North Carolina is the 10th-largest state and, according to a recent study, the 8th-hungriest, with nearly 16 percent of its households experiencing food insecurity. Here in Wake County, one in seven residents struggles with hunger; that’s a total of 142,000 people, and about 56,000 students in Wake County schools, who are at risk of not knowing where their next meal is coming from. We spoke with Jessica Holmes, Chair of the Wake County Board of Commissioners, about local efforts to ensure everyone in our community is getting enough healthy food.
What are the unique challenges Wake County faces around food access and food insecurity?
Because of the high growth and excitement about all that Wake has to offer, people don’t realize that around 10 percent of the population lives in poverty, and upward mobility is a significant challenge. We tend to focus on the bright, shiny objects and the benefits and privileges of our community and don’t always talk about lesser known issues like food insecurity and affordable housing. The reality is, a lot of people in certain areas of the county don’t get to enjoy the same quality of life that other people move here for.
Last fall, the Board of Commissioners passed a comprehensive plan, “Moving Beyond Hunger,” to help address food access issues. Tell us about the plan.
The goal is to ensure that everyone has access to enough affordable food. [The plan] focuses on five strategies that are the backbone of the approach: first is ensuring food access, because we have designated food deserts in Wake where people don’t have access to healthy, fresh food. Second, the goal is to communicate and educate, including on cooking and food preparation. Third, to develop a sustainable food supply. Fourth, to build economic opportunities that relate to supporting our farmers and ensuring the availability of fresh local produce. Lastly, the goal is to create food networks with our community partners.
The plan includes continuing commitments to programs that were already in place in Wake County public schools. Tell us about those.
It includes a commitment to universal school breakfast, where students are provided with breakfast regardless of their incomes, because we realized we don’t want to distinguish between children who can pay and who cannot pay. We also have county-funded school pantries and programs like Backpack Buddies that provide food on the weekends, and a robust summer food service program. In the 2016-2017 fiscal year, 116 of our schools had a dedicated food resource.
What can individuals or groups do to help provide access to healthy food for Wake residents?
Support organizations like the Inter Faith Food Shuttle and the Food Bank of Central and Eastern North Carolina that are doing the ground work. It can be with financial donations and/or by donating food. People can contact the administrations of any of our food pantries across Wake County to figure out how they can support them, whether it’s purchasing toiletries and other items for students, in addition to donating food items. Churches, or any civic group, can sponsor pantries, or host a food drive, or connect with a pantry that’s already in place. Also, they can just talk about it. People don’t realize it’s a problem here, and one of the first steps in addressing any problem is acknowledging that we have one.
You’ve been an advocate for food access since you were first elected to the Board of Commissioners in 2014. Why is this issue so important to you?
Schools are really where it started, acknowledging children being hungry. The concept of keeping food pantries in schools came from the epiphany that, not only are children hungry but their families are hungry. We wanted to give them the opportunity to go grocery shopping in a dignified way, where we weren’t just handing them food boxes that were already prepared. Then, the realization that on weekends and holidays and summer breaks, our reach wasn’t far enough. It became a broader conversation about how do we feed our greater community. Also, it was just the realization of how many people in Wake County live in poverty. It’s not something a lot of elected officials talk about, but having grown up on free and reduced-price lunch, I was able to relate to the students that may struggle. That personal experience made it a personal platform issue for me.