Patricia Parker grows food for a living. But still, she knows what it’s like to be food insecure.
The entirety of Parker’s income comes from the farm she owns in Chatham County growing things such as fruits and vegetables. Like many others, she has a limited amount of money to spend on food, and she relies on the cheap prices at stores like Aldi and Lidl to stay within budget.
But those prices are also hurting her business, since the low prices mean less profit and income for Parker.
“It’s a very conflicting experience for me,” Parker said. “It’s a terrible sort of catch-22.”
Parker is one of many community members who attended the Newsmakers Forum on Hunger at Chatham Community Library last Friday.
The panel, hosted by Carolina Public Press, sought to spark discussion about food insecurity in rural Chatham. It is the third installment in a yearlong reporting and community conversation series from CPP focused on hunger and food insecurity in North Carolina.
Frank Taylor, managing editor for Carolina Public Press, moderated the event.
“It is such a prevalent and growing problem, the issue of hunger,” said panelist Tamara Cox Baker, project and communications director at No Kid Hungry. “It is woven into so much of the culture of how we live.”
Food insecurity in Chatham
Chatham County is just one of the many places nationwide where food insecurity is an issue. And a big one. The average cost per meal in Chatham is $3.35 — higher than the national average of $3.02. It’s also higher than the average cost per meal in Wake and Durham counties.
Rural areas like Chatham have their own unique challenges when it comes to food insecurity, said panelist Pushti Patel, director of communications at Interfaith Food Shuttle.
Despite rural communities also being farming communities, supplying the country and the globe with food, they often have the highest rates of food insecurity.
Rural communities have a higher number of food deserts, meaning they have limited access to affordable and nutritious food from places like grocery stores. They also have a higher concentration of low-wage jobs that lead to high unemployment and underemployment.
“Most of the people who are food insecure are working to feed us,” Parker said. “They’re working at the factory, in the food service industry, as farmers, farm workers.”
Patel said there isn’t a face to hunger; food insecurity affects a wide range of people.
Melissa Beard, executive director of Chatham Outreach Alliance (CORA) Food Pantry, said CORA serves nearly 11,000 Chathamites. Beard said the population CORA serves is 30 percent white, 30 percent black and 30 percent Hispanic.
“They’re teachers, hospital staff, children, grandparents,” Beard said. “They’re underemployed or unemployed. They’re young families, people in crisis.”
Children and the elderly
When it comes to food insecurity, Patel said, the most vulnerable populations are children and the elderly.
Baker said one in five children in North Carolina is considered food insecure. Of the 1.5 million children enrolled in North Carolina public schools, 900,000 qualify for free and reduced meals, a federal gauge for poverty among children in public education.
But in Chatham County, roughly 50 percent of students in the district qualify for free- and reduced-price meals.
Baker said that number is likely higher, since it excludes those who didn’t fill out the form because of the stigma.
Older adults are a significant — but often overlooked — proportion of those affected by food insecurity.
More than 10 million older Americans face hunger each year, according to a 2017 report from Meals on Wheels America.
Dennis Streets, executive director of Chatham Council on Aging, said that North Carolina ranked in the bottom five in the nation for older adults facing the threat of hunger. About 20 percent of older adults in North Carolina are faced with hunger, he said.
Streets also mentioned a 2015 study which revealed that at UNC Hospitals, more than half of patients 65 or older who visited the emergency room were determined to be malnourished.
North Carolina has not seen an increase in state funding for its elderly programs since 2008.
Streets said Chatham County has 12 Meals on Wheels routes, and serves meals to older adults at the county’s two senior centers – a small number given the vastness of the county.
Many of the seniors the council serves would not eat a hot meal were it not for the services the council offers, Streets said.
Streets shared the following anecdote:
“I said, ‘What would you do if we weren’t able to get you into the center? Would you have had a hot meal?’ And almost collectively, the answer was ‘I would’ve eaten a sandwich.’”
“That’s not nutritious,” Streets continued. “And so it is a serious issue here in Chatham for older adults.”
The stigma surrounding food insecurity is “the elephant in the room,” Baker said. Fear and shame often deter people from accessing nutritional assistance programs.
“Just because it’s free, and just because it’s offered, doesn’t mean that people are going to consume it,” Baker said. “There are many other barriers that get in the way.”
In schools, the stigma is especially palpable, as children are reluctant to do anything that might set them apart. Stigma is generated largely by what Baker calls the walk of shame, when students walk down the hallway to the cafeteria to get a meal because their pantries were bare at home.
But framing is everything — the way food assistance programs are delivered is important. The programs that treat everyone the same are the healthiest for everyone, according to the panel.
Patel said some programs are designed to look like farmers markets or food trucks so as not to take away from participants’ sense of pride. Investing resources into details such as fancy signage can make a world of difference, she said.
Taylor added that in Mitchell and Lincoln counties, a community meals model has helped. Anyone can come in to share a meal, and participants are served at tables, restaurant-style, to preserve the dignity of those served.
How to help
When addressing food insecurity, panelists agreed, it’s important to look at the bigger picture. Long-term solutions that eliminate food insecurity altogether seem to be the focus.
“It’s not just about providing food on a plate, it’s about empowering individuals,” Patel said.
Addressing food insecurity requires collaborating and organizing across communities, as well as meeting with key stakeholders to outline a strategic plan.
Donations are also encouraged. Though taxpayer dollars fund many nutritional assistance programs at the state and federal levels, it isn’t nearly enough to meet the needs of those who are food insecure.
“Many of us sitting up here rely on donor dollars,” Baker said. “You can give a can of food to the food bank, you can make a donation. And you need to do that, because it’s the most important safety net we have out there.”
But philanthropy, while big in the United States, doesn’t fill the gap in a nation of such wealth that it would seem improbable that anyone should go hungry.
On an individual level, though, education is important. Parker said the majority of the population is simply uninformed. She encouraged people to learn more about the food they eat and from where it comes.
“There are all these documentaries that talk about the true cost of food and I think a lot of people just aren’t able to conceptualize it,” Parker said. “All of us eat multiple times a day, and we know nothing about it,” she said. “I have to just encourage people to learn about food beyond just eating it.”