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Friday August 12th

Heel Talk episode eight: Tackling food insecurity, hurricane preparation during COVID-19

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The eighth episode of Heel Talk went live Monday morning. 

North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services' P-EBT program, which aims to help North Carolinians combat food insecurity during the COVID-19 pandemic, will provide families across the state with additional food benefits. Host Evely Forte and City & State reporter Elizabeth "Lilly" Egan talk about the new program and the work of local organizations attempting to feed families impacted by the economic effects of the pandemic. 

Summer Online Editor Meredith Radford also breaks down how the state is preparing for the 2020 Atlantic hurricane season and what residents can do to individually prepare.

This episode was co-edited and co-produced by Evely Forte and Meredith Radford. Reporting by Elizabeth Egan and Meredith Radford. 

For more information on today’s episode, click here.


The transcript of Tuesday’s episode is available below: 

Lilly Egan: And, I know that the pandemic has been a difficult time for many people in Orange County like all across the country, so these state programs and local efforts are really filling a gap in the community.

Evely Forte: I’m Evely Forte from The Daily Tar Heel, and this is Heel Talk. 

Hey everyone, welcome back to Heel Talk. I’m Evely Forte and today I’m joined by City-State reporter Lilly Egan. Welcome to the show Lilly. 

LE: Hi Evely, thank you for having me. It’s great to be here.

EF: Today, we’re talking about a new statewide program being implemented by the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services called the Pandemic Electronic Benefit Transfer program — or P-EBT for short. The program’s goal is to help North Carolinians combat new and existing food insecurity felt during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Lilly, could you start us off by explaining why this program is especially needed now since schools have shut down because of COVID-19? 

LE: Yeah, so since schools have shut down because of COVID-19, families who rely on free or reduced lunch and breakfasts for their children are not having access to these programs, which has led to heightened food insecurity. In addition, with many parents facing unemployment or reduction of their hours, it can be difficult for them to feed their families, and having their children home from school makes it even harder. 

About 28 to 29 percent of students in the Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools district are enrolled in the free or reduced lunch program, and 44 percent of students in the Orange County School District in Hillsborough are enrolled in the free or reduced lunch program. So, this number is lower than the statewide percentage of about 59 percent of students being enrolled in free or reduced lunch programs, but is still a large number of families who rely on these programs to feed their children. 

So, the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services applied for funding from the national Department of Agriculture for nutrition aid during the pandemic, and North Carolina is one of the four states that is receiving federal funding for this P-EBT program. Governor Cooper and Dr. Mandy Cohen, who is the secretary for the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services, have both said that they wanted to start this program in order to feed families in a way that was faster and more efficient, especially with the schools being closed and many people facing financial hardships.

EF: And who exactly qualifies for this program? Is it only available for families who have children in school?

LE: Great question. So, families whose children are students in the North Carolina public school system who qualify for free or reduced lunch are eligible for the program. So, when I was writing my story about this, I interviewed Sherita Cobb, who is the director of Student Support Services for the Orange County School District. And, she said that any family who qualifies for free or reduced lunch can participate in the P-EBT program, even if they did not sign their children up for the free or reduced lunch, for whatever reason. Cobb said this includes families whose financial situation has changed during the COVID-19 pandemic, and also, families who are undocumented.

Sherita Cobb: Now that that has changed, due to COVID-19, those parents are now eligible to complete a application for free and reduced lunch as well.

LE: Cobb said that the state would notify families that they either continue to qualify for the free lunch program, or if they newly qualify for the program and would give them more information. And, families do not have to apply; they’ll be contacted if they meet the requirements.

EF: Are the funds accessible via a sort of, credit card-like format? 

LE: Yes, exactly! So, families who qualify for the program will be provided with a card, like a credit card, that will be loaded with $370 per child in their family, and the money will be added over a period of two installments. And then, families can use these cards to buy groceries. So, families will be mailed a card, and then provided further instructions about how to activate their cards. And, the cards are being mailed to families in waves. So, starting with families whose children are currently enrolled in the free or reduced lunch program and moving on to families whose children either are not currently enrolled, or whose financial situation has recently changed. And, all the cards should be mailed by June 10th. 

EF: And how about families who already have Electronic Benefit Transfer cards? How are they receiving these extra funds, if they qualify?

LE: Yeah. So, some families already have these Electronic Benefit Transfer cards, which they received through the Food and Nutrition Services Benefits programs. And, these families will not be mailed new cards, but additional money benefits will just be added to the cards they already have. 

EF: And where can these P-EBT cards be used?

LE: The P-EBT cards are designed to be used to buy groceries at retail food suppliers. So, these cards can be used at grocery stores and farmers markets, and also can be used at delivery services if needed. So, hot foods cannot be purchased with P-EBT cards, since the program is designed for families to purchase groceries. So, they cannot be used at restaurants.

EF: I know we’ve touched on this already, but just to reiterate - many of these Orange County families are experiencing heightened food insecurity not only because of the economic effects of the pandemic, but also because schools — where many kids have relied on for meals — are shut down. Lilly, do you have a sense as to whether the Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools district has responded to this issue?

LE: Yeah, so um, there’s two school districts in Orange County, the Orange County Schools district and Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools district. They both have responded to the issue by providing meals, for pickup by students and their families. 

So, Christine Cotton, who works with the Food for Students program in the Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools district, said that the school district, their Food for Students program, is providing students with fresh meals and boxes of produce and gallons of milk. And, they are currently serving about 1,400 students per day. So, Food for Students provides lunch, breakfasts and snacks that students and their families can pick up. So, the food is available for pickup at one of 37 food pickup sites, which are scattered all around the district. It’s available Monday through Thursday, and then, on Thursday students will also receive meals for Friday, Saturday and Sunday. 

And, the Orange County School District, which is in Hillsborough, also has a similar food distribution system in place to feed students and their families while schools are closed. Sherita Cobb said that the district is providing a breakfast-lunch combination every day, which is available for pickup at distribution sites. And, she also stressed that it is available to any students and their families in the school system. So, not just for students who qualify for free or reduced lunch, but any students or their parents who go to the distribution sites, can receive these meals.

EF: And, I know based on your reporting, that many food relief organizations within Orange County have been working hard to supplement the nutritional aid children typically receive at schools. Can you talk a bit about some of those organizations and what role they’ve played within the county? 

LE: Yeah. So, I know that there’s many community food organizations that are currently doing work and expanding upon the work that they’re doing during the pandemic to fight the heightened food insecurity. So, one organization that I touched on in my article is called PORCH, and PORCH is a Carrboro-based food delivery program that serves at-risk or in-need families by delivering boxes of fresh food to their homes every week. 

So, PORCH currently serves 408 families, which is about 2,000 individual people and includes 1,200 children. Ninety percent of the families PORCH serves live at or below the poverty level, and many have barriers to access other resources due to not speaking English, or being undocumented immigrants. So, for my article I talked to Debbie Horwitz, who is one of the co-founders and co-directors of PORCH, and she said that PORCH serves many refugees from Burma, Syria and the Congo, and a large portion of Latinx families.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, PORCH has been adapting the way that they are serving families, and instead of delivering packaged food, in the months of March and April, they gave families gift cards to groceries so they could buy their own food, so that they were not putting volunteers at risk by having to package food.

Debbie Horwitz: And that worked really well. In fact, you know, I think it was very well-received because people have the ability to choose the food they buy. And, we were able to provide probably more money than, um, than we would otherwise because of generous support from our community. 

LE: PORCH volunteers also have been helping out at the distribution sites for food set up by the Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools system, in order to help with the food distribution for students. There also is a food distribution site at the Chapel Hill Public Library going on right now. And, that site serves meals to anyone who needs them, every day. And, PORCH has been helping to manage logistics for that site, as well many food banks and the Town of Chapel Hill. 

EF: And, do you have a sense, Lilly, as to how some community members are feeling about these state programs and local distribution efforts?

LE: Yeah. I definitely think that community members are happy about the state programs and other local distribution efforts. When I talked to Debbie Horowitz, she said that she thought it was really good that the state was doing more to expand upon the nutrition programs that they were already providing. And, I know that the pandemic has been a difficult time for many people in Orange County, like all across the country, so these state programs and local distribution efforts are filling a real gap in the community.

EF: Well, thank you so much, Lilly, for sharing your time to highlight these programs and to talk about them and the impact they are making in our communities.

LE: Thank you so much for having me!

EF: Today marks the first day of the 2020 Atlantic hurricane season. Summer Online Editor Meredith Radford looked into how Orange County’s preparing for the hurricane season amid the global pandemic. She digs into what the season will most likely be like, how emergency services and the Red Cross plan to handle sheltering and what individual residents can do to prepare. 

Meredith Radford: Here in North Carolina, especially on the coast where I’m from, hurricanes are pretty common. They come and go every season, and once in a while, one comes along whose name stays with us.

Two years ago, in September of 2018, Hurricane Florence came to North Carolina and caused record breaking flooding and wind that led to 15 direct fatalities, the rescue of over 5,000 people and the flooding of over 74,000 structures, according to the National Hurricane Center’s report on the storm.

The Atlantic hurricane season runs from June 1st through November 30th. So, it officially starts today, but storms have already started popping up. We have already had two named storms this season, Tropical Storm Arthur about two weeks ago, and Tropical Storm Bertha last week, according to the National Hurricane Center.

In a press release, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said that this year’s hurricane season is expected to be busier than usual. 

This means that there is a likelihood of more storms than the average season, of which more will become full hurricanes, and of those more will be major hurricanes. It also means that North Carolina will have to prepare for hurricanes that may be worse than normal in the middle of the pandemic. 

When it comes to Orange County’s hurricane preparation, Emergency Management Coordinator Kirby Saunders said that emergency storm shelters are normally set up in big congregate settings, such as schools, convention centers or other open spaces, but this will need to change in order to adhere to safety guidelines during the pandemic.

Kirby Saunders: Obviously, in a public health threat like COVID, or any communicable disease, that is not an ideal situation. And, in fact, a lot of times, even during normal hurricane seasons, when we have this congregate care shelter, we have to be very cautious, even then, for public health concerns.

MR: Saunders said the county plans to coordinate with hotels in the community who could house people during a storm in a more separated way. The goal would be to keep people separated by families into different rooms within the hotel.

Saunders said the spaces they use as shelters would need enough space to separate everyone and adhere to social distancing, but also to separate those who may have been exposed to coronavirus or are symptomatic, whether that means separating them by floors, or keeping people who may have been exposed or are sick in different facilities. 

Along with that comes the challenge of finding hotels that will agree to shelter people who may be symptomatic or have been exposed to COVID-19.

Regardless of what kind of shelter they use, Saunders said they will have a screening process in order to determine those who may have been exposed to coronavirus, are self-reporting or are exhibiting symptoms of COVID-19. 

KS: In a situation like a shelter, it’s a very delicate balance. First and foremost, we need to provide people safe shelter. And so, that’s the first priority, is to give them safe shelter. Second to that, we’ve got to make sure that we do it safely.

MR: Saunders said that Orange County normally prepares to house around 1,200 people in storm shelters.

Even if they find enough hotels to house the expected number of Orange County residents needing shelter, Saunders said another challenge is that many people who evacuate from the east coast of North Carolina tend to end up in the central part of the state, and would also need to be housed during a storm. 

Saunders said that Orange County emergency services has a lot of work that still needs to be done to prepare for hurricanes, alongside the pandemic, this year. 

Vicki LaBelle, the executive director of the American Red Cross of Central North Carolina, said that non-congregate sheltering, like hotels, may be ideal during the pandemic, but not necessarily possible for large evacuations like what happened during Florence, depending on the area and what resources are available.

During Florence, UNC’s Friday Center was used as a shelter to house those who had to evacuate from their coastal communities. 

Vicki LaBelle: If we’re talking about thousands of people versus dozens of people, the likelihood would be higher that we’re having to do some congregate sheltering.

MR: If the Red Cross were to have congregate shelters, LaBelle said their goal is to lower the capacity of each shelter in order to have more space per person, as well as having personal protective equipment readily available for everyone there.

Orange County Emergency Management Planner Sarah Pickhardt emphasized how important individual preparation is for hurricane season. She said that now is the time to take three important steps: getting an emergency kit together, making a plan and staying informed.

Pickhardt said that, because of the pandemic, you should update emergency kits to include things like cloth face masks.

Making a plan would involve knowing where you’ll go in the case of an evacuation.

Sarah Pickhardt: So, if we do have a hurricane threat, the extreme preference is that they have a plan ready to go, where they know if they need to evacuate, where they can evacuate to, how they’re going to keep in touch with friends and family, and let them know that they’re OK. 

MR: LaBelle said that individual preparation is important for hurricanes, but also all potential emergencies. 

VL: You know, it’s always a good time for people to evaluate, not only for hurricane season, but what other disasters they might be at risk for. And, that could include a home fire, it could include wildfires, tornadoes, floods, severe storms. So, not just for hurricane season, but year-round it’s always good to have some, um, some preparedness kit tucked away, that you could grab and go if you had the opportunity to do so.

MR: In the show notes below, you can find resources for emergency alerts and hurricane preparation information for Orange County, as well as for North Carolina as a whole.

I’m Meredith Radford, reporting for The Daily Tar Heel.

EF: Thank you, Meredith, for your reporting and coverage. This week’s episode of Heel Talk was co-edited and co-produced by Meredith Radford and myself. 

That’s it for this week’s episode of Heel Talk. I’ll see you next week.

So, if you enjoyed today’s episode, please consider subscribing, rating and reviewing the episode, and sharing it with someone that you think would enjoy it too. I’ll see you next time. 

Episode transcribed by Meredith Radford.

DTH story mentioned in this episode: 

Resources for the 2020 Atlantic hurricane season:

  • Know Your Zone is a tool that allows people in North Carolina to see which evacuation zone they are in based on a street address.
  • You can sign up for OC Alerts, which will help you stay updated on emergency information here in Orange County. 
  • For alerts from the National Weather Service, you can download the FEMA app.
  • For more information on hurricane and emergency preparedness in North Carolina, you can visit readync.org
  • Visit redcross.org for information on preparing emergency kits, sheltering and other emergency preparedness information.
  • The Red Cross is still offering First Aid and CPR courses that anyone in the community can take. They can be found on the redcross.org website.
  • To donate blood or find information on local blood drives, visit redcrossblood.org.
  • For COVID-19 health and safety guidelines, visit the CDC website.

If you enjoyed this episode, please consider leaving an honest rating and review. 

@evelyaforte

@ElizabethEganNC

@mereditharadfor

@DTHCityState

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