Ronnie Smith, President of the North Carolina Association of County Commissioners

Raleigh – Last month, members of the Resilience Task Force met virtually to discuss how counties can leverage their assets such as county vehicles, local transit systems and county facilities to store and transport food to residents in need.

As President of the North Carolina Association of County Commissioners, Ronnie Smith, Martin County Commissioner is leading the Resilience Initiative to identify ways counties can help ensure all North Carolinians have access to high-quality, affordable food and local producers are able to help meet this need.

During the meeting, George Sulecki, Child Nutrition Director and Clay Harris, Chief Financial Officer of Davie County briefed the Resilience Task Force about a local initiative using county vans and cars to deliver meals to students not attending school in-person, who qualify for free and reduced lunch.

Over the last year, Davie County, has delivered 1 million meals to local students, using county vehicles to transport food from central sites to mobile feeding sites and using federal funding provided in the CARES Act to offset the cost to the county.

Alecia Morgan, McDowell County Transit Processing Assistant, discussed a collaborative project she helped create with partners from the McDowell Access to Care and Health (MATCH) program and the Foothills Food Hub to deliver meals to homebound individuals in need of food assistance. The project, which has been recognized by the North Carolina Department of Transportation, builds on an existing program that provides transit to residents for medical care.

McDowell Transit, in collaboration with the MATCH program and the Foothills Food Hub, engaged in community outreach to identify people in need, and planned logistics routes to deliver prepared food boxes to people directly. The group enlisted help from drivers who had been furloughed due to the pandemic and recruited volunteers to make the food deliveries. Morgan said strong preexisting community partnerships have been foundational to the project’s success and those relationships helped the community join together to meet a new and urgent need.

Charlie Wallin, Watauga County Commissioner, joined Dave Walker, Development Director and Liz Whiteman, Operations Director of High County Food Hub to discuss Watauga County’s role in helping local food producers bring their products to the local community. Addressing a key barrier for farmers entering markets, Watauga County provided a county owned building to serve as a shared storage facility for local food producers.

The High County Food Hub provides an online farmer’s market, marketing and technical assistance, helping 90 producers within the region to sell locally grown food. The High County Food Hub also works with the Hunger and Health Coalition to make local food available to food assistance recipients. The Hub also participates in the Double Up Food Bucks program, which helps those receiving federal SNAP or EBT benefits to purchase locally grown produce by matching dollar-for-dollar any other fruits and vegetables purchased from the same establishment.

Last fall, President Smith appointed Sue Hinman, Granville County Commissioner, and James West, Wake County Commissioner, to lead the Resilience Task Force as Co-Chairs.

Since its inception, the Task Force has held a series of meetings with federal, state and local leaders, non-governmental partners, farmers and others in the agriculture industry who contribute to North Carolina’s food system and infrastructure.

The meetings inform the Task Force on a range of emergency and long-term programs that address local food insecurity challenges that are exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. The next ResilienceTask Force meeting will be held in April.

Smith has also met with North Carolina Agriculture Commissioner Steve Troxler and leadership at the North Carolina State Department of Agriculture and Life Science to discuss the Resilience Initiative and ways counties can help enhance access to high-quality foods.

Additionally, Smith delivered presentations on his initiative at the Orange County Agriculture Summit and participated in a Facebook Live Food Policy Friday chat through the Carolina Farm Stewardship Association. He also remains engaged with stakeholders from the North Carolina Local Food Council – a collaborative network of organizations, agencies and groups that support North Carolina’s local food systems.

Moving forward, the Resilience Task Force will continue to explore how counties can deepen relationships with regional and local food banks, improve efforts to transport food into homes and strengthen local food sources.

The Task Force’s work will culminate in a formal report which is expected to be released in early summer to provide counties recommendations and resources to strengthen their local food system.

To date, nearly 20 counties have passed resolutions in support of the Resilience Initiative, pledging to examine their food system holistically, and take steps to enhance local access to healthy food. This January, North Carolina counties also adopted a new goal for the 2021-2022 legislative biennium to support food supply chain initiatives and funding for North Carolina food banks as well as other equipment, supplies and other nonrecurring expenses.

According to Feeding America’s annual Map the Meal Gap study, the average food insecurity rate across North Carolina’s counties is 14 percent. Feeding America projects that the rate will rise to 17.6 percent due to the pandemic.

For children, food insecurity is expected to be even more dire, with a projected increase from 19.3 percent to 26.2 percent. At the same time, agriculture and agribusiness account for 17 percent of all jobs in North Carolina and an annual economic impact of $91.8 billion, serving as a critical resource in helping those facing food insecurity.

The North Carolina Association of County Commissioners (NCACC) is a non-partisan organization, which represents the official voice of all 100 counties on issues considered by the General Assembly, Congress, and federal and state agencies. The Association provides expertise to counties in the areas of advocacy, research, risk management and education and leadership training.