre-K, middle and high school, NourishNC provides monthly boxes with four weekends worth of food, while children in kindergarten through fifth grade are given food bags on a weekly basis. The bags are discreetly slipped into the children’s backpacks during class time by school employees, in order to respect each family’s privacy. Many children who end up enrolled in the program are first identified by these very employees.
“The school social workers, family counselors, and teachers are what I call the heart and soul of our program,” McCrossan says. “They’re on the frontline with these kids every single day, and they really make our program run.”
Behind the scenes NourishNC is held aloft by dedicated volunteers. It takes nearly 5,000 hours of volunteer work per year to keep the organization running. Volunteers donate food through food drives, pack boxes and plastic bags in the warehouse, and deliver the packages to schools.
Wilmington businesses also partner with NourishNC to sponsor schools and get employees involved in volunteering. Engaging people in a hands-on way is essential to the organization’s mission. Many businesses bring their employees to the warehouse once a month to help pack food for the schools they sponsor.
“If people come in here and volunteer, they’re actually going to pack food and produce that’s going to go out that weekend to a kid,” McCrossan says. “People love it because it’s direct. When they’re done, we’ll tell them, ‘Hey, you just fed 250 kids this weekend.’ Once people do that and feel that, it’s real.”
Before becoming the director of NourishNC, McCrossan worked hard to make real differences in his community. With the help of some friends, he started a group called Today is the Day, and they began contacting nonprofit organizations to ask what they needed to accomplish. They put a special emphasis on completing the less-than-glamorous tasks other volunteers were hesitant to take on, such as digging holes for foundation footers on a Habitat for Humanity home. He has worked as a civil rights advocate for the National Coalition for the Homeless and served with AmeriCorps NCCC. He believes in taking action. Thus he wants NourishNC’s partnership with the 9th Annual Cold Stroke Classic to expand their reach, in order to help more kids.
“I want awareness to be one step in the process, with action coming right after that,” McCrossan says. On January 21 the 9th Annual Cold Stroke Classic will be hosted by the Blockade Runner on Wrightsville Beach. Paddleboarders will push off into the Intracoastal Waterway to compete in both short and long races. The event includes a $1,250 cash purse for the long course winner, as well as a “Run What You Brung” division, in which participants can paddle anything from surfskis to canoes. A portion of the proceeds will be donated to NourishNC to help them provide more hungry children with the nutrients they need to thrive.
“Our vision is to be anywhere and everywhere hungry children need us in this county,” McCrossan says. “Whatever it takes, wherever they are, that’s where we’re going.”