by Eric Ginsburg
Greensboro city leaders express dismay and concern about a report that shows the Greensboro-High Point metro area is now the worst for food hardship in the nation, but some community members point to grassroots efforts with hope.
Greensboro City Council members Marikay Abuzuaiter and Tony Wilkins, who regularly vote differently than each other on council items, are both stunned and somewhat speechless in the face of a report this month that names the area as the worst place for food hardship in the nation.
Neither of them are quite sure what to do about it.
“That question haunts me,” said Wilkins, a conservative member of council who represents the westernmost district of the city. “It is an issue that I plan to actively pursue.”
Abuzuaiter, a progressive, at-large representative on council, also didn’t really know what to say or do.
“That’s the million-dollar question,” she said. “I don’t know. I don’t have a magic solution.”
The report, prepared by the Food Research and Action Center, used Gallup polling data that has been collected annually since 2008. The Greensboro-High Point metro area previously held claim to an embarrassing second-place ranking but rose to first in the nation above Baton Rouge, La., in the report released earlier this month.
Respondents reached by cellular or landline phones were asked if there was a time in the last year that they or their family were unable to afford to buy food they needed. Greensboro-High Point’s 27.9 percent food hardship rate is 3 points higher than Baton Rouge and 7.1 percent worse than North Carolina’s average of 20.8 percent. The state average is the eighth worst in the country.
Meanwhile, Winston-Salem was ranked 22nd in the country, coming in second worst for North Carolina and matching the state average exactly. Asheville (20.1 percent) was third worst in the state and 28th in the country while the Charlotte metro area (19.7 percent) and Raleigh-Cary (17.1 percent) were farther down the list.
Greenville, SC, a city that Greensboro leaders frequently use as a metric of comparison and a beacon of cultural and economic hope, ranked 12th worst nationwide with a 22 percent food hardship rate. The report did contain some good news: The national food hardship rate dropped from 18.9 in 2013 to 17.2 percent in 2014, the lowest annual rate since Gallup started polling in 2008.
There’s also hope locally, some advocates and activists say, but it’s coming from the grassroots level. To Marianne LeGreco, an associate professor and food researcher at UNCG, it’s a chance to take the area’s greatest weakest and “flip it on its head and find innovative solutions.”
“We have so many innovative things in place to make this work,” LeGreco said. “There are things that are starting to mobilize in High Point and in Greensboro. At the same time, we’ve got to be smart in the way that we do it so that it’s not everybody creating a new program. It’s not going to be one single solution.”
LeGreco, who is part of an effort to create the Guilford Food Council, said the list can motivate people to do something about getting the metro area off the top of the food-hardship list, and the first step is to figure out the details of the problem. That work is already beginning, she said.
“I know the city of Greensboro has a grant from the US Department of Agriculture right now to do a local food assessment,” she said, adding that she’s part of an advising team for the process. “I think the first part of ‘how we got here’ is a gap in our knowledge. In part, we really do need to get the perspective of people who are experiencing food hardship.”
Once the source of the problem and potential solutions are identified, she said, the area is well positioned to deal with the issue. There’s a year-round growing season and access to water, something people may be more aware of given the attention on the serious drought in California, a major food-producing state, LeGreco said. And the abundance of local universities where people are already looking at food insecurity is a huge asset as well, she said, pointing out that High Point University students played a significant role in a recent food summit in the Furniture City.
“We might be more prepared than we think we are,” she said, “but we’re not networked well to take action, and that’s the big thing that we want to do with the food council. We’re trying to do it as quickly as possible but also in an ethical and productive way.”
Lamar Gibson, a former fundraiser for the Interactive Resource Center for people experiencing homelessness and later for the Renaissance Community Cooperative grocery store, said he isn’t surprised that the Greensboro-High Point area rose to the No. 1 worst spot, but also said he feels “really positively about grassroots efforts” like a mobile farmers market that LeGreco has been working on in tandem with the county health department.
“I think that even with the innovations that have been sparked by the [Renaissance Co-op], our local governments and lots of other key local institutions that might be able to do something to affect this aren’t fully ready to be innovative,” Gibson said. “There’s still this spirit of ‘the old solutions will work.’ We’ll try innovation every once in a while here and there, but this idea of rethinking the way we do things hasn’t fully caught on.”
That rethinking is fundamental so that local leaders stop thinking of action around food hardship as a handout, he said. Gibson learned from Food Not Bombs, an organization locally affiliated with the Interactive Resource Center, that food needs to be viewed as a right and not a privilege, adding that a market-driven solution has failed the public.
“Community-garden and urban-farming initiatives would skyrocket if local government believed people have a right to eat,” he said. If government believed that, we would direct so many more resources towards access to healthy food.”
Councilwoman Abuzuaiter expressed similar sentiment.
“We’re not paying attention to the needs of the community,” she said. “When I say ‘we’ I don’t just mean city council. I feel that we’ve failed in not going after what those needs are.”
Abuzuaiter said the city is making some strides, like council’s recent support for $250,000 in funding for the Renaissance Co-op that will build a grocery store in a longstanding food desert in northeast Greensboro. She’s interested in the idea of vertical gardens and rooftop gardens, she said, adding that she has been talking to Assistant City Manager Chris Wilson about the possibility of turning empty lots into community gardens.
Abuzuaiter wondered how much of the problem is High Point versus Greensboro, given that the ranking measured the metro area as a unit, and added that this is an opportunity to collaborate with county government on a solution. While improvements can be made on a local level, Abuzuaiter said the ranking is depressing — “You think you’re doing some good but it’s just a drop in the ocean,” she said — and added that the problem is much larger than the local area.
“It really all goes back to a livable wage,” she said, adding that local workforce development efforts should improve the problem locally down the road. “Everybody is aware of it, but what do we do about it? This is something that is hitting us in the face, but it’s systemic and it’s going to take some time.”
Councilman Wilkins also said the root problem goes back to employment, pointing out that even if the city invested considerably more money into a food bank, the way the poll question is worded, people still wouldn’t be able to afford what they needed even if they ultimately received the food.
The first step that comes to Wilkins’ mind is forming a council committee, something he said he might ask Mayor Nancy Vaughan about starting.
“I don’t mean a committee to meet every month just to meet and not get anything done, I mean a committee to meet and find solutions,” he clarified.
Wilkins also said dropping property taxes is one way he can think of to keep money in people’s pockets and also bemoaned plans to raise local water rates by 5.5 percent.
“I cringe when I think of taking an additional $13 million out of the community for increased water rates over three years,” he said, referring to the time he has served on city council.
Wilkins suggested instead that, if necessary, the city draw down on the water fund balance that contains upwards of $20 million rather than increasing rates.
While pointing out that the report calls for government action, North Carolina NAACP political action chair and NC A&T University professor Derick Smith said government has created much of the problem.
“We’ve been hearing that we were ranked No. 2 for some time,” Smith said. “Ironically we got a lot of that information from UNC Poverty Center, and now the board of governors decided [to close the center]. Being in Southern state with right-to-work laws makes it hard for workers to fight for a living wage. People in North Carolina who could be starving are doing the exact same work for the exact same hours as people in, say, Massachusetts or wherever that aren’t starving.”
Like Gibson and LeGreco, Smith said he is heartened by local grassroots efforts, pointing to the Renaissance Co-op in particular.
“People are now beginning to understand if you need a banana in east Greensboro, you need to do everything in your power to get it there and you can’t rely on corporations or the government to get it there for you,” he said. “The current systems don’t seem to be working in the best interest of people.”
Wilkins, who voted against funding for the co-op along with Councilmen Zack Matheny and Mike Barber but lost 6-3, said he hopes the cooperative grocery store is successful but he didn’t trust the group’s financial forecast.
“I couldn’t vote to give taxpayer money on what I thought was a business plan that wouldn’t work,” he said. “Their business plan states that they will do $10,000 a day their first year and that their margin of error is 4 percent. As much as I want that plan to work, I didn’t think that that was accurate, and I hope in a year from now [the board chair] looks at me and says, ‘Tony we did it,’ because I’m pulling for them.”
Mentioning that he bought a co-op membership and would help raise private money for the store, Wilkins said the city would need to allocate $32 million to cover all the city’s food deserts in a similar manner as the co-op.
Regardless of the specifics, Smith said that sort of radical rethinking — as Gibson suggested — is exactly what the area needs.
“We need to really consider this as though it’s disaster relief,” Smith said. “When we see these reports we shouldn’t just flip the page. It’s really a call to action. Who are we really if we’re going to let hard-working people starve?”
[Photo: A community garden in the Warnersville neighborhood connected to the mobile market that LeGreco is involved with organizing.]