Inter-Faith Food Shuttle mobile market.
Inter-Faith Food Shuttle mobile market. Photo courtesy IFFS.

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A committee examining food deserts in North Carolina could get an extended lease on life, if lawmakers get their way.

By Rose Hoban

After months of looking at the issue of access to nutritious food in low-income and rural parts of North Carolina, legislators are asking that a temporary House of Representatives study committee be extended to something more comprehensive, involving legislators from both chambers of the General Assembly.

“I’m looking to try to keep it alive,” said Rep. Yvonne Lewis Holley (D-Raleigh), who introduced a food desert bill last year that inspired the formation of the House Committee on Food Desert Zones.

Holley said the four committee meetings that were held this winter and spring were not nearly enough to cover all of the questions raised during the process.

Rep. Chris Whitmire (R-Rosman)

“I know I have personally interviewed 50 people,” she said. “And anybody who came and had good ideas, we tried to give them a hearing.”

Over the course of four meetings, the committee heard from more than 30 presenters. Those meetings ran as long as five hours.

The committee will introduce a bill to strengthen nutrition education efforts funded by the federal  food stamp program, called SNAP-Ed, by rolling all of the state’s current programs under the state’s Cooperative Extension program. The committee is also recommending that more schools participate in the federally-funded program to provide free and reduced-price meals to low-income kids in schools, along with the recommendation to continue studying the issue.

Co-chairman Rep. Chris Whitmire (R-Rosman) called the committee’s proposals “achievable.”

“It will help our state’s efforts to mitigate – and I didn’t say solve; I said mitigate – food deserts,” Whitmire said. “In the end, to get anything done it has to survive the process of legislation.”

Educating legislators

Holley introduced a bill in 2013 to address food deserts when two grocery stores in her Southeast Raleigh neighborhood closed within months of each other. She quickly realized that she’d grabbed onto an issue that was too big for a freshman legislator.

So the study committee was born.

Rep. Yvonne Lewis Holley (D-Raleigh)

Holley said that one thing that excites her is that during the committee process, legislators from across the state were introduced to the concept of food deserts, areas that are defined by the U.S. Department of Agriculture as “urban neighborhoods and rural towns without ready access to fresh, healthy, and affordable food.”

Instead of grocery stores, supermarkets and farmers’ markets, people living in food deserts may only be served by convenience stores and fast-food outlets with limited selections of fresh fruits and vegetables. Residents in those areas, by definition, have to travel at least a mile to find a grocery store where produce is available.

The effects of a lack of readily available affordable food are particularly acute for low-income families, who often don’t have access to transportation.

“It’s new to the public and it’s new to legislators,” Holley said. “This is the first time some of these people even heard of food deserts. It’s different if it’s one of these issues that you hear about all the time, but this is new.”

Pam Seamans from the North Carolina Alliance for Health said she hopes the recommendation to extend the study committee gets accepted.

“We know we will probably have to work to make that happen in the short session,” which starts in May, Seamans said. “It’s really nice to see that they understand this is a consultative issue which really does merit the need for further study.”

One idea floated by both Holley and Whitmire is the creation of an information clearinghouse of best practices, ideas and technical assistance for communities looking to address the problems of hunger and poor nutrition in their midst. That would be addressed by the bill they’ve introduced.

“If we can get the Senate involved in it as well, hopefully we can come up with something that gives it a home, a clearinghouse, for all of this information and some definitive legislation,” Holley said.

Dozens of ideas

During the four meetings of the Committee on Food Desert Zones, legislators heard from business people to community organizers, mobile grocers to academics, bankers to cooperative organizers, all concerned with one thing: getting people access to better-quality food.

Antonio Jones shows off some fresh produce from the Carrboro farmers market where he was shopping with his mom. She was using SNAP benefits to pay for vegetables. NCHN file photo, credit: Rose Hoban

Seamans said her organization was excited by some simple, low-cost ideas that could, for example, allow corner convenience stores to store more fresh fruits and vegetables.

“The business owner would have to express an interest and say, ‘I would like to explore offering healthier, nutrient-dense food in my establishment,’” Seamans said. “If they needed a cooler, it would be about buying [them] a cooler and not really providing a flat-out grant or anything like that. It would be providing just a little bit.”

Holley said a group of 183 convenience store owners in Durham County had approached her with a letter asking for help.

“They want to carry nutrient-rich foods, but they don’t know how,” she said.

At Monday’s meeting, Sarah Bowen, a sociology instructor at NC State University, laid out the scope of the problem when she described a woman her students interviewed who lived in a food desert and had to travel more than an hour each way to get to a grocery store.

“Her limited budget, her lack of transportation and her lack of time conspired against her,” Bowen said. “When asked what she would do if she had more money to feed her kids healthier, she said she’d buy salads and vegetables, but that it was impossible to do when she only shopped once a month.”

“‘Those are perishable things and they go bad really fast,’” Bowen quoted the woman as saying, “’and we don’t have the money to go back and forth every day to the market.'”

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