In Chapel Hill, 19,000 people live in food deserts, the majority in areas around Franklin Street.
A food desert, as defined by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, is a part of the country where fresh produce is challenging to come by, and 33 percent of an urban area’s population live 1 mile or farther from a grocery store.
Food deserts are a component of the nationwide crisis of food insecurity, in which 11.8 percent of American households were considered food insecure in 2017 because they either could not afford healthy, nutritious food or lacked access to it.
The number of households in North Carolina facing food insecurity is above the national average, and the task of fighting hunger in Chapel Hill and Orange County seems to fall largely upon community leaders, said Chris Workman, pastor at The Point Church’s Chapel Hill location.
“The people who are addressing (hunger) are nonprofits and churches,” Workman said.
The Point Church, a union of churches across the Triangle, also works with refugees and other residents affected by food deserts and the pertaining insecurity. The church runs five total food pantries in the Triangle, called Care Pantries, the newest of which opened in October in Chapel Hill.
Workman said the Chapel Hill Care Pantry served 22 families at its opening in October.
Currently, the pantry operates once per month, but Workman said they hope to operate weekly within a few months. Three of the five pantries already serve hot meals and hand out bags of groceries once a week.
TABLE NC, a non-profit in the Chapel Hill-Carrboro area, works to fight hunger among children. Ashton Tippins, the executive director for TABLE NC, said the organization gauges the amount of children they help by using the number of children in the Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools system that receive free or reduced lunches, which is 2,653 children.
However, the number does not necessarily correlate to the number of food insecure children.
“The picture of food insecurity is probably bigger than what we see in that free and reduced lunch number,” Tippins said.
Food Bank of Central and Eastern North Carolina found the number of children receiving free or reduced school meals in Orange County to be over 3,300.
PORCH, a grassroots organization fighting hunger in Chapel Hill and Carrboro, also works with schools to provide food for families. While PORCH has many programs, the Food for Families program finds families within the school district who are food insecure and provides them with a week’s worth of groceries once a month.
Laura Malinchock, a PORCH board member, said that of the 450 families PORCH provides food to, 175 are refugees, the majority being of the Karen ethnicity who have faced persecution and ethnic violence in Myanmar.
“We try to be culturally sensitive,” Malinchock said. “We also have a partnership through Transplanting Traditions, which is a farm run by those refugee families.”
This partnership, as well as a partnership with Weaver Street Market in Carrboro, helps supply the Karen families with products more similar to their dietary customs, such as lemongrass and pennywort.
The Daily Tar Heel reached out to members of the Chapel Hill Town Council to learn about efforts to address these issues but did not receive a response by the time of publication.
Susan Romaine, one of the founders of PORCH, works with the Town to coordinate distribution centers, said Malinchock, but overall PORCH operates independently of the local government.
“The cost of living, and of course doing business, is so high, and so the price of food has to be higher, and that makes it tougher on families to be able to afford it,” said Tippins.
Malinchock said Romaine believes a living wage is fundamental to solving hunger. While food deserts are often dictated by proximity to grocery stores, another key characteristic of them is affordability.
“The families that we serve are very hardworking, but sometimes they just don’t have enough to stretch their budget to feed their families,” Malinchock said. “We hope that by providing a week’s worth of food, we can close that gap.”
Tippins said creative approaches to helping aid families in Chapel Hill and Carrboro has proven successful. The local farmer’s market accepts food stamps, allowing low-income families to access healthy, fresh produce without spending too much.
More creativity, she said, could reduce the widespread hunger experienced by many of the residents in Chapel Hill and Carrboro.
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