Increasing Local, Healthy Food Access

IMG_1669My year interning with CFSA kicked off last August with an assessment of the local food system in Beaufort County, NC.  I was starting my second year of graduate school at UNC’s School of Social Work in the Community, Management, and Policy Practice concentration.  My interest in equal access to fresh, healthy food had grown immensely during my first year of school.

The spark that ignited my passion was my internship with a school social worker at an elementary school in Southeast Raleigh.  Many of the families we worked with were experiencing poverty, food insecurity, and chronic homelessness.  My supervisor ran an emergency food pantry at the school and had annual food drives to stock it. Over and over again, we would speak to children and their families who were in great need of this emergency food.

There was also a program that sent backpacks full of nonperishable food home with children each weekend so they wouldn’t go hungry.  The list of those in need of this program outweighed the number of backpacks we could offer- we were forced to turn many families down.  While government assistance such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as food stamps, plays an important role in reducing food insecurity in the U.S., it falls very short and provides families with less than $2/day per person for food.

One of my most impactful experiences was visiting a family living in a one-bedroom motel room with only a microwave to cook with.  When we asked the mother to sign a form we had just gone through, she told me she was going blind from her illness with Type II Diabetes- a diet-related preventable disease.  I started thinking about the relationship between the food I was distributing to families through the school and the health outcomes of the students and their families.

I began to tailor each of my assignments from the SSW to further my research on the connection between food insecurity and obesity.  I thought about my personal values related to food, preferring local and organic vegetables and minimal consumption of overly-processed “food-like products,” as Michael Pollan would put it.  I read about innovative organizations like The Stop that are refusing to accept the adage that ‘any food is better than no food.’  The Stop provides high quality, fresh produce to low-income community members, hosts a large community garden, and empowers clients by supporting civic engagement and the recognition of the structural causes of hunger and poverty.

Through our assessment of Beaufort County’s food system, we found that almost 70% of those surveyed had trouble stretching their food budget to the end of the month. In addition, 44% of respondents didn’t have access to transportation to buy food, and almost half of respondents reported that they did not eat enough fruits and vegetables.  34% of the county is obese.

Our assessment involved analyzing nearly 1,000 surveys, interviewing dozens of stakeholders, and hosting 16 community meetings across the county.  In addition to the challenges listed above, we heard a great deal of enthusiasm about the desire for access to local, healthy, fresh foods.  We also learned about many exciting projects already underway, like a farm to school grant, a high school garden that donates produce to a local food pantry, and community gardens in housing authority neighborhoods.

The assessment concluded with five priority goals to increase access to local, fresh foods.  One of the proposed goals relates to the development of a Local Food Policy Council.  These councils are emerging around the country and specifically across North Carolina.  While councils vary by name and structure, the overarching goal is to create a network that broadly represents the food system -farmers, processers, distributors, retailers, consumers, nonprofits, local government officials, and more – in order to assess the opportunities and challenges in their community food system, coordinate efforts, and make recommendations to government on policies that support or hinder that system.

Since the assessment was released, a group of passionate Beaufort County residents who represent various professions (ranging from education to health to farming) have gathered to initiate the development of a Beaufort County food council/network.  The culmination of these efforts will be a public forum on May 1 in Beaufort County Community College’s Building 8 Auditorium from 6:00-7:30 pm. The community is invited to come learn about challenges and opportunities facing Beaufort County’s food system as well as to hear from Christy Shi, a statewide coordinator for Local Food Councils from the Center for Environmental Farming Systems, on what a council is and does.   Interested community members will be asked to join a task force that will carry on the work of council development for the next 6-12 months.

For anyone interested in food council development in their own county, a webinar cosponsored by the UNC School of Government and the Center for Environmental Farming Systems will be held on April 17th from 12:00-2:30 pm.  Free viewings are being hosted in many counties around the state; details can be found at: http://www.sog.unc.edu/node/30976.

Questions? Contact Lindsay Lassiter at Lindsay@