An oasis in a food desert | News Feature | Indy Week
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An oasis in a food desert 

TROSA Grocery opens in East Durham

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"I'm taking into account what's offered around that area, if residents rely on public transportation," Brown says. "Where can they get healthy foods within walking distance, not just at convenience stores? Do they use fresh foods and vegetables to cook with, to eat, on a daily basis?"

When she began her survey, in the neighborhood surrounding SEEDS on Gilbert Street in southeast Durham, she discovered that many residents aren't aware of the garden down the road.

"It seems that people are wanting more urban agriculture and more fresh produce in closer proximity, but there's a disconnect from what's out there and what people know. If it's not a big name supermarket, then people don't really know about it," Brown says.

Jennifer Curtis, a project director at the Center for Environmental Farming Systems, led a recent study that resulted in a policy guide for improving North Carolina's food systems. It examined the relationships among food insecurity, agriculture, obesity rates and nutrition.

"The real story [regarding food access] is the local one, like TROSA Grocery opening," says Curtis. "This guide moves the issue forward from a statewide perspective and tries to make decision makers see the connection between local farmers and our working poor in North Carolina. Framing it and seeing it as a food system is relatively new, but it's bringing together new partnerships between the agriculture side and state policymakers."

North Carolina is one of the top 10 agricultural states. How can we be home to so many hungry people? Margaret Gifford, founder of Carrboro-based Farmer FoodShare, collects leftover food from farmers' markets and donates it to hunger relief groups and residencies. She says part of the problem is a lack of government leadership.

"At the grassroots level, we are innovating around food security," Gifford says. "My impression is that the policymakers are lagging behind the grassroots. They have not picked this issue up, and they need to pick it up ... We feed our troops overseas, we feed the world, we feed the nation, but we don't feed our own people. That's not OK."

North Carolina's food crisis statistics show inequality across the board. The state includes higher-than-average rates of both childhood obesity and malnourishment, but also tops the charts in both food production and food insecurity. The state also trails other states in matching federal funds for nutrition and physical education programs.

In January, N.C. legislation established a Sustainable Local Foods Advisory Council, which works through food issues via agricultural and community efforts. Local grassroots organizers are hopeful, pushing for state involvement in an upcoming review of the Federal Child Nutrition Reauthorization Act, a government effort that implements national food policy, like healthier food choices in schools.

Bountiful Backyards founder Keith Shalijan praised the TROSA Grocery as a good first step in eradicating local food deserts.

"Wendy [Nol] has been explicit about the fact that they are not trying to exclusively be the only grocery store," he says. "This is a great approach, and doubly great because there needs to be many more markets birthed in the Northeast Central Durham community. The efforts of Cornucopia and others throughout the Triangle's network of co-ops, partners and activists can be one spoke on a much larger wheel of meeting people where they're at."

Gifford says hunger is more pervasive than most people realize.

"The 2009 hunger study said that one in seven families experienced food insecurity at some point," she says. "That means that you and I have met somebody recently who has not exactly known how they are going to feed their family or themselves. That's very important to realize. Hunger is hidden."

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