From mobile farmers' markets to public transportation: local organizations creating solutions for food deserts
Author’s note: Statistics show that several neighborhoods across the city of Wilmington are suffering from a lack of access to affordable, healthy food. Known as “food deserts,” the residents of these areas do not follow one stereotype, but are often a combination of several factors including age, location and socioeconomic background.
This series seeks to understand the origins of food deserts, define who suffers from this issue and what experts say can be done about it.
WILMINGTON — Every night, about 630,000 people in North Carolina households don’t have enough to eat.
In New Hanover County alone, about 16,000 Wilmington residents live in a food desert, according to County Manager Chris Coudriet. But, what is a “food desert?”
The USDA defines food deserts as census tracts—also known as neighborhoods—that are both low-income and have low-access to grocery stores or supermarkets.
There are several organizations working to combat the issue of food deserts and food insecurity throughout New Hanover county.
Feast Down East
Every Friday, rain or shine, Feast Down East is working to feed people in underserved communities.
Feast Down East is a nonprofit organization working to grow the local food system in Southeastern North Carolina. This organization is also a part of the Local Food Access Initiative, an effort to address food insecurity in low-income and low-access neighborhoods through the distribution of affordable produce.
Low-income is defined as either 20 percent or more of the population living in poverty or with a median family income less than 80 percent of the median income for their area. Low-access means at least 500 people in the area are living one mile or more from a grocery store in an urban area.
According to Jill Waity, assistant professor of Sociology at UNCW and Treasurer and Secretary of Feast Down East, food insecurity reflects a person’s lack of access to enough food to maintain an active, healthy life, or as a household’s need to make trade-offs between important basic needs. That would include needing to choose between paying rent or buying nutritionally adequate foods.
Food deserts: an appendix for readers
Feast Down East hosts a weekly fresh market open to the public every Friday in front of the Rankin Terrace public housing property.
All items sold at the fresh market are sourced from local farmers in Southeastern North Carolina via the Feast Down East food hub. The fresh market accepts SNAP, EBT, cash and debit.
Recently, Feast Down East was awarded a grant from the USDA that will turn the existing program into a mobile farmers’ market.
According to Feast Down East Executive Director Sarah Daniels, the grant will enable the organization to purchase a cargo van containing a refrigerator, freezer and shelf space.
With the van, Feast Down East plans to visit each of the nine Wilmington public housing properties on a weekly basis spending between two and three hours at each location.
“Because it will be a cargo van, we want to have more products, making it more of a miniature grocery store as opposed to a farmers’ market,” Daniels said.
Prior to the rollout of the mobile food market, Feast Down East plans to have roundtable conversations with each Housing Authority community to determine which food products the residents would like to buy. Those conversations will help Feast Down East determine its inventory.
“We also have some money set aside to sell the produce at cost, or similar to the cost to the farmers,” said Waity.
Related: Farms, fisheries and breweries: Feast Down East introduces the Cape Fear Food Council
NourishNC is a non-profit organization that provides hungry New Hanover County children with healthy food, especially focusing on the times when children are without access to free or reduced school lunches, like weekends.
NourishNC’s Backpack Program provides K-5 students with eight meals, six healthy snacks, milk or juice and fresh produce every weekend. The food is then placed in backpacks and delivered to schools where social workers or family counselors then discreetly put the food bags into children’s backpacks.
“The benefit of the backpack program is that it puts the food directly in the hands of these kids,” said Steve McCrossan, executive director of NourishNC.
NourishNC also provides pre-kindergarten, middle and high school students with monthly boxes containing four weekends’ worth of food and fresh produce. They also offer “break boxes” containing three meals per day, healthy snacks, juice, milk and fresh produce during summer, spring and holiday breaks.
“What we do as an organization is really about creating regular access to healthy food for people to have a healthy life,” said McCrossan.
Food Bank of Central and Eastern North Carolina
The Food Bank of Central and Eastern North Carolina is a part of the Feeding America network of over 200 food banks across the United States. The Wilmington branch receives, sorts and distributes food through a network of about 100 partner agencies across four counties in southeastern North Carolina.
The Wilmington branch serves the four counties of Brunswick, Columbus, New Hanover and Pender. In these counties, more than 70,000 people live in food insecure households.
“The food bank is essentially a middle-man between donors and non-profits. We collect food from donors, bring it into our warehouse and sort it for redistribution and that way non-profits that help feed people can come get it from us—they don’t have to have warehouses, forklifts, trucking and other equipment,” said Michael Whittemore, operations supervisor at the Food Bank of Central and Eastern North Carolina.
The food bank partners with food pantries, soup kitchens, shelters, programs for children and the elderly or any non-profit that is in a position to provide food to people who are at risk of hunger.
Sorting and preparing millions of pounds of food for distribution requires the assistance of hundreds of volunteers every year.
“Over half of what we do here is done by volunteers, not staff. The number of volunteer hours we had last year is equal to about eight full-time staff members,” Whittemore said.
Wave Transit is getting involved with the low-access element of the food desert crisis.
Vanessa Lacer, mobility manager at Wave Transit, is also a member of the Cape Fear Food Council’s Consumer Access Committee. The Consumer Access Committee focuses on local food access for the general public and limited-resource consumers.
Wave transit’s current bus routes touch the perimeter of five of New Hanover county’s six food deserts. That means using public transportation to grocery shop is still difficult for residents who have no access to a vehicle.
This may change once the Short Range Transit Plan 2018-2022 is completed.
To meet the needs of a growing community, the Cape Fear Public Transportation Authority routinely undergoes an extensive evaluation of the efficiency and effectiveness of their system in order to improve service to the community.
“We reached out to the Cape Fear Food Council Executive Board representative Jill Waity to receive a food desert map for our consultants to consider for the Short Range Transit Plan 2018-2022,” Lacer said.
Cape Fear Public Transportation Authority and Wave Transit hope to complete the evaluation by March 2018.
“We’re constantly looking for public input, new traffic patterns, and development updates for ways to increase access,” Lacer said.
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