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By Liora Engel-Smith
On his family farm in Edgecombe County, Kendrick Ransome grows good food.
With winter not yet over, Ransome, a fourth-generation farmer, cultivates hardy vegetables on roughly 10 acres: collards, mustard greens, turnips and cabbage. In spring and summer, Ransome branches out to other organic crops such as squash, cucumbers, watermelon and cantaloupe.
Situated in Pinetops, a rural town with two traffic lights and roughly 1,200 people, Ransome’s farm is an island of food in a county where, according to 2017 statistics from Feeding America, nearly one in four people experienced hunger, the highest rate of food insecurity in the state.
Ransome sees some of the challenges people in his community face surrounding access to food. Farmers markets rarely convene in rural communities, he said. And traveling 10 or 20 miles to the nearest city for a market isn’t always possible.
“Some folks in rural communities don’t have transportation to get to a farmers market,” Ransome, 27, said. “Farmers markets might not be open every day [people] have a chance to get out there.”
Ransome has partnered with other businesses to offer pop-up markets in smaller towns around the county, but even when a market is nearby, the price of fresh produce can be a limiting factor, he said.
Growing fruits and vegetables, particularly organic ones, can be expensive, he added, and Ransome has to price his produce to cover those costs.
The challenges Ransome describes — transportation and price barriers — are features of the food ecosystem in his community. And when put together with factors such as unemployment and lack of grocery stores in a neighborhood, these conditions can inhibit people’s access to healthy food and contribute to hunger and lifestyle diseases such as diabetes, obesity and high blood pressure.
A new collaboration between the Upper Coastal Plain Council of Governments and community groups in Edgecombe and four neighboring counties wants to understand the totality of these factors and how they affect people in the region. The collaboration will map out food sources in each community — grocery stores, food growers and corner stores, to name a few — and the relationships among them.
The goal is to use the information to guide policy solutions on issues such as food insecurity and hunger, said Ron Townley, planning and development services program director at the council.
“It’s really hard to create connectivity and build synergies to support local healthy food efforts without understanding more completely what we have, where we have it and how it supports communities that are traditionally underserved and have limited access to resources,” he said.
Launched earlier this month with support from The Kate B. Reynolds Charitable Trust, the project also includes Wilson, Nash, Northampton and Halifax counties — all counties, that like Edgecombe, have high rates of food insecurity.
‘It touches everybody’
Helping local people understand the food environment in the region could guide solutions to many economic and health challenges, said Cooper Blackwell, advisory board chair of the Just Foods Collaborative of Nash/Edgecombe Counties, a grassroots food policy organization.
“Ultimately it’s important because every person is affected by food,” he added. “… Everyone has to eat, but not everyone has access to healthy food.”
The project, he said, will help Just Foods identify what’s available to people and what is missing, and will ultimately guide the collaborative’s work on disparities in access to food and resources.
“It touches everybody,” he said.
But change to the conditions that gave rise to hunger and food insecurity isn’t likely to occur immediately, Townley said.
“It’s taken a long time to get the region into this situation,” he said. “We’re not going to fix it overnight.”
As advocates in central North Carolina discovered, mapping community resources and identifying gaps can change the food landscape in a county.
From maps to action
Erin Brighton has been through the process of mapping the resources in Mecklenburg County twice: once in 2010, and again in 2015. And this year, Brighton and other staff at the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Food Policy Council are repeating the process.
Brighton, education director and former executive director of the food policy council, said that the mapping process is labor-intensive and can take months to achieve, but the insights it produces can lead to conversations that can eventually bring about change.
More than 150 organizations in Mecklenburg County used data from the 2010 report in their grant applications for programs to address food insecurity, hunger and related issues, Brighton said.
Members of the food policy council also talk about their findings at Charlotte city council meetings. After learning that some neighborhoods in the city lack easy access to fruits and vegetables, city council worked to change zoning rules to allow mobile farmers markets to set up shop in the city. Since the adoption of the amendment, some neighborhoods where maps identified high rates of food insecurity have gotten a mobile farmers market, increasing their access to fresh fruits and vegetables, Brighton said.
Changing a food system isn’t easy or fast, Brighton said, but it can lead to lasting change.
“I’m really happy that another North Carolina community is trying to do this as well,” she added. “Nothing but good can come out of it. When you get a group of people together to kind of really look at these issues, only positive things can happen.”
Disclosure: The Kate B. Reynolds Trust is an underwriter of North Carolina Health News. The Trust has no input into editorial choices or stories produced by NC Health News.