As a teenager from Elizabeth City, I often dreamed of summers at the beaches of Nags Head and Kitty Hawk. The drive often involved a stop for cokes and sunscreen at the Duck Thru in Camden County before the straight-line highway through the fields and swamps to Barco. From Barco, Highway 12 turns South down the area locals call “Lower Currituck,” through Grandy towards the bridge that carries so many visitors to the beach.
Gaudy billboards line the sole thoroughfare beckon drivers over the Wright Memorial Bridge to the Outer Banks and beyond, hawking seafood, beach rentals, nuts, and t-shirts. More modestly painted vegetable stands try to call the attention of passersby with spraypainted signs. The small, wooden deposit boxes ask customers to abide by the honor system. As a teenager, I never thought to stop at the vegetable stands, or the Christmas Shoppe, or Digger’s Dungeon. My mind was on the sand, surf, and seafood on the other side of the Wright Memorial Bridge.
When you just drive through, you don't learn much about the economic health of a place. Sometimes, the numbers don't help much. With an overall poverty rate of 12.5% in 2012, and year-long unemployment averages near the best in the state, Currituck appears to be a community with an enviable economic position relative to other counties. What is unique about Currituck County and other coastal communities is that year-long poverty measures, inflated property values, and unemployment rates that are averaged over the course of a year mask the disturbing effect that seasonality plays on the economic health of the local community. The result is that outsiders don't think of Currituck as "poor." Neither does the State of NC: according to the NC Department of Commerce, Currituck is a Tier 2 county.
The Lower Currituck Food Pantry
With a GPS set (or in years past, simply your heart set) on sandier destinations ahead, it would be easy to miss the Lower Currituck Food Pantry in Grandy, but Pantry Director Polly Gregory wouldn't blame you: “People are usually in such a rush to get to the beach, they never really stop around here.”
The Lower Currituck Food Pantry started as a food drop-point in the Hardee’s parking lot in Grandy. It is essentially two small rooms - a storage room and a distribution room. The storage room is filled with shelves of canned and boxed food, two large freezers, and a refrigerator. The distribution room has a counter where pantry volunteers collect information about their patrons. A stained glass depiction of the Last Supper colors the angled spring sunshine that is flooding the room through the large windows.
Polly arrives about 45 minutes before serving begins to load boxes of food. A couple of members of the Beta Club from the local high school help out, as well as a few of the regular volunteers. Signs in the storage room tell you how to construct a food box: 1 pasta, 1 mac and cheese, 1 bread, 3 cans of vegetables, and so on. “To many people, this means everything. Though in reality it’s only about 4-6 days of food, tops.” Because demand far outstrips supply, each person or family can receive a box of food once per month. The pantry volunteers used to label the cans of food, but they scrapped that practice when they realized that they would never be in danger of holding onto canned food for too long.
Polly, whose enthusiasm for helping her community is immediately apparent, kicks into another gear when families begin to show up to the pantry. With her pantry binder in front of her, chirpy voice and passion, she runs the busy and sometimes chaotic pantry with aplomb. It doesn’t take long to get the rhythm of her questioning down - name, address, number of children in each home, the information that is required to be kept by the Albemarle Food Bank according to federal regulations. Polly knows most of the information already, because she knows most of the people coming into the pantry already. “Are you still living over there by the 7-11?” she asks one family. “How are your children?”
“Polly knows just about everybody. That’s how Currituck is,” says Kelly, one of the first to arrive at the pantry that evening. Kelly is a 19 year old Currituck County resident with dreams of one day becoming a nurse. Kelly’s family, like many others, use the food pantry to help make ends meet during the winter months. “We pick up side jobs each week, maybe cleaning houses. Sometimes beach rentals or foreclosed homes.” Kelly now has a regular job at the Hardee’s as a cook. “Most people that live here work at the beach as well, and all those are seasonal. There are jobs in Currituck that are year round, but there are more people than jobs. Is it enough to pay the bills? Sometimes not.” Another person in line chimes in: “I have four kids and I am about to be put out because I can’t find work. And I could work any time.”
Kelly’s family copes with the winter downturn in ways which Americans consider methods from a different time or a different place. They crowd all together - 14 people spanning three generations, in Kelly’s case - and each find odd jobs where they can to help pay the bills. It stressed Kelly out. “We have so many people in the house, and we have my little cousins now too. They can’t fend for themselves. We worry about them before we worry about ourselves.”
Jimmy, a groundskeeper for a local business, agrees. “You gotta stick with your family. Everyone pitches in to pay rent. And a trip to the pantry when you can. And I can stretch that box of food out,” he adds with a grin. Randy, a volunteer at the pantry chips in: “It’s a common practice in other countries - it just makes sense.”
Jimmy moved to Currituck from out of state almost two decades ago. When I asked him about “winters in Currituck,” expecting an answer about the cooling of the economy that accompanies the cooling of the weather, he displayed a love of the place that defines the area. “Winter is beautiful here!” he said. “There’s something about the elbow room.”
Summertime is a welcome economic boost to those seeking short-term employment, but it does come with a sacrifice of some of that elbow room - at least on the roadways. The second most popular topic of pantry chatter aside from jobs is traffic. Currituck’s geography is unremarkable until you consider where the economic activity of the county is. While most of Currituck County lies in the “mainland,” there is a small strip of the northernmost portion of the outer banks - the wealthy/beach home towns of Duck and Corolla - that also lies in Currituck County.
To get to the Outer Banks portion of Currituck, you have to drive over the Wright Memorial bridge and through Dare County towns of Nags Head and Southern Shores - a long drive even in winter. The two-lane roads beneath a canopy of trees through the town of Duck is a charming street, but is not quick sledding. It is a choke point for traffic towards the town of Corolla - the economic bread and butter of Currituck County.
Tourists from New York, Boston, and New Jersey pour into mainland Currituck on their way to the Outer Banks (The state of Virginia erected a toll plaza just North of the NC line, where they cash in on this traffic to the tune of 12 dollars a pop). They also have to compete with mainland Currituckians and others from Elizabeth City who work primarily at the pizza shops, restaurants, and shell stores that cater to the summer tourists on the Outer Banks.
This isn’t to say that the traffic doesn’t come with some benefits. Currituck’s unemployment rate between July and September have been among the lowest in the state the last few years (right around 5%). The unemployment rate during the winter months slips back to around the NC average or higher in January-February (it was 10.6% in January last year, and above 7% this year).
Seasonally Unadjusted Unemployment Rate for Dare Hyde Currituck
Mainland Currituck, to most outsiders, is a place you drive through to get to somewhere else. And there are lots of folks driving through. In fact, according to the U.S. Census' calculations, 64% of those people who are employed in Currituck County reside elsewhere. In 2011, 3561 people commuted into Currituck County to work. Another 7026 residents of Currituck County left the county for work. Only 2002 Currituck Residents worked within Currituck County - and many of them traveled the hour-plus summer drive from the mainland, across the bridge into Dare County and into Corolla and Duck.
Polly shouts over the chatter about a car blocking the driveway to the parking lot of the pantry. By 6 p.m., the small building is crowded with families - and the parking lot is, too. The line of people winds around the walls and windows. You get the feeling that for some, the opportunity to chat with neighbors and the pantry volunteers gives the pantry experience the feel of a social call.
The pantry gets noisy, but you can still hear Polly’s voice bounce off the yellow cinderblock walls - especially when someone picking up food has good news to share. “I like hearing about people getting jobs!” “Well, it’s getting close to the season!”, the newly employed pantry patron replies.