Ten years ago, John Soehner quit his job as an occupational therapy assistant, bought a tractor and learned to grow organic food.
Today he and his family grow more than 60 varieties of vegetables and raise roosters and pigs at Eco Farm, one of Orange County’s best known organic farms.
What is a food desert?
A food desert is defined as a low-income area where a substantial amount of residents also have low access to a supermarket or large grocery store, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Why are some parts of Orange County considered a food desert?
There are five different areas of Orange County that are considered food deserts. They include an area running from the southern end of the University’s campus to Estes Drive, as well as an almost 6,000 person area of Hillsborough. These areas have both low-income residents and little access to major grocery stores.
“We started farming because we needed money,” Soehner said. “Ten years later, we’re not driving around in Maseratis, but we make ends meet.”
Today, Chapel Hill will celebrate the importance of sustainable, local foods like Soehner’s during national Food Day.
Coordinators of Chapel Hill’s Food Day say they hope to spread knowledge of healthy food through a variety of events, including a farmers market in Polk Place.
“There are so many organizations and individuals doing incredible work to promote access to healthy food for all community members,” said Alison Doernberg, a master’s of public health candidate at UNC and a co-coordinator of the local Food Day celebration.
She said her goal was to bring attention to how food issues play out within Orange County.
“We want to raise awareness and then encourage people to act on that awareness,” she said.
Despite the positive local food culture, some parts of the county still have limited access to healthy food.
Pam Diggs, health promotion coordinator for the Orange County Health Department, said two areas in Orange County qualify as “food deserts,” meaning residents have little to no access to nutritious food options.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, 79.8 percent of people living on the University’s campus are both low-income and have low access to healthy food.
The Orange County Health Department is helping encourage healthy lifestyles with its “Eat Smart, Move More” campaign.
“With some grants from the state, we are working to find out where the fresh, local stuff is concentrated,” Diggs said. “Since the beginning of this fiscal year, we’ve been collecting information from markets and stands.”
Diggs said for the next six months, each month would have a catchphrase that promotes health.
“For October, the phrase is ‘Enjoy more fruits and veggies,’” Diggs said. “We have more than 20 partners currently that advertise the phrases, including churches, schools and local businesses.”
Soehner said he is also passionate about increasing access to his organic produce.
“I grow organic, which is harder to do and more expensive, but it’s just the way I am,” he said.
“I’m no scientist, but I’m willing to bet it’s healthier, and you don’t kill anything to grow vegetables.”
Soehner, his wife Cindy Econopouly and their three children sell produce at farmers markets almost every day of the week.
They also sell at the Carrboro Farmers’ Market on Wednesdays and Saturdays.
“We live in a great area to sell this stuff,” he said. “People around here are really into buying their food from the farmers market.”
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