County commissioners, agriculture officials, transportation managers and representatives of community groups across North Carolina are getting together to figure out ways that counties can use their existing assets  to keep the public well-fed during the pandemic and beyond.

“Food insecurity” has been a major topic of discussion in North Carolina for years, but the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the concerns.

On Wednesday, March 24, members of the state’s “Resilience Task Force” held a virtual meeting to discuss the ways in which counties can leverage their assets such as county vehicles, local transit systems and county facilities to store and transport food for residents in need.

Guilford County, like other counties in the state, has been doing what it can to feed its residents – but counties are looking for ways to do more.  Guilford County, in conjunction with churches and local organizations that address hunger, has been handing out large boxes of food on Saturdays to those who drive up.  However, some of those in need might not have transportation to the distribution points – and some who could use the help may not be aware of the program that’s been moving from one site to another throughout Guilford County.

Now, county leaders from all over the state are meeting to find other, less typical, ways to address the problem.

Martin County Commissioner Ronnie Smith, who also serves as the president of the North Carolina Association of County Commissioners, heads up the Resilience Task Force, which has the goal to “help ensure all North Carolinians have access to high-quality, affordable food and local producers are able to help meet this need.”

Since last fall, the task force has held meetings with federal, state, and local leaders, non-governmental partners, farmers and others who play a part in North Carolina’s food infrastructure.

The meetings explore both emergency and long-term programs that address local food insecurity challenges – which are now amplified by the pandemic.

The task force, which meets again in April, will produce a report in early summer that will provide recommendations on how counties can strengthen their local food systems.  To that end, the task force has been listening to ways counties are addressing the issue.

Some local governments, like Davie County, have begun using county-owned vans and cars to deliver meals to needy students who aren’t attending school in-person anymore.  During the pandemic, Davie County has delivered roughly 1 million meals to students and has used county vehicles to take the food from central sites to mobile feeding sites. The county is using funding from last year’s federal COVID-19 relief legislation to help offset the costs.

At the March 24  meeting of the Resilience Task Force Alecia Morgan, McDowell County transit processing assistant, discussed a project she helped create that builds on an existing program, one which provides transit to residents for medical care.  The county, in conjunction with community partners, is enhancing that transportation network to provide meals to the homebound. 

McDowell County’s transit workers – in collaboration with local non-profits – have conducted community outreach to identify people in need, and have planned routes to deliver prepared food boxes to people directly. The effort has used drivers who’ve been furloughed due to the pandemic, as well as volunteers, to make the food deliveries.

Morgan told the group that strong preexisting community partnerships were key to that project’s success.

Watauga County has turned some county-owned buildings into shared food storage facilities for local food producers while that food is held for distribution.

Task force officials have also met with NC Agriculture Commissioner Steve Troxler and leaders at North Carolina State Department of Agriculture and Life Science, to discuss the Resilience Initiative and the ways counties can help enhance access to high-quality foods.

To date, nearly 20 of the state’s 100 counties have passed resolutions in support of the Resilience initiative and have pledged to examine their food system and take steps to enhance local access to healthy food.