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FoodFirst draws mixed reactions from Carrboro community

In the aftermath of the board’s decision, the Carrboro community remains divided over the future location of a new Inter-Faith Council facility.

The passing of the text amendment now allows them to apply to rezone a property in Carrboro where meals could be served.

The IFC currently operates a food pantry at 110 W. Main St. The new facility, called FoodFirst, would consolidate food pantry and community kitchen services.

IFC Executive Director Michael Reinke said around 300 people showed up at last week’s public hearing.

He said the community is supportive — something for which everyone at IFC is honored and grateful.

Reinke said it is important to raise both food programs together, because as many as 64 percent of all people in Chapel Hill and Carrboro experiencing poverty — who are not students — live within a one-mile radius of the pantry’s current location.

Data from 2007 and 2015 consistently show a concentration of people regularly using the IFC’s food kitchen within a one-mile radius of their location.

Reinke said the data shows a long-standing need on the part of the community and reinforces the IFC’s imperative to create a centralized services location.

“It’s pretty clear that being located somewhere near where we are is pretty important for the people we serve,” Reinke said.

He said consolidating services is an important step toward making life more convenient for those who regularly utilize the IFC’s food services and who might not be able to commute to Chapel Hill for meals.

Business concerns

But there are some business owners in Carrboro who have expressed concerns about concentrating the IFC’s food services on Main Street. Some say the plan isn’t the best for the town.

According to Reinke, this concern comes from a misunderstanding of the IFC’s plan, which is different today than it was six months ago.

“We’re not in the interest of being bad neighbors,” he said.

“We believe that what we’re trying to do is make the community a better place.”

Reinke encourages anyone, especially business owners, who have these concerns to come to the kitchen and share a meal with those who regularly attend lunches and dinners.

Reinke said around 80 people are served daily — and survey data shows that 55 percent of the kitchen’s patrons use the kitchen at least once a week.

Wallace Nettles has lived and worked in Chapel Hill for 40 years.

Originally from Pittsboro, Nettles said he moved to Chapel Hill after high school and worked for the University until leaving due to a disability in 2011.

He goes to the IFC community kitchen to supplement the food he’s able to buy with the money he gets from disability compensation.

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Nettles said he’s heard criticism regarding the potential location for FoodFirst, including at the March 23 meeting, but said he supports the consolidation of the food pantry and community kitchen.

Nettles said people aren’t coming to the IFC unless they really need to, and that learning to use available services can be hard for many.

“Most people, whether you’re poor or not, you still got pride,” he said.

“It’s hard to ask for a handout. The Bible says, don’t be ashamed — if you need help, seek it. That’s what I’ve done.”

The town’s vision

For the future, Carrboro’s government wants to provide comprehensive, wrap-around services to those in need in cooperation with Chapel Hill and Orange County. The conversation, said Board of Aldermen member Randee Haven-O’Donnell, is ultimately about more than just the IFC and FoodFirst.

Haven-O’Donnell said continuing to create division in the community isn’t the answer. Referencing an attendee of last Tuesday’s hearing, she said calling for a boycott of local businesses is uncalled for.

“Carrboro’s not made of big corporate businesses,” she said. “These are all small business folks. This is their livelihood.”

Board of Aldermen member Bethany Chaney said the next step for the community is to keep engaging with the issues being presented, and for the IFC and the board to keep working with businesses.

Haven-O’Donnell said a big problem with food services is the “invisibility” phenomenon, in which people aren’t recognized before or after they’re fed.

She said she doesn’t think the current model is enough. Haven-O’Donnell cited Dignity Village, a city-sanctioned housing encampment in Portland, Oregon, as a potential model to follow.

She said programs need to be expanded and interwoven to better address homelessness in the community and provide more reliable services to people outside the sphere of food relief.

“We’re not close to the kind of comprehensive plan of services I feel are dignified,” she said.

“We can do better in Chapel Hill, Carrboro and Orange County. We know what it takes: It takes coordination and collaboration.”

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