Featured photo: Niesha Douglas and Marianne LeGreco co-authored the book ‘Everybody Eats’ which details how Greensboro has tackled food insecurity in the last 15 years. (photo by Sayaka Matsuoka)
In the beginning, Niesha Douglas was frustrated.
When a group of well-meaning community members started brainstorming ideas a few years ago of how to improve the predominantly-Black Warnersville neighborhood in Southeast Greensboro, Douglas felt like they were leaving a crucial component out of the conversation: the neighbors themselves.
“There was some misconception about the neighborhood,” says Douglas, who grew up in Warnersville. “They would hold these meetings during the day, when people were working, and I was only able to attend because I was going to school in the evenings. So I brought a different perspective of how I see my neighborhood.”
In the following months, Douglas became more involved in the process of how to tackle food insecurity in the area. While talks about how to improve the area started as early as the mid-2000s, 2014 data by the Committee on Food Desert Zones showed that the neighborhood was one of 17 food deserts in the city. This really drove home the need to increase food access in that part of the city. But to do that, its residents needed to feel a sense of ownership in the project.
All of these small and large conversations that took place over the last two decades have been collected in a new book by Douglas, an adjunct assistant professor of health, physical and secondary education at Fayetteville State University, and Marianne LeGreco, an associate communications professor at UNCG. Everybody Eats, published in August, includes eight case studies about food activism, including the planning of urban farms and mobile farmers markets. The book also covers practical input about policy changes that could make improvements to existing structures. But the first part of the journey was getting residents on board, LeGreco says. And there’s a reason why Warnersville was picked specifically.
“Warnersville was Greensboro’s first named, predominantly-African American neighborhood,” LeGreco explains. “For a very long time it was thriving. Ashe Street had quite a few Black-owned businesses but in the ’60s during urban redevelopment, the neighborhood saw a lot of change. A lot of those businesses were torn down and replaced with public housing. Folks were relocated to make way for other developments and then there were only two real spaces left: JC Price School and a park.”
This kind of demolishing of thriving Black neighborhoods is neither new nor is it confined to Greensboro. And the effects of such devastation are long-lasting, often resulting in poverty and lack of resources for those that remain. And that’s exactly what groups were hoping to alleviate when they started their projects in the area 15 years ago.
“A significant part of this is not just about access, but also about poverty,” LeGreco says.
When Douglas started going to some of the community meetings back in 2011, she noticed that the conversations were framed in a deficit model, always casting the people of Warnersville as victims who needed to be saved.
“I noticed that in the meetings, they would refer to the people in the neighborhood as if everyone was in need and everyone was poor and everyone was hungry,” Douglas says. “That’s when I started talking about the history of the neighborhood.”
Douglas was raised in Warnersville by her grandmother and aunts. She says she was never food insecure, and that many in the neighborhood owned their homes. She realized quickly that more people who lived there needed to be a part of the conversation about solutions.
“I had to speak to them in their language for them to understand the stereotyping that they were doing,” Douglas says.
Eventually, the idea for a mobile farmers market in the neighborhood took off. Then an urban garden was built at the Prince of Peace Lutheran Church, giving the residents access to fresh food. But even with a well-intentioned plan like that, organizers ran into hiccups. They had the land and the seeds, but they lacked the manpower to sustain such a program. Direct community-involvement and investment would be necessary for long-term success, LeGrego says.
“You really need to have this driven by and owned by the people in the neighborhood,” she says. “Food is tricky because people like to come out and volunteer on occasion but when it’s July and you have to get up at 6 a.m. to water before it gets hot outside and you have to do it every day… it gets to be a drain to be a volunteer…. It becomes unsustainable.”
Eventually, the initiative acquired grant funding to hire a farm manager, who continues to tend to the garden to this day. There is now a community fridge next to the garden, where some of the produce is offered to anyone who needs it.
“Food is one of those rare things that we have to make a decision about every single day, in many cases more than once,” LeGreco says. “These are conversations we’re always going to have to have.”
The book is meant to show that, LeGreco says: everything from successes like the launch of a downtown food truck project, to the less successful initiatives like the short-lived Renaissance Food Co-op, which closed in 2019 after just two years in operation. It demonstrates just how complicated tackling food insecurity can be.
“It’s about realizing that this issue is bigger than just food,” Douglas says. “It’s about health, access to healthcare, the reasoning behind why certain areas are food insecure, like their adjacency to grocery stores and farmer’s markets…. Just because we have an idea that can help a group of people doesn’t mean that the idea can be executed in a way that is everlasting or sustainable. It’s a daily thing that needs to be thought out with intention, and you need to get the right people involved.”
This is why the authors are careful not to offer concrete solutions on how to tackle food insecurity broadly. Through their research and observations, they instead offer recommendations on how other communities can start to get involved in helping their neighborhoods too.
“We might not be able to keep a single project, but as long as we’re keeping the conversation, we’re going to create the possibility for future groups to come in and keep the conversation going on food, and I think that’s cool and promising,” LeGreco says.
Learn more Everybody Eats at ucpress.edu. The book is also available to order through Scuppernong Books in Greensboro.