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'An equalizer': Local organizations give back to the community through food

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On Sunday evening, once every month, PORCH Executive Director Erin Riney and the organization’s community coordinators and volunteers gather and package grocery items, including thousands of eggs and hundreds of gallons of milk. 

By Monday evening, these groceries are taken to a parking lot for pickup — come rain or shine — with over 400 cars and thousands of people who come monthly to pick up their supply of groceries. 

PORCH is a national organization that got its start in Chapel Hill and Carrboro. What started as a grassroots community effort — neighbors leaving groceries on their front porches for pickup — transformed into a large and still expanding effort to target food insecurity in the Carrboro and Chapel Hill community, most specifically for families with children in school. 

“People responded to the simplicity of it, and I think that also speaks to the fact that all you have to do sometimes is ask,” Riney said. “People want to help, you just have to ask them, and invite them to be a part of it.” 

Much of the community PORCH serves is Burmese. Over the past decade, the Triangle area has provided shelter for over 8,000 refugees from Myanmar.

Because of this, PORCH also purchases produce from Transplanting Traditions Community Farm, a cultural community garden that grows Southeast Asian vegetables.

The Carolina Community Garden grows Southeast Asian produce to meet the specific needs of its community. The garden also helps the University’s low-income employees. This includes the University's housekeepers, who protested last February against UNC’s failure to increase wages and offer free parking. 

After starting in March 2010 through the N.C. Botanical Garden, the Carolina Campus Community Garden has grown from its humble beginnings to a permanent location on Wilson Street, standing at about a third of an acre.

Volunteers feel a sense of pride in the produce they plant and harvest, garden program manager Claire Lorch said. This community aspect is necessary for the garden’s commitment to providing food for the housekeepers and showing them that members of the UNC community care about them.

“There's something about working next to somebody with your hands in the dirt,” Lorch said. “One, it's kind of an equalizer, so you could be working with even a professor, but your hands are in the dirt, so, it kind of puts you on equal footing. Plus, I think working for a common good, so it's not just, ‘we're growing this food,’ but we're growing this food to give back to the people who are cleaning our buildings.” 

The social justice component of food distribution is important to the Marian Cheek Jackson Center’s Heavenly Groceries program, Cameron Myers Milne, an intern at the Center, said.

In collaboration with St. Joseph’s AME Church, the program provides groceries every Tuesday and Thursday for community members from 3-4:30 p.m. 

Since October, Heavenly Groceries has returned to its original model, which was previously altered because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Now, community members can show up — without any I.D. verification necessary — and pick out groceries for themselves. 

“To me, that openness is the form of social justice,” she said. “Because, you don't have to prove anything to anyone when you come in there. You’re there for you. And the most that we can do is meet you with dignity and a smile and see that you get what you need.”

Heavenly Groceries partners with both PORCH and the Inter-Faith Council for Social Service Community Kitchen, which provides hot meals twice a day during the week for lunch and dinner, with one meal at lunchtime on the weekends.  

Kristin Lavergne, the community services director of IFC, she said IFC provides more than just food, it is also a space for community outreach and to celebrate goals and accomplishments, especially through the IFC leadership program, Activate! 

IFC’s program for leadership development, fighting food insecurity and offering services and resources for affordable housing are all ways the organization works to bridge gaps in the community, she said

“Those programs will continue as long as they're needed, but we also want to create, while we're doing that, an environment where there's mutual respect, and that we value the power of the community, that we believe that they are the ones to lead us toward solutions,” she said.

Editor's Note: Cameron Myers Milne is a former staffer of The Daily Tar Heel.

@morganmbrenner

@dthlifestyle | lifestyle@dailytarheel.com

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