Food Deserts Pose Health and Wellness Threat to the Region

May 9, 2017

There are deserts in eastern North Carolina. Instead of cacti and tumbleweeds, you’ll know them by a lack of nutritious food and markets with seasonal, local produce sections.

These food deserts can be found throughout the region, despite its agricultural background. But some local residents are trying to tackle the issue head on in their own way.

Chris Thomas has more.

If you go to the New Greenville Community Garden on Stancil Drive on a Wednesday evening, you’re likely to witness something not often seen close to the city’s downtown: hay bales resting in garden beds. This sprouted from lessons learned last year after Hurricane Matthew.

Chad Carwein, a Greenville resident and garden volunteer, explains

“Our entire space – actually, Chris, in fact where you and I are sitting right now – was under two-and-a-half to three feet of water. And in some areas – as recently as a few months ago, you could still see the water line on the trees and the vegetation around here.” 

Access to fresh produce like this is lacking in pockets of eastern North Carolina
Credit USDA

According to Carwein, the garden donated 60-70 pounds of food last year but flooding from Hurricane Matthew not only washed much of it away but also negatively impacted on the soil. The hay bales are there to address that deficit by growing the crop above the soil – ensuring it’s safe to eat. 

“And there’s several benefits to that. For instance, it retains moisture quite well. It also cuts down on your need to come out and weed the bales. It also provides its own nutrients. They hay in particular has clover in it and its very high in nitrogen content which is something that the plants need to grow.”

Greenville, like many towns and cities across the region, has a food accessibility issue in its most vulnerable areas. One of the most vulnerable areas is across the river from the garden, just outside of the city’s limits.

“There’s a lot of individuals that don’t have their own means of transportation or it’s not reliable enough to take public transit or maybe they have certain disabilities that limit their ability to walk or ride a bike…to get access to get fresh local food at a supermarket.  

Areas like north and west Greenville where healthy food options are scarce and accessibility to those options are difficult to come by are known as “food deserts.”

“That’s very prevalent…that’s a large portion of our community in that situation and we wanted to fill that need and that’s part of what we’re trying to do out here.”

According to Jessica Whichard – a spokesperson for the Food Bank of Central and Eastern North Carolina – it’s felt most acutely where there are high rates of poverty and food scarcity.

“In the areas our two branches in Greenville and New Bern serve, there are about 200,000 individuals – a little more than that – who are food insecure, meaning they don’t know where their next meal will come from and a third of those 200,000 are children. And a big element of that is food deserts and not having access to food, not being able to go and get it, not knowing where to get it or how to use it.”  

A map from the USDA indicates large tracts of food deserts in eastern North Carolina. Much of Northampton and Hertford counties are designated as such as well as the eastern end of Rocky Mount and virtually all of Princeville in Edgecombe County.

Whichard says another economic component to most food deserts is supermarkets who feel those communities are a poor investment – leaving those residents with few options other than a corner market or gas station that carry less perishable, less nutritious items.

This plays into a perpetual cycle of obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and early death rates in these communities – many of which have disproportionately large Black and Latinx populations.

“The access to those foods is not just as simple as just incentivizing groceries and retail stores to move into those communities. So it really does become a cycle, it becomes a generational issue. You know, families not necessarily knowing how to pass on a good nutrition and the ways to cook fresh fruits and vegetables because it has just continued to be an issue in communities that they can’t really rectify because access just isn’t there.”

That’s been the case in Kinston for generations, in majority-minority neighborhoods in its northeastern section, in the shadows of Grainger Stadium.

It’s one of the reasons Lee Albritton, a Kinston native, co-founded Common Grounds a decade ago. They run a community garden of their own along Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd, which becomes N.C. 11.

“Kinston was severely flooded in (1999) and we found this wonderful piece of property with large road frontage on Highway 11 so good public exposure and easy access.”

Albritton said one of the garden’s main goals is to get help a new generation of young people break debilitating, multi-generational cycles.

“And of course through the growing of food, letting young people understand how food is grown, where food comes from, the value – the nutritional value of eating fresh produce verses canned food, processed food.”

There’s also a community garden in New Bern, run by the Eastern and Central North Carolina food bank. Whichard says its run by eight, volunteer gardeners and she believes these gardens are an effective resource since the food bank can’t always reach communities that need the produce most.

“It’s a great resource, not only for education but as you mentioned, it’s free produce that’s right there and easy to get and we have folks available who can also teach about planting and gardening and the benefits that eastern North Carolina is very much an agricultural area and so to keep that kind of tradition inherited there is important for the community in addition to the food benefits.”

It’s unknown what this year’s harvest will bring. The New Greenville Community Garden is still in the planting stages. Only time will tell if the radishes, collards, and peppers will grow and help create oases on Greenville’s food deserts.

“I would always like to see us double our product, double our yield. If we can do that, then that’s going to grow exponentially.”

I’m Chris Thomas.