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By Taylor Knopf

A program to bring healthy foods to rural areas lacking grocery stores could be in jeopardy if the North Carolina Senate has its way.

In a late night budget debate, the Senate passed an amendment to redirect funding from numerous programs to help combat the opioid addiction crisis. One such program is the $200,000 for the healthy food small retailer program or “corner store initiative,” which passed in 2016.

The program aims to increase access to fresh food in the state’s food deserts by giving grants to retailers to put refrigeration units in small corner and country stores throughout rural North Carolina.

Food deserts 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. Poor diet contributes to people being overweight or obese, and about two-thirds of North Carolinians fall into that category. That puts folks at greater risk for diabetes, which plagues about 13 percent of adults in North Carolina.

Late night, no snacks

Senate Republicans, who control the chamber, said the almost $2 million in funds taken from education and health programs in other parts of the budget was needed to combat the opioid epidemic. However, Senate Democrats introduced a flurry of amendments leading up to the last minute move.

“The amendments were all being sponsored by the minority party, and it didn’t seem like any of those were going anywhere,” explained Sen. Louis Pate (R- Mount Olive), who co-sponsored Senate Bill 498, the healthy food initiative. “It was after midnight and this was the third reading on the bill.”

He said that everyone just wanted to go home. So Republicans took a break and came back with the amendment for opioid funding.

Gov. Roy Cooper scolded state senate leadership last week during a press conference where he announced that North Carolina received a $31 million federal grant to combat the opioid crisis.

“Unfortunately, the Republican leadership at the General Assembly turned the opioid epidemic crisis the other night into a political football,” Cooper said. “They provided a $1.9 million pilot program that was paid for by cutting education spending in Democratic districts.”

“We shouldn’t have to choose between education funding and battling the opioid epidemic,” he added. “We can and we should do both.”

On the chopping block

A number of senators didn’t know where the money for the opioid amendment came from until after it passed. Pate said he didn’t know the healthy foods initiative had been defunded until after the budget vote.

Later, Pate said he reluctantly supported the decision to defund the healthy foods program to help with the sharp uptick in opioid use and overdoses around the state.

“People who are ready to self-destruct probably don’t need to wait around for fresh vegetables,” he said. “If they are determined that the next thing they are worried about is a drug fix, they probably aren’t too interested in whether this apple is fresh or has a rotten spot in it.”

Sen. Don Davis (D-Greenville), primary sponsor of the senate food desert bill, said he noticed the healthy food initiative was on the chopping block as the chamber tallied the votes. He stood to ask a question, but was told it was too late and the amendment had passed.

Davis said that if the funding isn’t restored, it could impact education and health in many areas of his eastern North Carolina district.

“At the same time, we need to maintain a commitment to those struggling with some sort of substance abuse,” Davis said. “I would like to hope that there is an avenue to work on both of these fronts.”

He said he’s been talking to his fellow lawmakers to try to work the funding back into the budget.

“I’m optimistic, in spite of what happens in the wee hours of the night, that the residents of eastern North Carolina are going to be OK. I’m optimistic that we will move forward with this program,” he said.

“We are going to continue these conversations. It’s part of a process,” Davis added. “It’s not all defined by one amendment.”

And he is right. The budget is now in the House, and representatives will likely make many tweaks and changes.

House restoration?

Rep. Yvonne Holley (D- Raleigh) sponsored a companion bill to the healthy foods initiative. She said she was “very disappointed” to hear about the Senate removing funding.

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“In comparison to some of the other things taken out, it’s not a big expensive item in the budget,” Holley said.

She said she fears the program will just end if it doesn’t receive any funding. There are about 10 stores outfitted with refrigeration units from the one-time funding of $250,000 last year. But more is needed to expand the program going, she said.

“I’ve been talking to my House people about trying to get it back in on this side,” Holley said.

“It’s not a big overhead, but I think everybody here wants to cut the budget,” she added. “Sometimes I feel like if you’re helping somebody, they take it out of the budget.”

Holley, Davis and Pate all said they have hope that some funding could be restored to the program this budget cycle.

“I hope that it’s not over yet,” Pate said. “Once we have a conference committee, there might be some room to maneuver there. We will revisit it again before the budget is finalized.”

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Taylor Knopf

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...