By Taylor Knopf

North Carolina lawmakers hope to introduce fresh food options to large stretches of land all over the state that are considered food deserts. These are areas where the scarcity of fresh fruits and vegetables leaves many residents to rely on local dollar stores and similar retailers for packaged and canned goods.

House Bill 387 is an effort to bolster the “corner store initiative,” passed in 2016, which would put refrigeration units in small retail stores throughout rural North Carolina so they can carry fresh produce. Sen. Don Davis (D-Greenville) filed similar legislation with the “Healthy Food Small Retailer Act” in the Senate.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture defines an urban area food desert as an area where there is no access to healthy food for more than a mile. For rural areas, that distance stretches out to 10 miles.

Primary bill sponsor Rep. Yvonne Holley (D- Raleigh) told the House Agricultural Committee on Tuesday that food deserts in North Carolina have “gotten considerably worse.”

“This is one little piece of the puzzle to help try to fix the problem,” she said. “We are working in a lot of different areas.”

A pilot program is just getting up and running. There are nine stores working through the contract phase with the N.C. Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, but no refrigeration units in place yet, according to Ron Fish, assistant director of the NCDACS marketing division.

Holley argued more funds are needed to truly make a dent in this problem statewide. Legislation passed in 2016 came with a one-time funding of $250,000.

Interactive map of food deserts and farmers’ markets in North Carolina. Data courtesy: USDA & NCDACS

“We are trying to get as much as we can,” she said. “We would like to get $1 million. That was the original request last session.”

Rep. Jimmy Dixon (R-Warsaw), chair of the Agriculture and Natural and Economic Resources appropriations committee, said there are funds for this program.

“It’s not $1 million, but there is an amount,” he said. “I believe it will be successful.”

Rep. Mark Brody (R- Monroe) said he would like to wait another year on additional funding for the corner store initiative.

“Everybody’s all excited in the beginning and then when they see that they can’t do the volume, then they turn into beer coolers and other type of things,” Brody said. “We really need a good year’s worth of experience under our belt before we move to the next step of asking for more funding.”

The corner store at North Roxboro and Geer Streets in Old North Durham has embraced selling healthy food alongside beer and lottery tickets.
The corner store at North Roxboro and Geer Streets in Old North Durham has embraced selling healthy food alongside beer and lottery tickets. Photo credit: Rose Hoban

Holley assured him that these programs have been effective in other states, and that the program would be monitored so that coolers are used for their intended purpose only.

She explained that most of the refrigeration and shelving units people see in these small corner stores are donated by vendors for their specific products.

Fish, of NCDACS, told the committee that refrigeration units for the pilot program cost between $5,000 and $10,000. In the contract with the state, corner stores are required to carry fresh food for two years if they receive one of these units.

Holley said she fears that if the program is underfunded from the start, it will be difficult to collect the actual numbers to see how successful it can really be.

Rep. George Graham (D-Kinston) said wide expanses representing food deserts on the map of North Carolina “speaks volumes.”

“Because you live in a rural county or you live in a home with a low income does not mean you’re not entitled to healthy foods,” he said. “We have families and children out there growing up undernourished.”

According to the bill, more than 65 percent of adults in North Carolina are considered overweight or obese, and more than 31 percent of children are overweight. Being overweight leads to a higher risk for conditions such as type 2 diabetes, heart disease, stroke, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, certain cancers, asthma, low self-esteem and depression.

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Taylor Knopf writes about mental health, including addiction and harm reduction. She lives in Raleigh and previously wrote for The News & Observer. Knopf has a bachelor's degree in sociology with a...