by Eric Ginsburg

Everybody is talking about it.

The Triad has long struggled with food insecurity and hunger, suffering from relatively high unemployment rates, prolific food deserts and crippling poverty. With the Greensboro-High Point metro area recently jumping from No. 2 to the top spot for food-hardship rates across the country, attention, concern and alarm have risen considerably. And things aren’t much better in Winston-Salem, where food hardship is still embarrassingly prevalent.

It would be easy to feel powerless, like the problem is too big to have an impact upon. It’s clear that the root of the issue is about much more than a need for more food drives and pantries, but lies in an economic system that disadvantages a significant portion of the population. Food insecurity is inseparable from larger issues of poverty, access and power, making it challenging not to be overwhelmed and immobilized by the breadth of the problem.

But this area desperately needs solutions, and hands to put new ideas in place. That’s why Triad City Beat asked dozens of people what can be done, including existing local approaches that people may not be aware of and new concepts that could work here. Activists, chefs, farmers, community volunteers, politicians and everyday people offered their intellectual prowess and personal experiences.

A garden in Warnersville for the Mobile Oasis
A garden in Warnersville for the Mobile Oasis

Recurring themes emerged — many people suggested something akin to the Mobile Oasis, a movable farmers market that sprung up recently in Greensboro. Ads for it now decorate some city buses.

There were countless surprises and moments of heartbreak in the interviews. One woman who organizes for food justice said years ago she had worked a minimum-wage job, and with college debt and no car, she was too proud to seek help or unaware of options for support, instead living off a bag of white rice for months.

More organizing is happening locally around food than many realize; people mentioned obscure groups like the Greensboro Permaculture Guild and extended invitations to meetings including one at Piedmont Area Rapid Transit’s offices or an upcoming forum in east Greensboro organized by the city.

TCB doesn’t have the space to run all of the ideas people shared — rather than attempting to compile an exhaustive list, our goal is to keep the issue of food insecurity in front of people, share innovative approaches that are being implemented and highlight some ways that people could get involved in improving our cities. The best resources are the people and organizations that are already diligently tackling food hardship, food insecurity and hunger, and we recommend reaching out to them to join the struggle.

We also strongly encourage our readers to continue sharing ideas, resources and experiences in the comments section below.

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The bigger picture, locally

Food activists in High Point instantly pointed to a list of objectives on the Greater High Point Food Alliance’s website. The organization splits its members into various teams, each with listed three-month and one-year goals. The longer-term goals are most telling, including an array of ideas including planning a food park in the Southside neighborhood, collaborating with a community garden in West End, exploring the creation of a tool/labor/knowledge-sharing network, beginning to address needs such as interpreters for food pantries, hosting a food summit in 2016 and coming up with a five-year sustainability plan.

Members of the alliance are thinking about things that plenty of other people are not, including the different dietary needs of residents in terms of religion and culture as well as health restrictions. And the organization is also talking about providing recipes to food pantries so that recipients actually have an idea of what to do with the food they’re receiving.

Winston-Salem is a little further along, with a section of the Legacy 2030 city plan specifically addressing food access. One of the first things the plan does is study and spell out how deep the problem is.

“Recent research in Forsyth County reveals that only 40 percent of Forsyth County’s ZIP codes had sufficient access to healthy food outlets, such as grocery stores, produce stands and farmers markets,” it reads.

That’s despite 40 community gardens in the county, most of them in Winston-Salem, that have sprung up since 1992, but a recent surge in interest has lead the county cooperative extension to establish a resource program for people interested in following suit. The report also references a 2010 study, entitled Community Gardens and Farmers Markets, Forsyth County, that recommends using public land for community gardens and farmers markets and encouraging school gardens.

The study proposed considering retail food incentives, which include upgrading existing neighborhood and convenience stores; identifying transit issues; determining the feasibility and benefits of using vacant, public land for community gardening and healthy food retailing; and looking at zoning codes and municipal regulations that may interfere with mobile vending and farmers markets.

Legacy 2030 outlines additional ideas too, from rooftop gardening to hydroponic agriculture.

Kelly Bennett, the Winston-Salem city planner who directed TCB to the food-access plan, said several of the action items have already been worked on or completed. And he shared an additional idea he came up with; A lot of conversation centers around bringing food to people by eliminating food deserts, but maybe part of the solution is creating affordable housing in areas that already have strong food access.

Greensboro is behind its peer cities in the Triad, lacking a comprehensive and detailed plan for addressing food insecurity. But with the recent formation of a food council and greater resources to examine the issue — including a USDA grant — change is hopefully on its way.

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A bunch of ideas (in no particular order)

A community garden by Holy Trinity Church in downtown Greensboro.

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  • Urban orchards: Guilford County Schools has leased one of its vacant properties near Greensboro’s Westerwood neighborhood for an urban orchard that will also act as an educational site for students. A nearby cornerstone for the Downtown Greenway includes a small, public edible garden, and urban orchards are rising in popularity in other places locally too, including the Thomas Built Nature Preserve & Urban Orchard in High Point.
  • Vacant city lots: Wendy Fuscoe, who volunteers with the Greater High Point Food Alliance, has suggested the city look at using vacant lots for growing food. A similar idea is put forth in Winston-Salem’s Legacy 2030 plan.
  • Retail grants: Rep. Donny Lambeth, a Forsyth County Republican, put forward House Bill 250, the Health Food Small Retailer/Corner Store Act. The bill would provide small grants of up to $5,000 to small food retailers “to purchase and install… refrigeration equipment, display shelving and other equipment necessary for stocking nutrient-dense foods.” Only small food retailers in certified food deserts would be eligible for the grants.

    The garden at the Edible Schoolyard

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  • In-school education: Several respondents said they would like to see schools embrace food-education programs to help students understand where food comes from and better comprehend healthy eating as well as how to cook. The Greensboro Edible Schoolyard is doing exactly that sort of work with students at Peck Elementary and a number of local schools do have on-site gardens that are part of the curriculum.
  • Co-op groceries: Several people pointed to the Renaissance Community Co-op, a grassroots-led initiative for a cooperative grocery store in a food desert in east Greensboro. It’s the sort of bottom-up approach that, if replicated, would go a long way towards stability and food access, people said.
  • Rooftop gardens: Two Guilford College graduates started the first rooftop farm in Philadelphia, and Triadians would like to see similar initiatives here. On Monday, Greensboro City Councilman Jamal Fox shared an article stating that France has declared that “all new rooftops must be topped with plants or solar panels,” adding that “this is what we need” in Greensboro.
  • Council committee: Fox’s colleague Tony Wilkins has suggested the creation of a city council committee specifically focused on food hardship/insecurity.
  • Tax credit: State Rep. Ralph Johnson, a Guilford County Democrat, has proposed House Bill 455, Local Food Sourcing Tax Credit. It would give a 20 percent tax credit to grocers who sell local produce in a food desert, and if the amount exceeds the amount of taxes owed, the state would pay the money back.
  • College farms: Guilford College has created a significant farm in the last few years that sells to local restaurants and teaches students about farming, distribution and more. Some suggested other schools do the same, or specifically create gardens to grow food for free local meals or pantries.IMG_2764
  • Raise the wage: Many people TCB spoke with about food insecurity linked the problem back to wages. That’s not surprising considering that the No. 1 ranking for food hardship in the Greensboro/High Point metro area was based on whether respondents couldn’t afford food they needed in the last year (regardless of whether they ultimately obtained the meal through a charity, etc.). As Casey Thomas, a masters in public health student at UNCG, put it: “The worst thing you can do for your health is to be born poor. In public-health research, we see this globally, with consistent correlations between income and longevity…. In addressing food insecurity, it’s the same. It’s important to work on initiatives that directly address the issues people are facing, like food insecurity, but systemic economic disparities have to be addressed for there to be food security for everyone.” The Fight for $15 fast-food organizing campaign is a good example of work to reach that objective, she said.
  • The Little Green Book: Activist and volunteer Amy Murphy created a little green book, a resource guide to free meals in Greensboro. Almost 5,000 have been distributed, sometimes replacing wildly out-of-date lists at places like the Guilford Count Department of Social Services, Murphy said. She added that she could use help printing and distributing the next batch. Call her at 336.754.2106.
  • Thursday & Friday breakfast: There are three free meals every day in Greensboro, Murphy said, except for Thursday and Friday breakfast. She would love to see a group join the 21 existing faith and friend groups covering the other meals.
  • Attend a conference: Second Harvest Food Bank of Northwest North Carolina, Wake Forest University’s Pro Humanitate Institute and the Office of the Provost as well as 88.5 FM WFDD invite you to a community conversation on hunger on Sept. 10 at 7 p.m. at the Wake Forest Innovation Quarter. The city of Greensboro hosts a drop-in brainstorming session about food deserts at Peeler Recreation Center on June 10 from 4 to 7 p.m. And the Rural Advancement Foundation International is hosting its annual Triad food conference on Thursday beginning at 8 a.m. at Elon Community Church in Elon. Details at org/cttt/conferences/.
  • Greensboro Faith Leaders Council: Are you a faith leader? This organization held a meeting at Bennett College last week about food insecurity, and invites other faith leaders to join them in exploring the issue in the future. Frank Dew, the pastor at New Creation Community Presbyterian Church, has been involved in organizing around hunger for years and has a few ideas of his own. He mentioned using the city’s parks system to plant fruit trees and small crops, and suggested a partnership with NC A&T University. He criticized the city’s plan to raise the water rate as regressive, and advocated local, state and federal policies that don’t criminalize poverty. “We have to quit this way of thinking of making poverty so difficult that people will want to get out of poverty,” he said. “The truth is that the extent to which people are working anywhere for less than a living wage, they are subsidizing the rest of our low prices.”
  • Direct input: Julie Peeples at the Congregational United Church of Christ Greensboro and another member of the faith leaders council suggested a food summit designed to gather input directly from those affected. Many other people said something similar. The Greater High Point Food Alliance hosted an event like that earlier this year.
  • Tiny-house model: Peeples suggested modifying the tiny-house model — a simple-living movement to downsize homes and do with less — to be a vertical, movable farm stand. She also had this to say: “I am a huge supporter of the new partnership between Mustard Seed Community Health and the Cottage Grove Initiative. Part of that plan is to have a community garden at the clinic and to offer cooking and canning classes. The Renaissance Co-op also needs wide community support. Beyond that, I think we could draw upon the universities and GTCC culinary arts programs, perhaps to set up some low-cost versions of ‘Let’s Dish’ and those other programs where people come and create their own meals.”
  • Letters to the editor: PR consultant Carroll Leggett, known around Winston-Salem as a foodie, encouraged people to write letters to the editor of local papers in support of specific programs or ideas. That’s part of the Greater High Point Food Alliance’s plan, and TCB would be happy to hear from you.
  • Personal touch: Leggett also said that making a discreet offer to a family you know in need is a great way to make an impact. Many people may not be willing to seek assistance through an “institutional source,” he said, but an occasional meal, bag of groceries or grocery store gift card could go a long way.
  • Shared spaces: Stephen Sills, the director of the Center for Housing and Community Studies at UNCG and the owner of Poly Tavern Farm, pointed out that almost every neighborhood has some sort of shared space, be it a church, school or community center that could provide land for a garden or farming. It’s working in Detroit too, he said.
  • Hospital partnership: Carl Vierling, the interim executive director of the Greater High Point Food Alliance, easily listed 11 ideas, some which other people came up with, too. One new idea: Local hospitals collaborating with a nonprofit or church to stock and maintain a food pantry at the hospital for patients as they’re being discharged. Those patients are often returning to homes with little or no food, he said, or the available food doesn’t meet their dietary needs.
  • Church vans: Vierling also proposed using church vans for scheduled neighborhood trips to a grocery store or farmers market.
  • Donate: Plenty of organizations working on food insecurity have financial needs. Thessa Pickett with One Step Further in Greensboro contacted TCB this week to say that the Servant Center is going to close at the end of June. It’s the only organization “that provides a grocery delivery service for homebound seniors,” she said. Pickett hopes to keep the program going. Visit onestepfurther.com.

Read more:

  • Montagnard farm: The Greensboro-area Montagnard community recently received a donation of 9 acres of farmland near Wet N’ Wild that it plans to use for farming, Cassandra Hlong — whose father is one of the community’s organizers — said. Montagnards, like many other people, have farming in their roots, but the large local refugee community generally lacks the resources and space to maintain the practice.
  • Tool/supply access: Andrew Young, who works with the Bonner Center at Guilford College, said access to tools for communities like the Montagnards in Greensboro can be huge. “It’s amazing what happens when a refugee family suddenly has a basic tool like a heavy-duty farming hoe, a water barrel and some soil amendment to get started,” he said. “The hoe is all-purpose, the water barrel insures that the utility bill won’t go up, and soil amendment helps break up red clay and improve yields. The return on investment — better and more food at an affordable price with the added benefit of increased varieties of veggies — is ridiculously high.”
  • Higher ed: Colleges and universities can play a big role, Young said, adding that the Bonner Center is working with professor Charles Raczkowski at A&T’s Research and Demonstration Farm “to simultaneously study refugee farmers’ field practices while sharing with them best North Carolina practices they can use in urban gardening.” Jigna Dharod at UNCG’s nutrition department has also done extensive research with local refugees, he said.
  • Improved transit: Many people cited a lack of public transportation, particularly in Greensboro where they criticized sprawl, as a key contributor to food insecurity. Ideas for addressing it varied, but most came back to greater public investment in mass public transit and denser development.

    A home garden in Winston-Salem

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  • Front-yard gardens: Ethnosh organizer Donovan McKnight and chef/TCB photographer Caleb Smallwood are big fans of the front-yard garden, eschewing lawns in favor of food. It can start in small containers and take over the whole yard, and neighbors could even grow different crops and share, McKnight said. He’s also a big fan of backyard chickens.
  • Landlord involvement: McKnight added that if landlords actively encourage gardens, residents will have more investment and pride in where they live. That has proved true in public housing in Winston-Salem, as a Feb. 25, 2015 article in TCB
  • Office competition: McKnight, who cited locals Marianne LeGreco and Charlie Headington as inspiration suggested that small businesses install raised beds or container gardens, possibly on the roofs, and have a competition among employees. The food could be eaten by staff, or donated.
  • Matching dollars: The Greensboro Farmers Curb Market makes it “an organizational priority” to secure matching dollars for SNAP/EBT users from local foundations, up to $15 each week, Lee Mortensen said. More foundations could get involved, and other organizations could replicate the model.
  • Buying clubs: Cooperative organizer Yahya Alazrak proposed a local buying club, even if just among a few friends. It would make it easier to buy food in bulk and then splitting something that is too big for one person or family — say a huge bag of chicken.
  • Locally grown jobs: Alazrak also argued, “At the end of the day, food insecurity is really about poverty,” and that to alleviate it long term, we need good jobs that won’t leave. Particularly ones that grow from the ground up and use a cooperative model to empower workers or members, he said.
  • Sharing seeds: In addition to growing food and sharing the bounty, Greensboro resident Kaira Wagoner also suggested sharing seeds “because you never need all the seeds that are in your package for a backyard-sized operation.” The Ardmore Gateway Garden in Winston-Salem is doing just that, Black Mountain Chocolate pastry consultant Megan Peters said.
  • Donating tips: Peters said the staff at the chocolate factory and shop decided to donate their cash tips, while keeping credit-card tips, to the Winston-Salem Rescue Mission next door.
  • Implement the USDA grant: Greensboro City Councilman Jamal Fox said implementing ideas that come out of a $25,000 US Department of Agriculture planning grant would go a long way. Fox said the council discusses food insecurity regularly, including at its most recent work session.
  • Task force: To that end, Fox said a task force on food insecurity has been in discussion for a while and could be a community-led initiative that reports to city council. There are so many entities doing so much, he said, and a task force could be a way to coordinate, know what resources exist, and come up with policy. He also invited people to send him their ideas.
  • Volunteer: There are countless opportunities and ways to volunteer. That includes growing food at the Betty & Jim Holmes Food Bank Garden in Winston-Salem where the produce is given to Second Harvest Food Bank of Northwest North Carolina, volunteer Shaheen Syal said. Feeding Lisa’s Kids in High Point can always use more hands too, Joe Blosser said.
  • Target resources: Guilford County Register of Deeds Jeff Thigpen is bursting with ideas, including the advice that it is very important to strategically target resources. He also applauded the Out of the Garden Project, which he said is now in 55 schools, as an important grassroots effort.

    A farm in Winston-Salem

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  • Capture food waste: Plenty of people said more can be done to collect food waste, with tireless advocate and volunteer Mary Lacklen adding that the Fresh Market goes above and beyond. UNCG student Sophia Lucente added: “Having worked a handful of low-wage food service jobs myself, I have watched everyday food waste — a cost that is just ‘part of the job’ for all the employees involved — from loaves of bread to gourmet meats to chips. I do not understand why there hasn’t been a citywide push for scrap and over-produced food donation that would benefit the homeless and hungry.”
  • Donation distribution: Share the Harvest co-director Lacklen said there needs to be a more efficient way to get food to the agencies and religious institutions and that serve it to those in need. There’s also food left in fields “that could feed many” but isn’t picked, she said. “If we could have a central distribution center where restaurants, grocery stores and caterers could donate usable leftovers, it could be a pick-up spot for these agencies and churches,” she said.
  • Education: It’s a topic that most interviewees touched on in some form, but one way it often isn’t considered is in regards to food donations. Lacklen said people are often afraid to donate because of liability concerns, but said Good Samaritan laws protect donating food. The bigger issue, she said, is that it’s time-consuming to donate when places scan each item, and the labor cost to do so often isn’t considered worthwhile to companies, she said.
  • Outreach: All sorts of outreach is happening. The more you look for it the more you’ll see it, like Candy West tabling at City Market about ideas for dealing with food deserts or fliers at local agencies.
  • Door-to-door delivery: Brendan Younger recently pitched a concept at an Idea Slam event in Greensboro — build a business around delivering food door-to-door, even in low-income areas. He doesn’t want to implement it himself, but could envision someone making one delivery of staple items a week, estimating that one person could serve at least 100 households a week. Calculating the density of local food deserts, using a food-stamp calculator and looking at wholesale food prices, Younger figured it could be feasible and accessible.
  • Break bread: Black Mountain Chocolate pastry chef Megan Peters may have put it best. “Since deciding to become a chef and attending culinary school, I have become more and more disheartened by the realities of food insecurity,” she said. “I’ve always known it was there. Whether volunteering at the Winston-Salem Rescue Mission in my teens or sharing my lunch with someone who ‘forgot his/hers’ in grade school, I get this awful feeling in my gut thinking about the paradox of how America, land of the plenty, produces more food than we could possibly consume, and yet, people still go hungry. It’s one of the biggest and most alterable travesties in society today, I’d argue. I know I certainly need to do more to combat it. If only we’d stop and break cornbread with our fellow man.”
  • Brainstorm: A number of the people contacted for this article were surprised to be asked, given that they don’t consider themselves particularly active or aware, and certainly not an expert. But that was part of the point; this is a fundamental, inexcusable flaw in our society that demands all of our attention and solution-oriented thinking. Plus it’s one thing that all of us, regardless of how severely we’re affected by hunger or food insecurity, can do to help.

Read on for two full interviews.

Marcus Hill (center) at a Chaos Cooking event
Marcus Hill (center) at a Chaos Cooking event

Marcus Hill, lead coordinator at the Forsyth Community Food Consortium:

“When I think of not just eradicating food insecurity, but what a good food system can look like, there are always elements of increased community control and involvement within all aspects of the food system (production, processing, distribution, consumption, and recovery, or however you like to categorize). There is also always a dedication to social and environmental justice.

“From my perspective, there are three main steps toward getting there.

“The first involves better education for those working within the food movement itself toward better and more comprehensively connecting food system elements with one another and communities (the education I’m speaking of refers to learning how to more effectively intervene toward positive change in and with communities, how to work in participatory ways with communities and celebrate local knowledge, and how to more effectively uncover resources already existing within communities).

The second step involves working toward building more food system infrastructure that needs to be in place in order to grow food, get food to where it needs to be, recover food waste, get more people involved and active within the food system, etc. (this could involve feasibility studies toward and investments in food hubs, food business incubators and shared-use facilities, job training programs, and so on).

Finally, it involves generally more participation throughout the food system, which could be observed in terms of a growth in small food businesses, broader local EBT/WIC acceptance, more food-related community organizing, etc.”

Marianne LeGreco, associate professor at UNCG and food justice organizer:

Marianne LeGreco’s name came up in more interviews than anyone else. It’s not surprising, given her involvement with food access research, the Mobile Oasis market, speaking about food justice at TEDx Greensboro, organizing a local food alliance, and more. Here are some ideas she offered:

“Right now: build relationships around food

  1. Let’s do a Triad-wide photo-voice to put a face on hunger. We’ve got photographers, photo-voice experts and hungry people who want to share their stories… so let’s match them up and really get the picture of what our food security issues look like.
  1. The conversation is turning from access to cooking, so let’s all cook together… and I’m not talking cooking classes. I’m talking let’s take an Ethnosh model and do a monthly meetup where groups of people from all over the Triad get together and batch cook 2-4 weeks worth of food. We can all teach each other how to cook and maximize our food resources.

Bigger picture: build jobs and infrastructure around food

  1. Create jobs around food. This is the problem that I’ve heard quite a bit — the Triad has never really found sufficient replacement for the jobs in our furniture, textile and other manufacturing markets… nor have we as communities helped to facilitate the re-skilling of our workforce to meet the demands of the job opportunities that have come to the Triad. Well, we’re struggling with jobs and we’re struggling with food. What if they’re the solution to each other?
  2. A couple of ideas that people are kicking around involve the idea of a food-waste recovery program.
  3. I’ve also heard about four or five different people, including Winston-Salem Councilwoman DD Adams, talk about aquaponics and hydroponics as possible “food tech” developments that we can make. It’s an expensive but potentially lucrative idea that’s worth looking into (at the very least getting together the folks who are interested in it).

Our first response shouldn’t be to start another group — we already have a lot of people doing amazing things across the Triad.”

Later she added: “Take a look at bus routes to see if GTA can make it easier to get to grocery stores & supermarkets.”

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