Food Insecurity, Food Justice, and the Sanford Agricultural Marketplace Project: A Path Forward

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Written by Sarah Beck, 2023-2024 Food-Inspired Resilience and Equity Intern for the N.C. Cooperative Extension – Lee County Center

Food insecurity is a major issue across our state and in Lee County, but what is it? Academic institutions, activist organizations, and community members often define this term with slight variations, which can be confusing. According to N.C. State Extension, food insecurity is defined as “the limited or uncertain availability of nutritionally adequate and safe foods or limited or uncertain ability to acquire acceptable foods in socially acceptable ways.”

On the one hand, food security is about having enough food to live a healthy and nutritious life, while on the other, it is about having the ability to choose what your next meal will look like and enjoy that meal. Food security is a fundamental human right that, unfortunately, not everyone can exercise. Around 20% of North Carolinians are considered food insecure, with many of them being children. The numbers aren’t much better when looking at Lee County, where 15% of the community, approximately 8,940 residents, are food insecure.

Food insecurity is a highly complex problem, so let’s break it down. For starters, a wide variety of structural issues are at play, including a basic lack of grocery stores. This is the case, especially in some of the more populated areas of Lee County. Salud America (2023) found that 23% of Lee County residents live more than half a mile away from a major grocery store or supermarket. In fact, there are currently no grocery stores in downtown Sanford. Simply expanding access to supermarkets that offer fresh, local food is one effective way to tackle the issue and ensure that residents can access food.

Beyond the absence of grocery stores, socioeconomic factors and systemic racism are closely linked to food insecurity. Approximately 15% of Lee County residents live below the Federal Poverty Level (FPL). The FPL is calculated based on the number of individuals living in a household. For one individual, the FPL is defined by a yearly income of $14,580 or less. For each additional household member, the FPL increases by $5,140 from the baseline of $14,580. Accordingly, the Federal Poverty Level for a household of two would be a combined income of $19,720 per year. Poverty is prevalent across the county; however, the Latine population in Lee County faces more socioeconomic barriers than their white counterparts, a reality that must be acknowledged and addressed. Without the financial means to purchase food, the presence of grocery stores becomes irrelevant. Sufficient income is essential to afford sufficient food. Therefore, it is critical not only to expand access to food but also to expand access to affordable food.

Given the pervasiveness of food insecurity in Lee County, it is imperative that we take steps to address these issues with a focus on food justice. Here is another term that has many definitions. According to NC State Extension, “Food justice is a viewpoint that looks at access to fresh, healthy, affordable food as a human rights issue, similar to the right to availability of clean air and water as a part of their basic human needs.” This framework enables us to address the food needs of our community in a way that prioritizes those who are most marginalized.

The Sanford Agriculture Marketplace (SAM) is a collaborative project between the Lee County Extension office and the City of Sanford that will serve as a community center for local food and agriculture in Sanford. You may have noticed some activity starting to take place at the corner of Charlotte Avenue and 1st Street, where the new building will be constructed. The Sanford Agricultural Marketplace will have several different spaces for the community to use and enjoy, including an open-air pavilion that will serve as the permanent home for the Sanford Farmers’ Market, a shared-use incubator kitchen for farmers and food entrepreneurs to create value-added products (sauces, jams, jellies, baked goods, and more), a teaching and demonstration kitchen to host food classes, as well as meeting room and classroom spaces that will be open to the public. Further, since there are currently no grocery stores within a one-mile radius of the marketplace, we are planning for the facility to help expand affordable food access for those living in the area. We are optimistic that the SAM project will serve to help our community become more food secure and healthy in the future. For more information on food insecurity and the SAM project, contact N.C. Cooperative Extension in Lee County at (919) 775-5624.

Sarah Beck is the Food-Inspired Resilience and Equity Intern for the N.C. Cooperative Extension – Lee County Center.