COVID-19 created a global pandemic that killed millions of people worldwide. As horrifying as that reality is, the pandemic’s true impact is even more far-reaching.
Now, as North Carolina schools return to in-person instruction, businesses reopen and employees get back to their offices, a ‘return to normal’ still carries the residual impact of the past year.
Lost jobs, lost wages and business shutdowns created budget constraints causing extreme financial hardship on numerous families. The North Carolina Department of Commerce reports that between March and December 2020, more than 1.3 million North Carolinians applied for unemployment benefits. This data, representing 12.4 percent of the state’s population, signifies a loss of income, stable housing and reliable food sources for millions of residents across the state. In Fayetteville and Cumberland County, the situation was even more grim. As the pandemic’s impact continues to play out, 17 percent to 19 percent of the region’s adults face food insecurity, compared to the state average of 14 percent and one in four Cumberland County children is considered to be living in a “food insecure” environment.
Food insecurity—defined by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) as a lack of consistent access to enough healthy food for an active, health life—can be measured in many ways, including worrying about running out of food before your next paycheck, rationing food to ensure that it lasts, or skipping meals altogether. North Carolina has the nineth highest rate of child food insecurity in the nation, impacting nearly 480,000 children. In Cumberland County alone, more than 95,000 children regularly face hunger. While many Cumberland County children qualify for free or reduced-price school meals, only 72 percent actually receive these meals, and a mere 9 percent participate in summer feeding programs.
While the COVID-19 pandemic may have served to increase the number of North Carolina food-insecure families, the worst may be yet to come, with more families struggling to keep food on the table. Meanwhile, the state’s food banks, food pantries and other food assistance programs could become stretched beyond their limits. As supply chain issues continue to create distribution challenges, access to fresh fruits and vegetables will be especially limited.
In 2020, Second Harvest Food Bank, a program of Action Pathways, Inc., distributed 14 million pounds of food in southeastern North Carolina. Second Harvest provides food supplies directly to its network of 260 partner agencies, including local food pantries, soup kitchens and other outreach programs throughout the southeast. These partner organizations provide a distribution hub to connect local residents with nutritious food. In accordance with CDC guidance during the pandemic closures, as many as 53 percent of the food bank partners ceased operations during that time. Meanwhile, partner agencies have reported a 40 percent increase in first-time pantry clients.
As local needs increased in 2020, Second Harvest and its remaining partners rose to the challenge to ensure an ongoing food supply and offered more than 100 mass food distributions with COVID-safe, drive through access in the area. The state National Guard was activated and has played a pivotal role in supporting the operation of North Carolina’s food banks and mass food distributions. As of now, the support of the National Guard is scheduled to end on March 31, 2021.
In addition, North Carolina’s public-school systems and school nutrition teams have displayed amazing flexibility in responding to the impact of the ongoing pandemic. Last spring, North Carolina was one of the first states to file USDA waivers, allowing non-congregate setting feedings, and has remained a steadfast partner in ensuring all children receive vital nutrition every day. In Second Harvest Food Bank’s seven-county region, the schools have played a key role in allowing their facilities and sites to be utilized for local mass food distribution events.
Community action agencies work at the local, state and national levels to create positive, long-term change in the social, built and natural environments of our clients and our communities. NCCAA, in conjunction with agency partner Action Pathways, and the Second Harvest Food Bank, has launched a program to explore solutions to food insecurity issues impacting residents of the Cape Fear region of the state. The new initiative will engage with partners across the business, nonprofit and civic sectors to deliver creative and innovative strategies for the development of pilot programs that can be replicated in other communities.
Food insecurity is a key social determinant of health and a driver of health inequalities. Together, we can help eliminate barriers to disparities in our communities.
Elle Evans Peterson, MPH, CHES, is the Community Impact Manager – Social Determinants of Health at the North Carolina Community Action Association.