Spring 2023

Community partnerships to fight hunger in North Carolina

article summary

UNC's Center for Health Promotion and Disease Prevention addresses food insecurity in North Carolina with partners that support child nutrition and community-based food systems.

More than 1.2 million North Carolinians have challenges accessing enough food — and more than 30% of them are children. Through the UNC Center for Health Promotion and Disease Prevention (HPDP), Gillings School faculty and students are working with community partners to improve access to nutritious food.

Two HPDP organizations, the Carolina Hunger Initiative (CHI) and the Food Fitness and Opportunity Research Collaborative (FFORC), are doing crucial public health work in addressing the challenge of food insecurity from different but complementary angles.

With a focus on child nutrition, CHI aims to bridge the gap between daily school meals and the summer months. In North Carolina, about 900,000 children are eligible for free and reduced-price school meals. Federal summer nutrition programs are available to provide free meals to children in low-income areas during the summer months, but prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, only 12 children for every 100 eligible for free and reduced-price meals received summer meals. Lack of access — the availability of meal sites varies from community to community, and not all families have access to a nearby meal site — and lack of awareness of the summer meals program are both barriers to participation that CHI is working to overcome.

Left: Summer meals interns and Gillings students Aditya Shetye (left) and Cynthia Sharpe (right) join CHI member Dr. Jessica Soldavini (center) at the 2023 NC Child Hunger Leaders Conference. Right: Molly De Marco, PhD, MPH.

In partnership with the state Department of Public Instruction, which administers N.C.’s school and summer nutrition programs, CHI launched SummerMeals4NCKids in 2021 to support summer nutrition programs, using special events, social media, online toolkits, word of mouth and other means to promote the programs and raise awareness of meal sites and sponsors in local communities. As part of that initiative, CHI offered a paid internship pairing college students with summer meals programs in different parts of the state, where they learned about and worked to support nutrition programs in the community.

“We have a large focus on rural areas because it’s more challenging to reach students. So it’s important to get partners involved,” says CHI member and Assistant Professor of Nutrition Jessica Soldavini, PhD, MPH, RD, LDN, whose passion for fighting hunger began with an internship at a local health department more than a decade ago. “The internship is a great way for students to go into the community and help with a lot of different tasks.”

Through its work on community-based food systems, the Food Fitness and Opportunity Research Collaborative (FFORC) relies on partnerships to improve access to healthy foods in low-resource communities.

Students in Beaufort County enjoy lunch through the state’s Summer Nutrition Program.

FFORC lead and Assistant Professor of Nutrition Molly De Marco, PhD, MPH, came to UNC-Chapel Hill in 2007 to do her postdoctoral work at the UNC Sheps Center, where she was part of a UNC-Shaw University Divinity School health disparities project with a network of N.C. Black churches called the DC2 Network. She collaborated with prolific health inequities researcher Paul Godley, MD, PhD, and, through that work, met Warren County pastor Rev. Bill Kearney, who had prior experience working on wellness initiatives with academic institutions.

Together, they applied for a grant to launch a community-based participatory research project examining the impacts of a church garden on food knowledge, attitudes, behaviors and empowerment. Empowerment was something of particular interest to Kearney, who wanted to know if participating in a community garden would instill an ‘I can’ attitude in his faith community members. De Marco helped him determine how to measure that.

Both photos: The Food, Fitness and Opportunity Research Collaborative has established nearly 20 community gardens in eastern N.C. to improve access to healthy foods.
“We can’t truly partner with communities unless we understand where they’re coming from.”

Molly De Marco, PhD, MPH

“In this work, there is mutual learning, and both partners bring value,” says Kearney, who now works full-time with UNC and several other FFORC community partners. “The University brought its academic and technical expertise, and the church brought its facility, good will, the legacy of community, and farm skill and experience.”

FFORC has established nearly 20 community gardens in eastern N.C. and has started several other community-based projects. Members of the collaborative also organize field trips to state cultural and historical sites, such as the International Civil Rights Museum in Greensboro and former plantations where people had been enslaved in Durham and Whitakers, and spend time together in the communities where they work.

“It’s important to help our teams understand each other and build trust,” De Marco says. “We can’t truly partner with communities unless we understand where they’re coming from.”

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Text FOOD to 304-304 to find free meals for all kids and teens (from No Kid Hungry)

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