Western North Carolina Community Food Security Assessment
DRAFT: Executive Summary
Brief introduction and background
The Western North Carolina (WNC) Community Food Security Assessment emerged through a partnership between community leaders in WNC and North Carolina State University (NCSU). Collaboratively, we developed a “backbone organization,” the WNC Community Food Security Advisory Committee, to coordinate our efforts to better connect food system networks within the region and guide our research.
A Community Food Security Assessment (CFSA) is a collaborative and participatory process that systematically examines a broad range of community food issues and assets to inform actions that make the community more food secure. A primary objective of a CFSA is to provide strategies for community-based solutions to localized challenges of food security through coalition-building and promoting education and awareness.
Reported here are initial findings from the stakeholder interview portion of the WNC CFSA. The CFSA also includes data and mapping on a series of food security indicators in WNC as part of the Western North Carolina Vitality Index, in collaboration with the National Environmental Modeling and Analysis Center at University of North Carolina Asheville1.
Guiding rationale and process
As with other Appalachian Foodshed Project activities, the WNC group has applied the Whole Measures for Community Food Systems, which emphasizes six food system priorities: 1) Justice and fairness; 2) Strong communities; 3) Thriving local economies; 4) Healthy people; 5) Ecological sustainability; and 6) Vibrant farms2. The advisory council devised the CFSA around these six subject areas, with several guiding questions for WNC:
- How can stakeholders within and across our communities work together better to alleviate food insecurity?
- How can we better connect people to “where food is” and food to “where people are?”
- What current efforts aim to alleviate food insecurity, what barriers persist, and what can we do to overcome those barriers?
Decisions on the best process to answer these guiding questions were made iteratively and collaboratively between NCSU’s research team and the WNC Food Security Advisory Council, requiring consensus among the group. Practitioners working with or serving food insecure community members were selected for interviews, since it was agreed they have intimate knowledge and experiences with the complexity of food insecurity. Across a series of monthly meetings, consensus was sought and achieved on additional decisions of whom to interview and what questions to ask. Finally, each decision was further vetted by a larger community of stakeholders before conducting the interviews in Fall 2014.
Three counties were selected as sites for this research—Buncombe (urban) and Yancey and Mitchell (both rural), since we anticipate geography will impact experiences of food insecurity. Buncombe County includes Asheville, NC, the largest population center in Western North Carolina, and we chose two adjacent rural counties to better support future networks and work plans across study participants (relatively) proximate to each other.
Representatives from twelve urban and twelve rural organizations were interviewed, all of which worked with or served food insecure individuals. We selected a mix of non-profit and government-affiliated practitioners whose targeted clients spanned the life course, from birth to elder adults. In-person, 30-45 minutes, semi-structured interviews (twelve questions) were conducted, and all data was recorded and transcribed. We applied the DEPICT model of collaborative coding and analysis with a team of five contributors (three NSCU researchers and two community participants from WNC) to produce these preliminary findings3. Analysis and reporting is ongoing, and presented here are findings from the twelve Buncombe County interviews. Please note that all quoted material is drawn directly from the interviews.
Preliminary findings are organized in three sections. First we frame the problem of food insecurity in the study site, emphasizing definitions of key terms and the question of healthy food availability. Next, we present five key, interrelated barriers to increased food security in Buncombe County. The last section of findings discusses respondents viewpoints on “ways forward” to address food security challenges.
Framing the problem
Defining food insecurity and it’s persistence in Buncombe County
Respondents generally defined food insecurity as a condition of not having access to food, more particularly healthy food:
"I would define [food insecurity] as people not knowing where their next meal is coming from, but that meal itself, you don’t know whether it’s going to be something that will come out of a box or is it going to be fresh and healthy. So my understanding is that they’re unable to afford nutritious food and it’s not accessible to them."
Food access was typically discussed in terms of affordability, such that the food insecure “don’t have access to enough resources to secure the food to feed themselves and their families.” Clearly, affordability is not the only barrier to food security (see below), but it was the key indicator noted when defining what food insecurity is.
Healthy was also stated as a key component of food security by most respondents, and they were cognizant of potential affordability implications of healthy food which was typically deemed to be more expensive than “processed” foods (see below). Some added that emergency food providers appear to understand this, and there has been a shift to prioritizing healthy foods through those services.
Across the board, respondents asserted that food insecurity was a problem in Buncombe County, mostly through direct experiences as practitioners in social services and other fields. As evidence, they noted increases in their program numbers and conversations with families “making decisions whether they’re going to pay the heating bill or to buy food.”
Defining healthy food
There were two primary, interrelated ways that respondents described healthy foods: a) specific food groups and items that are healthy or not and b) specific qualities and production methods they deemed healthy, using terms like “local,” “GMO-free,” and “sustainable.” References to “whole foods,” described in terms of both specific food items (e.g. fruits and vegetables) and food that is not processed, appear to connect the two definitions of healthy food. In addition, several respondents commented on the relationship of healthy food to holistic human health. One respondent captured this inclusive definition:
Healthy food is as close to whole food as possible—that has enough nutrition, nutrients, nutritional quality to be able to not just sort of sustain people, but really be that first line of defense against illness. Not just sort of maintain a state of being able to live, but actually enable them to be fully functioning, have all the brain power they need and physical power they need. Healthy food to me looks like lots of fruits and vegetables, lots and lots of vegetables. If meats are incorporated in the diet, trying to source meats that as much as possible have not been raised off hormones, antibiotics, grain. I think that the healthier the sourcing of the food, that translates to the health the food is able to convey to people who eat it.
Availability or access?
When asked if healthy food was available in their communities, respondents replied that a variety of healthy foods could be found in area grocery stores or retail venues. However, this availability did not equate with healthy food access, particularly for low-income eaters, and several key barriers to access were identified. These barriers suggest why healthy food might be on the shelves but not in the cart.
Barriers to Healthy Food Access and Food Security
Five different interrelated barriers to healthy food access and food security were identified across the interviews, ranging from systemic to community to individual needs: a) poverty; b) affordability; c) transportation; d) culture; and e) knowledge gaps. Each of these is briefly described in this section.
Poverty and its persistence
Respondents were keenly aware that food insecurity is a condition of poverty, with some noting that many efforts to alleviate food insecurity were merely “band-aids” to larger socio-political systems: “It’s a systems problem . . . If nobody is addressing those systems with policy and redoing some of those regulations . . . you’re band-aiding the issue and not addressing it.” Respondents applied notions of persistence in poverty to federal aid programs like SNAP and WIC that, while intended to be supplemental, are insufficient for the food insecure:
Many of the families I work with have a week every month that they don’t have any type of food assistance coming in, they don’t have any additional resources from the government, and they don’t have any income coming in from a job. What happens during that week is people go hungry, people visit shelters, emergency pantries, or soup kitchens.
A strong sentiment throughout the interviews was that in lieu of solutions to the more complex system-level problem of persistent poverty, “band-aid” programs and services were not only important but absolutely necessary.
Respondents indicated that systemic poverty is exacerbated by the higher cost of healthy food items, particularly if healthy food is to include “sustainable,” “local” and other similar food attributes. For example, one interviewee noted that her housing community is not technically in a “food desert” because of two independent natural food grocers are nearby but “they are not affordable to most people living in public housing.” Another added that “very few vegetables and fruits are available at a low price, especially for a family of four, five, or six.”
Related to the stated importance of emergency food providers, respondents spoke positively of the healthy food options available through non-economic means, including food pantries, “pop-up” free markets, gleaning programs, work-shares at community gardens, and SNAP and WIC, the latter noted by one as “making huge strides towards encouraging consumption of healthy foods with vouchers specifically for fruits and vegetables.”
Even in this largely urban county that includes public transport, transportation was a noted barrier to healthy food access. As affordable stores are not always located near low-income residents, low-income eaters rely on public transportation to reach stores, which even when available, are not ideal:
Public transportation in our city presents this whole other realm of barriers because it can be a whole day affair to get to a grocery store and back home if you’re on a bus. Not to mention if you have children in tow, multiple bags you’re taking with you. That’s a large barrier. Even though there are affordable, healthy food options in grocery stores in our area, those stores where they’re available are not necessarily totally accessible to everyone.”
Additionally, transportation to food pantries and other subsidized food venues was noted, and transportation barriers were heightened in the rural parts of the county. Even if eaters have their own cars, gas costs, distance, and winter travel were all noted as added challenges in rural areas.
Varied issues related to culture were noted as a barrier to food security by most respondents. Some asserted that their clients deny assistance out of pride and “would rather go hungry than ask for help.” That many food assistance programs are segregated from mainstream venues like grocery stores may contribute to this experience. In addition, related to the above discussion on systemic poverty, some viewed class and race as interrelated barriers: “when classism and racism is not addressed, you will always have those barriers that come between hunger and food security.”
Several respondents addressed challenges posed by “alternative” food movements and initiatives, including farmers markets, noting that so much emphasis is given to the well-being of farmers, while low-income community members often cannot afford these food options. The class implications “in the food movement . . . when you reflect on that, you start to really see this huge rift in society.” Even in projects that consciously attempt to bridge these barriers, namely equipping farmers’ markets with EBT capability, “there’s a certain perception among community members who live in low-wealth communities that ‘that isn’t for us, that’s not where we’re welcome to shop.’” Unfamiliarity with these programs was noted, but the race and class implications were palpable: “[If I] already know what their stereotypes are of me, I’m not comfortable going to a place where it’s predominantly white people and pulling out an EBT card. I think that’s keeping some people from using that form of payment because the culture around farmers markets.”
Most respondents discussed knowledge gaps in their interviews in two overlapping ways. First was the assertion that many low-income eaters may not know how to cook and eat healthily: “Often we see the issue of ‘I would love to cook healthier but I don’t know how, I don’t know what to do with that produce.’ So I think education is a barrier.” A few linked not knowing how to cook healthy food with other barriers, such as a cultural shift away from cooking and eating all together, or prioritizing cheaper processed foods that don’t require cooking knowledge.
A second knowledge gap was not knowing how to shop for healthy food, and the related concern of how to manage a food budget conducive to healthy food purchasing: “Some people don’t know how to stretch [their budget] or what products to buy to be able to stretch that are healthy, and it’s very limited in what it is.” Here, knowledge gaps are intensified by concerns of healthy food affordability.
Narrowing the Gap Between Hunger and Food Insecurity
Respondents were asked about ways to improve food security in their community—programs, projects, and policies. In general, these “ways forward” either targeted individual-level changes or were non-specific (e.g. “economic development”), despite the above sentiment that far-reaching systemic and cultural barriers related to poverty, class, and race affect food security. Knowing how to influence complex socio-political problems like “eliminating poverty” may be one reason for this, as one respondent noted about policy: “We need nonprofits geared toward changing policy and educating us on that language.”
Not surprisingly, many ideas corresponded to the noted barriers to food security. Related to more convenient transportation, a respondent described the need to “get healthy food in a reasonable way.” Education-based ideas included teaching people how to cook, grow, and shop for healthy food. Although specific ways to make healthy food more affordable were not described, an emphasis on community was an important way forward to improving healthy food access. Respondents noted keeping dollars in the community and bridging gaps between communities: “This city prides itself on being warm, inviting, inclusive, and diverse even, so I think one way we can work toward not only increasing education but also reducing poverty is if the city actually does open its arms in a much more real way to the communities that are experiencing low wealth.”
In addition, respondents spoke positively of many projects already in place in Buncombe County as opportunities for continued development. This includes a growing collection of community gardens with both food sourcing and educational benefits, “pop-up” food pantry or “mobile market” models that feature fresh produce, and “backpack” programs that supply families with nutritious food via afterschool programs. These projects orient around the theme of “getting food to where people are.” Also, despite comments on the cultural barriers at farmers markets, respondents viewed EBT capability at them as a positive step forward.
Several respondents described successful collaborations around food security that they have been involved with aimed at “collective impact,” identifying “common goals,” or pursuing “overlapping areas of work.” However, they also cited the need to increase both the number of collaborations and the efficacy of those partnerships, noting key challenges: “There is redundancy and there could be more collaboration. A barrier to collaboration is lack of a unifying medium – a place and time to discuss best practices, challenges, ways to partner, etc. Some are working on this, but larger organizations that are connected nationally are less likely to truly partner with grassroots groups, thus public support often goes to the most visible.” Here organizational size, focus, and capacity are shown to create barriers to collaborating for this organization.
In summary, respondents were keenly aware of the scope of the food security challenge, and as practitioners themselves, believed in and described projects directly aimed at the daily conditions of food insecurity, characterized as “vital.” But some also saw this work going hand-in-hand with broader, more general approaches to change: “So while we work to create immediate access to food, we want to put most our effort towards holding up a vision and supporting that vision of a culture of local knowledge, care, and interdependency.”
Conclusion: questions and recommendations
The implications of these preliminary findings can be articulated in two overlapping ways to guide community-based efforts to improve food security moving forward—key questions for continued, impactful work and specific recommendations for action. Both areas require ongoing investigation, development, and partnerships, so our findings here are preliminary and precursor to intentional, future dialogue.
Key questions for enhanced efforts to alleviate food security
Community-based research such as the AFP project is iterative, posing questions that generate responses that then generate new questions. This list includes questions community stakeholders might prioritize to guide future work to enhance community and regional food security:
- How well do these practitioner views of “healthy food” align with those of food insecure individuals, and what factors influence the choices these individuals make about healthy food?
- Given the “gap” between federal food assistance and adequate access to healthy food at the end of the month, what realistic changes can be pursued to bridge this gap? How does this gap affect the capacity of emergency food providers?
- How do we sustain subsidized healthy food programs that are often grant dependent?
- How do we reconcile the tensions between emergency and alternative food systems, particularly in terms of access, affordability, and cultural dynamics?
- How do we foster healthy food venues and programs culturally appropriate for everyone?
- What specific structures are needed to bolster the collaborative potential of food security stakeholders and, importantly, how can we sustain those networks moving forward?
- How do we identify, understand, and approach power dynamics among organizations within our community who share an overlapping interest in addressing food security?
The following list of projects and policies provides potential starting points for community stakeholders to engage efforts to alleviate food insecurity in their communities. Recommendations such as these are only useful when stakeholders support them and are invested in their outcomes, requiring not only community input but also strategic leadership and collaboration.
- Increase efforts to integrate the diversity of advocates and practitioners into viable, long-term collaborative networks that honor the diverse approaches, skills, and experiences of participants. An emergent example is a community garden network forming in Buncombe Co.
- Inform practitioners of pertinent policy issues related to food security, and provide training on ways to advocate at the local and other levels.
- Strengthen relationships with local government and planning departments, particularly focused on transportation needs of food insecure community members, to identify workable solutions to better connect individuals to healthy food venues.
- Engage in open discussions about ways to approach race and class barriers at food venues, particularly farmers markets and other sites commonly associated with “alternative” food networks.
- Continue to prioritize food-based education and outreach, particularly targeted in key areas of food shopping, preparation, and home-growing, so long as demand for these efforts is affirmed by community members.
- Increase efforts to expand key healthy food assistance programs that “get food to where people are,” including mobile markets, backpack programs, and community garden distribution models.
1 An overview of the WNC Vitality Index is here: http://www.wncvitalityindex.org/overview/about-wnc-vitality-index. Users can explore summaries of food security data in the “Human” section of the database, as well as mapping applications of this data in the GIS viewer.
2 Center for Whole Communities. 2009. “Whole Measures for Community Food Systems: Values-based Planning and Evaluation. http://www.wholecommunities.org/pdf/WholeMeasuresCFS.pdf.
3 Flicker, S. and S.A. Nixon. 2015. “The DEPICT model for participatory qualitative health promotion research analysis piloted in Canada, Zambia and South Africa.” Health Promotion International 30: 616-624.