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FOOD STORM TACKLES NUTRITION AND POVERTY AT UNCG

by Jeff Sykes

jeff@yesweekly.com | @jeffreysykes

Local food and sustainability advocates came together at UNCG on Friday to brainstorm solutions and discuss challenges present in the region’s access to food.

Food Storm, held at the Gatewood Studio Arts Building, was the last in a series of discussions on localism known as the Ashby Dialogues. More than 100 people, including social workers, activist, government and non-profit leaders, and students assembled on the building’s third floor. In the large, open meeting space the Food Storm began with a series of one-minute presentations by community partners to discuss their efforts to address food insecurity, sustainability and poverty.

Laura Cole, an assistant professor of interior architecture at UNCG and one of the event’s organizers, said the goal was to connect students with leaders from the local food movement in Greensboro. The session was originally conceptualized as a panel discussion, but evolved into the larger mini-conference format. With food deserts, poverty and food insecurity among the most discussed topics in Greensboro this year, the event’s timing couldn’t have been better.

There were nine panel discussions taking place. Due to the amount of attention given to both poverty and food deserts in the media and government policy discussions in recent months, the session titled “Food and Poverty” attracted many participants.

Iza Reyes, and graduate student in UNCG’s Public Health program, facilitated the discussion.

“It seems that food and poverty are issues that go together because, when you are struggling to pay rent, ramen suddenly becomes your best friend,” Reyes said to open the discussion. “But what are some things that aren’t as obvious about food and poverty?” Don Milholin, executive director of the Out of the Garden Project, was adamant about the connection between poverty, lack of food and lack of achievement in school.

“Without food their entire being is effected,” Milholin said. “So the child who misbehaves, the child who falls asleep, the child who doesn’t get good grades, that’s a poverty issue. We never consider that.”

Since not every family in the area suffers from poverty, often it goes unaddressed, he said.

“It only affects those that don’t have the means,” Milholin said. “Most of Greensboro is either unaware, or it doesn’t affect them, so it’s not on their radar like heart disease, or MS or ALS. The biggest challenge is that it affects all of us, whether you know it or not.”

A nurse practitioner who attended the session, and asked not to be identified due to concerns about the privacy of her clients, said that beyond food, often times those living in poverty lack the tools or knowledge to prepare meals.

“It’s also having pots and pans, a stove that works, the ability and the time to put (food) together in a healthful way,” she said. “The families that I see are so stressed by their numerous responsibilities “” taking care of the kids, taking them to school. We tell them to do so many different things and probably the last thing on the list, the one they chop off first, is food preparation. So they do fast food as a default, not a choice.”

Amelia Mattocks, a health educator with UNCG’s Recipe for Success program, reiterated that point, noting that poverty often doesn’t allow for many of the things people take for granted.

“To be able to store your food is something we all take very much for granted,” Mattocks said. “People that don’t have a refrigerator don’t have that option. They have to eat their food right away. Having fresh food is much more of a challenge.”

The group noted the tie in between poverty, lack of transportation, and lack of shopping options in a food desert.

“They just don’t have easy access to good, healthy food,” Mattocks said.

Reyes said that often when she walks in to a grocery store she is struck by the fact that the fresh produce section is only about one-quarter of the store.

“How do you make healthy choices when the dominant choices in the store are cereal, processed food, quick bake and things like that?” she said.

A resident of the Warnersville neighborhood who works with the Mobile Oasis Farmer’s Market, a collaboration between the City of Greensboro and Guilford County, described what it was like to live in poverty with food insecurity.

Niesha Douglas said that those living with a limited income can’t afford to let food go to waste.

“So you look for those foods that you can preserve or that can last a little bit longer than tomatoes or cucumbers,” she said. “Things like that go to waste. You can’t afford it.”

She noted that not everyone who lives in a food desert is food insecure.

“Some people that live in food deserts make enough money that they can go to Whole Foods, or Trader Joe’s, or Harris Teeter,” Douglas said. “But then for the most part there are some people, it’s not that they want to eat bad, but buying healthy foods is expensive and can be wasteful.”

Douglas said for many it comes down to dollars and cents, noting that $3 worth of tomatoes was not as attractive to some as lunchables and ramen noodles on sale. Many living in poverty and in food deserts want to make better food choices, she said, but often can’t afford to take the three-stop bus trip to get to Friendly Center.

“If you are working a third-shift job you are not going to be able to make a dinner for your child because you are working,” Douglas said. “That’s one of the challenges that people face. You don’t even have to be in a food desert to have that challenge.”

The group touched on a wide-range of topics, including the lack of fresh vegetables in convenience stores located in food deserts, the number of children who depend on school lunches as their only hot meal of the day, and the amount of food thrown away at institutional and commercial facilities.

Milholin noted that there are 42,000 needy kids attending Guilford County Schools, but only 4,000 signed up for the system’s summer meals program. His group picks up about 200 pounds of discarded food a week from a handful of public school cafeterias and distributes it to children in the evenings.

He calls it “food reclamation.”

The nurse practitioner questioned if that was a viable solution in the long term.

“It still leaves us short,” she said. “For me it is only a solution in that I want those kids to get some food that evening also, even if it is the same thing,” Milholin said.

The group later discussed policy solutions and next steps, with most agreeing on a letter writing campaign to elected officials raising their awareness of the reality of food insecurity in the area.

Milholin cited several instances in which he is able to collect food from restaurants and school cafeterias before it is thrown away. Recently , a produce wholesale distributor in Virginia called him about a trailer load of lettuce that a grocer had refused. Milholin took possession of 22,000 pounds of lettuce and was able to distribute 17,000 pounds.

“That’s half a semi-trailer. They were going to take it to the landfill,” Milholin said. “That’s just an example of what would go right into the trash rather than thinking if somebody else could eat it.” !

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