The first meeting of a legislative committee exploring the issue of food deserts drew a diverse crowd to the General Assembly this week.
By Rose Hoban
Bankers, health officials, agricultural policy experts, public health advocates and farmers filled a General Assembly committee room to overflow Monday afternoon to listen to four hours of presentations on how North Carolina can address food insecurity.
The meeting was the first in a series of four study committee meetings on “food deserts,” areas, both inner-city and rural, where people have limited access to fresh healthy food because there are few if any places to buy a fresh piece of fruit or head of broccoli.
And everyone who attended the meeting agreed on one thing: Addressing hunger and inaccessibility to healthy food is a multi-faceted problem with few simple answers.
“Everybody has to use [food] every day,” said Rep. Yvonne Lewis Holley (D-Raleigh), who pushed for the study committee during the legislative session last spring and summer.
Holley initially introduced a bill to address food deserts, but asked House Speaker Thom Tillis to change the bill to a study committee. She credited him for getting behind the effort.
Map of North Carolina food desert designated areas, by census tract. Click on an area to see details about food availability and distance from food outlets. Data sources: US Census, USDA
Defining a food desert is not as easy as it might seem, said Maureen Berner, a professor in the UNC School of Government. Defining a food desert not only includes the presence of stores selling food, but also issues of transportation to those stores, distribution to stores, affordability of the food in those stores, what condition perishable foods are in, storage capacity in stores and more.
“If we think about the demand side, and understanding the customer, there are also places and issues where access breaks down,” Berner said. “Specifically, do we know who needs this? Do they know where to buy the food? Can they afford it? Do they know how to prepare it? Will they eat it?
“These are really basic questions, but each of those questions has an impact on whether people have healthy food,” she said.
Affordability of food is as important as the distance people have to travel to get to it, Berner said, giving an example of a gallon of milk that’s available at a neighborhood gas station but costs two dollars more than at the supermarket 10 miles away.
Committee co-chair Chris Whitmire (R-Rosman) said that food deserts, they’re not always where one would imagine.
“Why is one little area considered a food desert when it has six grocery stores within a 3-mile radius? And only has 7000 people? It’s really not a food desert but it might show up,” Whitmire said, who’s an eighth-generation farmer. “Then again things show up that may not fit at all your designation as intended by USDA or CDC or the different federal organizations that have means of addressing such issues”
This was the kind of issue that drove Holley to introduce the food desert bill during last year’s legislative session. She was inspired after two grocery stores in her heavily urban northeast Raleigh legislative district folded within a few weeks of one another.
“It took us years to get them in the neighborhood, and to lose two at one time was just devastating,” she said.
Holley said one of the stores was surrounded by low-income housing and homes for the elderly, who had no other way to get to food.
But the issue quickly grew beyond her abilities as a freshman legislator to get it passed.
“I didn’t know what I was doing, and [the bill] just got bigger and bigger,” she said. “By the end of the session, I needed a full-time person in my office just to handle all of the food desert inquiries.”
According to a ranking in Governing magazine, hunger and food deserts is one of the top 10 issues facing state legislatures. Neighboring states Virginia, South Carolina, Tennessee and Georgia have all issued reports within the past year.
Holley said that when she introduced the bill, she started getting phone calls from advocates, from legislators in other states asking what solutions North Carolina had come up with and from people providing services to feed the hungry, among others.
“Providing these services is not a political issue, I don’t think. I see it more as a human issue,” she said.
But Holley also said that framing the issue as an economic-development and jobs issue might be the way to gain bipartisan support for any bill that would come out of the committee’s work.
Food creates jobs
Southern foodways can create jobs, said researcher Alice Ammerman of the UNC Gillings School of Global Health, who drew laughs when she told the committee that she’s been working on a lower-fat version of barbecue and hush puppies.
“Despite the fact that North Carolina is one of the most diverse agricultural states, a lot of the food we consume does not come from North Carolina,” she said.
“Fresh, wholesome, good-tasting food, when it comes from closer by, usually tastes better,” Ammerman said. “Money stays in the state, we have less in transportation and storage costs, less environmental impact, and it creates opportunities for businesses, start-ups, to expand.”
She said the farms at highest risk today are the small- to mid-sized farms that were previously dependent on tobacco, and that North Carolina has a higher than average rate of farm loss.
Ammerman said that supporting local farming is a win for everyone: farmers, consumers and those who are interested in economic development.
That message was repeated by speakers from the state Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, the Department of Commerce and the Carolina Farm Stewardship Association.
Several speakers talked about potential challenges to local-food production from new federal regulations created by passage of the Food Safety Modernization Act, which could negatively affect small-scale food processors.
“In the process of going global with our food system, we lost infrastructure that makes things work locally,” said Nancy Creamer, director of the Center for Environmental Farming Systems.
“We spend $45 billion on food in this state,” she said. “Just keeping 10 percent of that in state would be $4.5 billion annually.”
“This is a recession-proof way of doing economic development in our state,” Creamer said. “We’re not going to stop eating.”
NC Hunger Statistics:
56 – percentage of public-school children in North Carolina eligible for free or reduced lunch
$43,567 – income for a family of four (185 percent of the federal poverty level) that qualifies a child for free or reduced lunch
$30,615 – income for a family of four (130 percent of federal poverty level) that qualifies a household for SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program), formerly known as food stamps
16.2 – percent of North Carolina population that receives some amount of federal assistance to buy food in the form of SNAP
1.6 million – number of SNAP participants in North Carolina
~$2 billion – SNAP benefits issued in North Carolina annually
10 percent – annual increase in participation in Food and Nutrition Services program
0-12 – largest age group eligible for SNAP
60+ – next-largest age group eligible for SNAP
statistics: NC DHHS, Division of Social Services