At some point since 2000, 1 in 6 North Carolinians has not had enough nutritious food to eat. Now that figure is closer to 1 in 5, ranking North Carolina sixth among the most food-insecure states in the country.
As a result, the state House of Representatives has assembled a study committee to address our problem of food insecurity.
"The mission of the committee is to look at the situation and analyze North Carolina's food issues through the lens of the Departments of Health and Human Services, Commerce and Agriculture," said Rep. Yvonne Holley, D-Wake. "We can look at what everybody is doing about food insecurity and see what we can come up with to comprehensively solve our food problems."
Food insecurity refers to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's measurement of access to food sufficient for an active, healthy life for all household members. It is characterized by limited or uncertain availability of nutritionally adequate foods, according to the website of Feeding America, a national hunger-relief charity. The site notes that food-insecure households are not necessarily food-insecure all the time; food insecurity may reflect the household having to make trade-offs between basic needs, such as housing and medical bills, and buying nutritionally adequate foods.
The most recent figure from 2011 puts food insecurity in the state at 19.3 percent. Sadaf Knight, policy and research director at The Support Center—a nonprofit that provides loans and support to small businesses and community-based organizations—says an average of 17 percent of North Carolinians have experienced food insecurity between 2000 and 2012. Traditionally, the term "food desert" refers to a community that does not have access to healthy food retailers; members of such a community must travel elsewhere to buy fresh fruits and vegetables, for example. The USDA recently adjusted how it defines a food desert, according to Knight, adding variables like vehicle access and distances to supermarkets so that communities can view the issue of food access from different standpoints.
One way of measuring food access is using census tracts—small subdivisions of counties used for the U.S. Census— that are low income, where no supermarkets are within one mile in urban areas and within 10 miles in rural areas.
Using this definition, there are 349 low-income, low-access census tracts in North Carolina, Knight says. These tracts can be found in 80 of the 100 counties in the state; 31 of these counties are designated Tier 1—among North Carolina's most economically distressed— by the state's Department of Commerce for 2014.
This is why the situation is so dire, says Rep. Holley, who, as a freshman lawmaker, sponsored a bill addressing food deserts after researching the issue when two Kroger stores closed in southeast Raleigh.
House Bill 957 was originally a business bill designed to provide tax incentives to small businesses to encourage the delivery and availability of nutrient-rich foods in food desert zones. The bill drew bipartisan support in the House; it was co-sponsored by Republican Majority leader Rep. Edgar Starnes, R-Caldwell. He and Rep. Chris Whitmire, R-Henderson/Polk/Transylvania, will serve as co-chairs of the study committee, which was born from Holley's original bill.
Donna King, the director of policy and communications for the House majority leader, says each member of the committee is talking to experts and constituents. They will make recommendations for speakers at the upcoming committee meetings.
"We're trying to find a common thread, a way to coordinate activities with people who run food pantries, farmers who sell produce and goods in local communities, small business owners," King said. "A wide range of people."
Food deserts exist for several reasons, Knight said. Because of the large space requirements and high overhead costs of opening a supermarket, retailers want to know they will have sufficient demand at a certain price point in order to be profitable. In low-income areas, retailers—who rely on higher-priced specialty items to turn a profit— believe that there is not enough demand to offset the investment.
This is the among the reasons the TROSA Grocery in east Durham closed. As the INDY reported in 2012, Jeff Stern, TROSA's director of special projects, said the small-scale grocery lost more than $100,000 out of their operating costs; TROSA president Kevin McDonald said the store never broke even in the two years it was open. McDonald told the INDY it was easier for customers to go to a big-box store and buy necessities such as cereal cheaper than TROSA could sell them for, because TROSA wasn't buying in bulk.
With the rise of consolidated agriculture and the loss of small farms, it has become difficult for people to access local foods. "People, of course, want to have healthy foods, but there's a tension between sustainably grown, local produce and cost, since it's not usually affordable for low-income people," Knight wrote in an email. She added that farmers' markets are a good way to bring nutritious food into food deserts, but that many can't accept food stamps because of the cost of the equipment to process them. (The following Triangle-area farmers' markets accept EBT cards: Western Wake, Midtown Raleigh, downtown Raleigh, Carrboro, Hillsborough, Wendell, South Durham and some individual vendors at the State Farmers Market.)
Development patterns, historical exclusions and years of disinvestment have also played roles in creating food deserts, Knight said. Rural economies, which face challenges in accessing many services and amenities as well as food, have seen their local businesses—including local grocers—deteriorate, as they become more reliant on stores such as Walmart, which may not even be close by. Low-income urban areas have experienced disinvestment as development has occurred more in the suburbs than in the urban core.
Betsy Vetter, director of government relations at the American Heart Association (AHA) in North Carolina, says lack of access to healthy foods is a public health issue akin to smoking and lack of exercise. Vetter's organization is among several advocacy groups working to inform legislators about the importance of a healthy diet. Representatives from the American Heart Association will speak at the committee meetings in the coming weeks, and Vetter has been working to bring in national speakers to address the committee, including a policy advocate from the Food Trust in Philadelphia, a city that has seen an increase in access to affordable, nutritious food.
"We think [the committee] is an incredible opportunity to have a conversation in North Carolina and look for solutions to our current problems," Vetter said. "We look forward to providing help and resources."
Rep. Holley said it is too early to speculate what will come out of the committee, but that legislators will be looking at "new and creative ways to get people access to nutrient-rich foods."
"Maybe we'll go in and encourage small businesses to expand to carry rows of nutrient-rich foods, or get places like Walmart and Family Dollar to add nutrient-rich foods to their shelves," Holley said. "I just met with a couple with a food truck. They have a route and they sell out every weekend. It's wide open as to what we could come up with."
"If we can do things without legislation, great," she added. "If things need legislation, I hope we can put legislation in place. We want to compile all information fully and keep the conversation going."
But an advocate from another health lobbying organization working on the issue, who did not want to be named, said she has reservations about how much the committee will be able to achieve. She said she doesn't feel the legislators leading the effort have much background in the issue, and haven't been working with lobbyists and experts as closely as in the past. Retailers need financial incentives; Republican lawmakers have made it clear in recent revisions of the tax code that they want to move away from incentives.
In the meantime, some Raleigh citizens have been proactive in filling the food gap. Erin Byrd, who lives near Chavis Heights in southeast Raleigh, is working with community members to start the Fertile Ground Food Cooperative, a project they hope to launch within the next couple of years.
"I have a car," Byrd said, "but I can't imagine what it's like for people who have to walk downtown and take the bus to go to the food store. I don't know how many bags they can bring on to the bus. It's not convenient. Add in the super-cold [weather], trying to walk and carry your groceries. There's a problem with accessible and healthy food in southeast Raleigh that we should be trying to address."
Another Raleigh resident, Kelvin Dumas, owns an old building on Pender Street, which he said has been a food market, a hair salon and a pool hall over the years. He wants to turn it into a grocery store similar to the recently opened Quality Grocery in the historic Oakwood neighborhood.
"We'll do workshops on choosing healthy foods," Dumas said. "We will be providing the basic necessities for the area: milk, eggs, cheese, vegetables. I want to reshape the image of a corner store from a place that sells alcohol and cigarettes into something a lot more wholesome."
The House Committee on Food Desert Zones will hold four meetings on the fourth Monday of each month leading up to the 2014 short legislative session. The first meeting will be on Monday, Jan. 27, at 1 p.m. Check the General Assembly's website for the agenda.
Find out more about food insecurity in the Triangle at Inter-Faith Food Shuttle's website, foodshuttle.org.
For an interactive map about food insecurity across the country, go to http://feedingamerica.org/hunger-in-america/hunger-studies/map-the-meal-gap.aspxJane Porter is an INDY staff writer. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org. —>
This article appeared in print with the headline "Unequal bounty."