Eleanor Wertman, community health program manager at UNC Health Alliance, had a plan for the spring and summer of 2020: home visits — lots and lots of home visits. Then the COVID-19 pandemic hit.
UNC Health Alliance is a physician-led network in North Carolina that aims to improve patients’ health outcomes and reduce their health care costs by providing high-quality, holistic care. As the program manager for community health, Wertman works with UNC Health patients and their communities to address social influences of health. Social influences (also called social determinants) are often described as the conditions in which we live, work, and play. These social and environmental factors, such as income level, access to housing, and access to nutritious foods, affect our health before we even see a doctor.
Wertman’s original plans for March were to launch a community health worker-delivered home visiting program focused on chronic condition self-management education and resource coordination. When it became clear that home visits were no longer a safe option for community health workers or patients, she started thinking about what else she could do to address social influences of health and where those efforts might have the most impact.
As a graduate of the Master of Public Health program at UNC-Chapel Hill’s Gillings School of Global Public Health, Wertman knew about the food insecurity work of Alice Ammerman, the director of the Center for Health Promotion and Disease Prevention and the Mildred Kaufman Distinguished Professor of Nutrition at Gillings. While the two had never met, Wertman thought that Ammerman might have some ideas for alternative ways to impact social influences of health during the pandemic.
“I knew about Alice’s work related to food systems design and social entrepreneurship and basically cold-emailed her to get her ideas about systems-level interventions we could try to mitigate COVID’s economic and health effects,” Wertman explained. “I particularly wanted to focus our energy on an area with large Latinx and Black populations, since it was clear COVID was hitting those groups disproportionately hard. I’d done a bit of community partnership work in Chatham County already and thought Siler City would be a great place to try something creative.”
Ammerman suggested the possibility of organizing a food hub similar to Carrboro United in Carrboro, North Carolina, a project led by ACME Food & Beverage Co. and other area businesses that connects residents with restaurant meals and local farm produce in a low-risk way. A few times a week, customers use an online portal to order family-style restaurant meals or farm produce and then pick up their orders at a central drive-through location.
While Carrboro United was a great example of a win-win for local restaurants and residents, the model was not a perfect fit for a less affluent community. Wertman and Ammerman started talking about how to create a food hub that would be accessible to everyone, regardless of income.
Knowing that a food hub project could not succeed without robust community participation, they developed partnerships with Chatham County government, organizations in Chatham County, and N.C. State Extension. Their new project team secured a COVID-19 Rural Response Grant from UNC Rural to cover the initial costs for a refrigerated truck, staff to coordinate food distribution, and personal protective equipment for staff.
Wertman and Ammerman met and worked with Chatham County partners extensively to plan every aspect of the food hub’s design. Dozens of different local groups participated in hub planning, with lead partners that included the Chatham County Chamber of Commerce, the Chatham County Manager’s Office, the Pittsboro-Siler City Convention and Visitors Bureau, the N.C. Cooperative Extension Center, the Chatham County Department of Public Health, the Chatham Health Alliance, Chatham Trades, and CORA Food Pantry.
The project also sought involvement from two different teams of UNC-Chapel Hill student interns, one group of undergraduates affiliated with the Shuford Entrepreneurship Minor Program and another team from Kenan-Flagler Business School, led by Dr. Jill Blackburn.
“We studied traditional food hub structures with a focus on operations and organizational structure, analyzed consumer spending during the pandemic, assessed viability of such a venture in rural North Carolina and made recommendations … to maximize the impact of the hub on the local economy during the pandemic,” said Viraj Barot, a PharmD candidate with the UNC Eshelman School of Pharmacy and MBA candidate from the Kenan-Flagler Business School.
Finally, in late July, the partners launched the Chatham Food Hub, with Wertman as the director. Customers placed the first round of orders through an online portal, choosing from meals prepared by area restaurants, local farm produce, and emergency food boxes from CORA Food Pantry. Then on August 5, newly hired food hub staff set up a drive-through location in Siler City’s Bray Park. With masks and gloves donned, they deposited meals, produce, and emergency food boxes in customers’ trunks or car seats.
On Aug. 12, the food hub held its second pick-up for online orders. Online ordering and weekly order distribution will continue through at least September. The project has hired Chatham resident Martha Ebert as hub coordinator to handle day-to-day operations, including on-site order distribution and customer service.
A team of researchers that includes Ammerman and Wertman, along with colleagues from Chatham County government, will study the impacts of the hub on food insecurity and jobs. They plan to use what they learn to create a sustainable model that can be used in other areas of North Carolina.
“It has been a delight joining forces with Eleanor to apply our public health skills and our passion for community engagement,” said Ammerman. “We are definitely on the same wavelength in terms of striving to help stimulate a sustainable community-owned and run effort to address food insecurity and job loss in a part of the state hard hit by COVID.”
Wertman and Ammerman remain focused on making the hub widely accessible. For example, the Food Hub’s online ordering portal includes options to purchase hub meals for donation to needy local families, and the Chatham Department of Social Services helps match up food-insecure families with the donated meals. On Aug. 12 alone, the hub distributed enough free prepared meals to feed nearly 80 people. Hub operations have also created jobs for five Chatham County residents and generated hundreds of dollars in income for participating vendors.
“I can’t emphasize enough how grateful I am for Chatham County and Siler City residents’ support of this project. This has been a collaborative effort from start to finish, and I’m excited to see what we can accomplish moving forward,” Wertman said. “This effort really demonstrates how local communities can organize to creatively respond to a crisis, even when we can’t all be in the same room together.”
To learn more about the Chatham Food Hub and place an order or donate a meal, check out www.chathamhealthalliancenc.org/food-hub/.