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Food access report highlights lived experience of those facing food insecurity in Orange County

As of 2020, about one in 10 Orange County residents experienced food insecurity, and food insecurity only decreased 2.5 percent from 2017 to 2020.

The Orange County Community Food Access Assessment was completed in September 2022 and presented to the Orange County Board of County Commissioners during a meeting on Nov. 10. The report was originally requested by the BOCC in 2021 to provide a more data-informed policy to address food insecurity in Orange County.

Rachel Cominsky, a communication strategist and program manager at UNC's Center for Health Promotion and Disease Prevention, contributed to the report. She said it was necessary because communities were tired of data collection on the issue of food insecurity without experiencing meaningful change.

The report, created by the Orange County Food Council, involved consulting with people facing food insecurity, who were identified as “community experts.” Cominsky said the report examines the causes of food insecurity from a qualitative standpoint and provides policy recommendations to local leaders.

“They know exactly what's going on and they know what they need, and we often value quantitative data over that qualitative data, and we bring in consultants from outside versus the people who are actually experiencing the issue," Cominsky said. "That was really the driving force behind it.”

One of these community experts was Chapel Hill resident and small business owner Reginald Joy. He said organizations aiming to solve food insecurity do not always talk directly to the people impacted by the issue.

“When you're not ready for the truth, some people back away from it and try to sweep it under the rug," Joy said. "So what we're doing, we're continuing to try to get the word out — ‘Hey, you know, you guys are wasting money.’”

He said current efforts to solve food insecurity do not always provide residents with the type of help they need most. He added that some people can afford to buy their own groceries, but are unable to get to a grocery store due to transportation or mobility limitations.

Mariela Hernandez, a community health worker, also said current efforts are inadequate for local residents. She said food delivery services often provide food that some community members do not use, such as canned food and condiments.

“What am I gonna do with a case of 24 (Texas) Pete hot sauce and three bundles of carrots?" Hernandez said. "I mean, how is that gonna feed my family?”

The report provides many policy recommendations such as improved language translation services, more options for food delivery and “deeper economic investments” to end hunger in the local community.

According to Cominsky, these deeper investments should improve the overall well-being of the community in addition to dealing directly with food insecurity. She said services such as food stamps are not permanent solutions.

“They're meeting somewhat of a baseline need, but they're really not going deeper and they're not transformational in bringing people out of poverty and supporting them in growth,” Cominsky said.

Joy said implementing the deeper investments means ensuring the needs of individual neighborhoods are met, rather than simply giving more funding to a food aid program. He added that these improvements are possible since Chapel Hill is a wealthy community with a large amount of tax revenue to use.

Now that the report is available, Hernandez said leaders should take the report as constructive criticism of existing policies to address food insecurity. She said it is important for policymakers to value residents' lived experiences.

“It might not sound realistic because we're not policymakers — we're a community in need,” Hernandez said.

She said even if a specific idea is unrealistic, policymakers can work directly with residents to fine-tune recommendations and create achievable solutions.

CORRECTION: The original version of this article incorrectly implied that Mariela Hernandez was involved in this the Orange County Community Food Access Assessment in relation to her job at the Family Success Alliance. Hernandez participated in the assessment's development in a separate capacity. The Daily Tar Heel apologizes for this error. 

@DTHCityState |

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