NC policymakers sowing effort to green state’s food deserts

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Report: 15 percent of WNC residents live with food insecurity

The U.S. Department of Agriculture's Food Access Research Atlas provides details on food deserts across the nation's Census tracts. Here is a screen shot of some of the deserts located in Western North Carolina. Click the image to go to the map.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Access Research Atlas provides details on food deserts located in Western North Carolina. Click the image to go to the searchable and customizable map.

There are places in North Carolina where the concept of food deserts is pretty easy to grasp, so it may not be surprising to see chunks of Western North Carolina, where transportation barriers are a constant and a decline in large-scale manufacturing is a decades-long trend, identified as food deserts in the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s new Food Asset Research Atlas.

The atlas shows substantial swaths of mountain residents living long distances from healthy food choices. The dearth of choices and a geography that can make it difficult to get to existing food options compound the region’s persistent nutrition challenges.

A recent report by Feeding America shows roughly 15 percent of the region’s residents regularly experience food insecurity, shorthand for conditions in a household where food is at times scarce, inadequate or of poor quality. (Previously from Carolina Public Press: “With lower incomes and less healthy options, food deserts span WNC.”)

For the region’s children, that rate jumps to a average of 27 percent with the total number of WNC children in the region experiencing food insecurity estimated at around 38,000.

Swain and Graham counties top the list in both categories. Roughly one out of every three children in each of those counties experience food insecurity, according to the report, which is based on an array of U.S. Census Bureau data, labor statistics and independent surveys.

For many years, much of the work of those trying to fill the need for these families has focused on getting enough food into distribution. More recently, more and more agencies, churches and community groups are working on ways to increase the amount of healthier foods in the pipeline. To do that, they have to confront not just the prevalence of and preferences for processed food, but the more difficult logistics of obtaining, storing and transporting fresh fruits and vegetables.

And as interest grows at the community level and research builds on the role good nutrition plays in breaking the cycle of poverty, state policymakers are starting to look for better ways to help green up North Carolina’s food deserts.

Whitmire supports statewide clearinghouse to coordinate, direct funding

Rep. Chris Whitmire, R-Transylvania

Rep. Chris Whitmire, R-Transylvania

Last year in the N.C. General Assembly, an initial attempt at food desert legislation, which was aimed mainly at preventing the loss of grocery stores in lower income neighborhoods, failed to reach the House floor. Instead, the legislature opted to form a study committee to look into the issue and explore the variety of local, state and regional programs addressing the problem.

Since getting down to work in January, the House Committee on Food Desert Zones has heard from grocers, producers and participants in dozens of programs around the state, including grassroots initiatives like neighborhood cooperatives, “farms on wheels” that visit public housing complexes and those setting up fresh produce stands at rural convenience stores.

Committee co-chair Rep. Chris Whitmire, R-Transylvania, said part of the work ahead includes developing legislation that allows innovative programs to flourish and be exported to other parts of the state.

“We’re going to need a multi-layered set of solutions,” he said.

The nutritional needs in the state’s rural and urban food deserts may be the same same, he said, but what works can differ from place to place.

Whitmire said he supports a plan to create a statewide clearinghouse run by the North Carolina Cooperative Extension Service that would coordinate and help direct funding to local programs addressing food deserts and food insecurity.

At a legislative hearing last week, advocates of the plan told committee members it would improve and potentially increase the state’s use of federal nutrition education funds administered through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, which is also known as SNAP.

Whitmire said that since the extension service is in every county and already heavily involved in SNAP and local agriculture, it makes sense to get them involved in coordination. He said the move could help speed up work getting programs that have shown promise set up in new places.

“The sooner we get started the better,” he said.

Click on the image to view county-by-county data on food insecurity, as analyzed by Feeding America.

Click on the image to view county-by-county data on food insecurity, as analyzed by Feeding America.

‘It’s more than making healthy food accessible’

Leigh Pettus, who leads programs and agency relations for the 16-county MANNA FoodBank, said she appreciates the focus by the legislature. She said that throughout the counties MANNA serves, and especially in the more rural areas, access to healthier options is a challenge.

“Obviously, in Western North Carolina the number one barrier is transportation,” she said.

To help its client agencies and the people they serve, MANNA has stepped up efforts to get fresh produce into wider distribution to local pantries and food kitchens.

Susan Williams, a coordinator for the food pantry at Grace Episcopal Church in Waynesville, said the pantry saw a tremendous response last year when it started its summer produce market.

The Saturday morning market allowed pantry users and people receiving SNAP benefits to choose from a variety of locally grown produce.

Each week, Williams said, the open air market distributed between 500 and 600 pounds of produced shipped in by MANNA and gleaned from local producers.

“In all, we distributed more than 10,000 pounds of produce,” Williams said.

The church, she said, is gearing up for another busy season, which starts on May 31 and runs through October. They’ve added another month in the fall, she said, in part because of the abundance of apples and other late season crops they saw last year.

This year the pantry also plans to expand tastings and the distribution of recipes.

“We’re trying to build knowledge and encourage greater consumption of fruits and vegetables,” she said.

Kate Justen of Asheville-based FEAST, said increasing access is important, but only part of the solution. FEAST, which stands for Fresh Easy Affordable Sustainable Tasty, works to get Asheville elementary and middle school students interested in fresh foods and to educate students and their families on how to prepare them.

Justen said that part of the success of the program, which is expanding to new schools this year, is that interest by the children has a positive influence on parents’ decisions at the grocery store. Knowing more about foods and how to prepare them is an integral part of the solution to food deserts.

“It’s more than making healthy food accessible,” she said. “It’s having accessibility and knowing what to do. You can bring the food to the desert, but if people don’t know what to do with it, they’re not going to eat it.”


Learn more

If you’re interested in learning more about local food challenges there will be a discussion Monday on food security, access and hunger in Western North Carolina from 6 to 8 p.m. in rooms 223-224 of the Highsmith Student Union at UNC Asheville.

Speakers include Olufemi Lewis of the Ujamaa Freedom Market; Susan Sides from The Lord’s Acre; Sir Charles Gardener of Gardens United; Randal Pfleger of Bountiful Cities; Brandee Boggs of the Asheville-Buncombe Food Policy Council and Allison Casparian from Bounty and Soul in Black Mountain.

For more information, visit https://www.facebook.com/events/422452281225615.


Special Report: Food and Food Policy

To read continuing coverage of food deserts and related issues in Western North Carolina, see the Special Report: Food and Food Policy section by Carolina Public Press.

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About the Author

Kirk Ross

Based in the Triangle, Kirk Ross is the capital bureau chief for Carolina Public Press. Contact him at kross@carolinapublicpress.org.

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