Understanding and Addressing Food Insecurity in Lee County

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With hectic day-to-day schedules and the overwhelm of current global events, it’s easy to take for granted the food on our plates. Yet, not everyone in our community has access to food every day, nor the guarantee that it will be nutritious and healthy. Food insecurity is a significant issue on the national scale as well as within our state, county, and neighborhoods. In this article, we discuss the meaning of food insecurity, summarize our current knowledge of barriers impacting food access, and provide ideas for how we can work together to facilitate food access for our communities who need it most.

What is food insecurity, and what factors contribute to households being food insecure?

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service, food security refers to the ability of a household to access sufficient food for all members at all times during the year for an active, healthy life. In that vein, food-insecure households are either uncertain in having or unable to access enough food for all members at some point during the year. In 2020, it was estimated that 6.6% (8.6 million) of U.S. households had low food security.

The ability to consistently access fresh, healthy food is impacted by several factors, both individual and environmental, which can interact to impose barriers to acquiring food. These include social and political factors, such as state and federal policies which influence the locations where food is available and pricing, as well as individual circumstances such as employment and income level, knowledge of food resources available, skills for safe food preparation, and attitudes toward food. Access to transportation can also be an issue.

What does food insecurity look like in Lee County?

According to the 2018-2019 Food Bank of Central and Eastern North Carolina’s profile for Lee County, 13.5% of residents were found to be food insecure, including 20.6% of children under the age of 18. Schools can apply to federal programs for assistance in offering low-cost or free meals for children struggling with food insecurity, such as the USDA’s School Breakfast Program and the National School Lunch Program. It was estimated that 43.7% of children in Lee County were receiving these benefits in schools at the time this profile was published. According to the 2021 Salud America! Health Equity Report Card, 17.6% of Lee County residents are currently receiving benefits through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) which provides supplemental income to eligible low-income individuals and families to help make healthy food purchases.

Food access is not equally distributed amongst members of our community, with individuals belonging to non-white racial and ethnic groups being most impacted. According to Feeding America’s report “The Impact of the Coronavirus on Food Insecurity in 2020 & 2021,” a higher portion of Black (19.3%), Latino (15.8%), and Native American (23.5%) individuals lived in food-insecure households across the U.S. compared to white, non-Hispanic (8.1%) individuals in 2019 before the pandemic hit. The effects of the COVID-19 pandemic were projected to further widen these differences amongst racial groups, as well as to increase rates of food insecurity in both urban and rural settings.

How can promoting local foods help to address food insecurity?

Building a local foods system has the potential to increase food access for insecure groups to fresh, healthy food as well as to support local agriculture, food producers, and the economy. Strategies being used to address food insecurity by promoting local foods are:

  • Advocating for and promoting use of food assistance programs (ex. SNAP/EBT) at venues such as farmers’ markets and grocery stores
  • Promoting use of local foods in grocery stores, corner stores, and restaurants
  • Working with food banks and food pantries to extend access in communities and offer fresh, healthy food options
  • Organizing community-based outreach to reach food insecure groups and provide information on food assistance programs and options for low-budget healthy meals

Interested in getting involved? As part of our Local Foods priorities this year, we will be building our local foods network and identifying areas of need in Lee County. You can help us with this process! To share your ideas and for more information, please contact us at North Carolina Cooperative Extension – Lee County Center at 919-775-5624.

Meredith Favre is the Local Foods Agent for North Carolina Cooperative Extension in Lee County.