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By Elizabeth Thompson

As more people have worked from home throughout the pandemic, many organizations have been forced to rethink their need for storefronts and office space.

One Asheville-based nonprofit has turned its office into a food pantry.

Tranzmission has been advocating for and supporting nonbinary and transgender people in western North Carolina since its inception in 2001. Now it’s helping reduce food insecurity in the region with the Talya Mazuz Memorial Food Pantry.

Transgender and gender non-conforming people experience poverty at twice the rate of the general population in the U.S. For those who are food insecure, finding a place that is gender-affirming and non-judgemental where they can access food can be a challenge. Tranzmission’s food pantry aims to make getting that help easier.

Since its beginnings in March 2020, the pantry has served 2,481 individuals and 1,102 households, said Hart Groves, who runs the food pantry, over email. On average, the pantry serves around 100 individuals and 26 households, Groves said.

Meeting the need

Pre-pandemic, Tranzmission did some pop-up food pantries but organization leaders quickly realized how great a need there was for access to food in a safe place, said administrative director Sharon Hanson.

“We did not have the space or capability to feed all the people that needed to be fed, so we had to figure out a way to make that possible,” Hanson said.

When the widening COVID-19 pandemic shut down large parts of the economy, there was a clear need for food assistance, Hanson said. Tranzmission set up a rudimentary food pantry stocked with emergency food boxes. Eventually, it partnered up with Mountain Area Nutritional Needs Alliance (MANNA) FoodBank, replaced office chairs with shelves and acquired a refrigerator for perishable food.

The pantry was named after Talya Mazuz, a community member in Asheville who died in 2012 “who had a big heart and a spectacularly giving nature,” Groves said.

There isn’t much data on food insecurity among transgender and gender non-conforming people, but a study by public health researchers at the University of Tennessee Knoxville found that 79 percent of transgender or gender non-conforming people living in the Southeast U.S. experienced food insecurity.

The main issue that survey respondents said contributed to food insecurity was the inability to find stable employment, Jennifer Russomanno, an assistant professor of public health at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville and one of the authors of the study, in an email interview.

“Participants described experiencing varying levels of discrimination when seeking employment – from hiring discrimination to discrimination while on the job,” Russomano said. “These interviews were conducted prior to the 2020 SCOTUS decision prohibiting transgender discrimination in employment settings, so there were really no legal protections from being fired for being TGNC (transgender and gender non-conforming) at the time of interview.”

(Russomanno added that her views are her own and do not reflect the views of her employer.)

There are disparities when it comes to marginalized communities, Hanson said. The U.S. transgender poverty rate is more than double that of the general U.S. population, according to the National Center for Transgender Equality’s 2015 U.S. Transgender Survey. Of survey respondents in North Carolina, 15 percent were unemployed and 29 percent were living in poverty. At that time, the overall unemployment rate in North Carolina was 5.9 percent, while the poverty rate in the state ran at about 13.6 percent

“Not only is it true it’s harder for trans employees to actually find a job, once people find out that they’re transgender, those opportunities just sort of disappear,” Hanson said. “So keeping food on the table is sometimes an event in and of itself.”

Stocking up the pantry

Despite the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic and a banner year for anti-transgender legislation, which advocates said could have deadly consequences for the transgender community, “our community knows the importance of showing up for each other when you can and with what you have to offer,” Groves said.

Volunteers have worked hard to get food to all of the food pantry’s recipients since the beginning. Recently, when the pantry was in need of a refrigerator and freezer, a community member “immediately” stepped up with a donation, Groves said.

In order to provide a well-rounded meal to the people it serves, the pantry provides “dry goods, canned goods, non-refrigerated produce, gluten-free items,” and even pet food to the people who use the pantry.

As a partner of MANNA, the pantry has free or low-cost access to all different kinds of food, from traditional and culturally appropriate shelf-stable items to fresh produce. The local Trader Joe’s has also started making donations.

“We do our best to respond to our community’s needs as they come up,” Groves said.

In addition to food, MANNA is stocked with other supplies, such as hygiene items like soap, hand sanitizer and face masks, said Leah Weidner, Buncombe County agency relations manager for MANNA.

MANNA also trains partner organizations to offer people who come to the pantry applications for and information on federal programs such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).

“Most likely folks coming to a food pantry need more than just that food for that day, so we really focus on feeding today, feeding tomorrow and feeding for the future,” Weidner said.

From the beginning, the Tranzmission food pantry has had volunteers who were willing to deliver food to people not just in Asheville, but also in Hendersonville and other surrounding counties, Hanson said.

Equity in food distribution

In Russomanno’s survey of food insecurity among transgender and gender non-conforming people in the South, only 22 percent of respondents used local food services. A large component of that, she said, was that participants felt “uneasy when visiting food pantries that were run or organized by religious entities.”

At Tranzmission’s food pantry, “there’s not going to be a bunch of judgment,” Hanson said.

“It’s a safe space, there’s no judgment,” Hanson said. “We don’t ask for any kind of identification or financial confirmation that they are in need of food. All they have to do is say, ‘Hey, can I have a food box?’ And we send them out the door with whatever we have. 

“It’s not just the trans and nonbinary community. We would not refuse anyone a food box. It’s open to the entire community as a whole.”

Weidner said that having the Talya Mazuz Food Pantry as a partner aligns with MANNA’s core value of lowering the barrier of food distribution for people in need.

“We’re really thankful for our partnership with Tranzmission,” Weidner said, their partnership allows MANNA to reach “communities that deserve the same respect and dignity and hope that we hope everyone gets, but don’t have a space to go all the time.” 

Access to food is not just a public health issue, but “a humanity problem,” Russomanno said, adding that there should be no room for discrimination in making food accessible to people in need.

Elizabeth Thompson

Elizabeth Thompson is our Report for America corps member who covers gender health and prison health topics. Thompson is a UNC Chapel Hill graduate...

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