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Talk of the towns

"Talk of the towns" Continued...

Issue: "Food stamps surge," Nov. 19, 2011

Rob Noyes got a 20-minute notice that the president was coming to lunch at his Countryside Barbeque restaurant in the city of Marion. Located off the interstate near Asheville, N.C., Marion has a population of 8,000. According to its welcome signs, Marion is "where main street meets the mountains." When Obama's motorcade arrived on Oct. 17, police blocked off entrance and exit ramps along the interstate, forcing travelers stopped for gas to take extended breaks.

Inside Countryside Barbeque, agents conducted a security sweep with bomb-sniffing dogs, locals eating lunch submitted to checks with metal detecting wands, and two chefs traveling with the president supervised the cooks as they prepared Obama's pork platter. The menu says this popular plate is "made with lots of love" and includes sweet potato fries seasoned with brown sugar.

Obama went to every booth in the restaurant before taking his meal to go. He heard concerns about tight budgets, layoffs, bailouts, and regulations.

A week after Obama's visit, Noyes, the restaurant's owner, said he is concerned that most of the president's advisors have academic backgrounds rather than business experience. "They haven't been out here in the trenches going through the trials that we do," said Noyes, who is quick to add that he is frustrated with nearly all of Washington's partisan gridlock. "When both parties cover their tails we don't solve anything."

Local music store owner Woody Killough, who has written Obama a couple of times, said he is willing to give the president the benefit of the doubt for having to manage the war and the economy. "I can't hardly work and eat ice cream at the same time. Now that the war is over and soldiers are coming home he has to focus on jobs."

Obama left the barbeque restaurant after 35 minutes but not before paying for the meals of one table of diners. Obama's bus headed deeper into the Blue Ridge Mountains. But there remained one place in Marion that Ray Davis wished the president had visited.

Davis pastors the Clinchfield United Methodist Church located less than four miles from Countryside Barbeque. Here at this one-story red brick church a team of volunteers serves hot meals to about 500 people each week. The program started two and a half years ago after Davis visited a local elementary school for lunch. There he saw a girl shovel the scraps of her lunch into an empty milk carton.

"What are you doing," he asked.

"Mr. Davis, I'm taking this home so I can have something to eat tonight," the girl replied.

Davis started a backpack program providing 285 children with a pack of food to take home every Friday. Then the economy got worse. So Davis expanded the meal program. He now has 65 volunteers and relies on donations to cover the $500 weekly cost.

The unemployment rate in the county is more than 12 percent. But counting those who have stopped looking for work, Davis thinks the real unemployment figure is somewhere between 20 to 24 percent. Several of the area's textile mills and furniture factories that formed the community's economic backbone have shut down. Residents who lost homes began sleeping in their cars. Then they lost their cars. A tent city sprouted up near Marion's railroad tracks.

"I came up with this program so they can save what little finances they have to keep their homes and cars," Davis said. "But that hasn't worked out for many."

Davis refuses government funding-"too many conditions, too much paperwork," he says-but he still regrets that Obama, so close in his trek through Marion, did not visit. "He could have seen the people who are hurting and suffering and the people who are trying to take care of them without the government's help. You can talk about it all day long. But I believe our politicians would have greater passion if they could see."

Crossing into southern Virginia, I had one more stop to make on my backtracking of Obama. Driving through the center of Brodnax, Va., my odometer barely registered one mile from one welcome sign to the next along the town's Piney Pond Road.

Here Obama seemed to get the best reception of his trip. During a group photo someone yelled, "Yes we can!" Stopping next to a childcare center and a one-story brick post office, Obama shook the hands of bystanders young and old including Wesley Morris. I met Morris a week later outside the same post office. The owner of a local rental company, Morris said it was hard not to be impressed with Obama's "good personality."

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