Public Service

Carolina programs help alleviate food insecurity

Somebody near you doesn’t have enough to eat. Here’s a look at some ways Carolina is helping alleviate food insecurity.

A man works in a garden.
A student worker harvests beans from the Edible Garden behind Davis Library. (Courtesy of Kyle Parker)

The next person you meet may not look hungry, but almost two out of 10 people you see on campus or in town don’t know where their next meal will come from.

Food insecurity affects 15% of Orange County’s population, according to Feed America, the nation’s largest domestic hunger-relief organization. And, a 2019 research summary published in the American Journal of Public Health states that over the past decade, multiple studies of food insecurity among college students have found rates from 20% to more than 50%.

That’s why some University-sponsored programs led by staff and students are helping people who are not able to buy or find enough food.

Edible Campus

By early November 2020, fall harvests at the main garden of Edible Campus UNC had yielded 850 pounds of produce for use by local food pantries. The harvest came from a quarter-acre behind Davis Library filled with raised beds, tilled ground, fruit trees and flowers.

Hundreds of sweet potatoes that student volunteers and interns dug up were curing in an extra bedroom owned by garden coordinator Kyle Parker, and he had plans for them. Everything picked finds a home, whether it’s the Carolina Cupboard to feed students, UNC Health workers or local organizations such as the Inter-Faith Council for Social Service and TABLE.

Another 11 Edible Campus beds across campus offer plants for anyone to pick and enjoy — seasonal vegetables, herbs and fruit trees. The gardens became a part of the North Carolina Botanical Garden in 2015 after the University reworked the sites and committed funds to create sustainable, useful areas.

Parker, who worked for three years at the Carolina Community Garden and the past three years at Edible Campus as a horticultural specialist, became the new coordinator in October. He knows that the gardens are filling a need.

“If my information is correct, college students, even before the pandemic started, were the fastest-growing food insecurity population in the country,” he said. “I can’t say I have a lot of firsthand accounts, but it stands to reason that all the stuff going on right now has exacerbated that problem.”

The evidence, Parker said, is where people pick the plants.

“Our satellite gardens are free for anyone to forage. The idea is that when you come by, just pick some of whatever’s growing — lettuce, herbs, figs, which were popular during the summer, and now persimmons,” Parker said. He doesn’t have hard data on who’s picking, but he said “we obviously see the evidence that it’s being taken. Every time I’m out, I can tell that the crops have been picked. So, people get that food, which is exactly the point.”

The pandemic has led more volunteers to the garden, Parker said.

“We’ve got a great group of interns who help us out every year, and it ranges between three to even eight sometimes. So many people have asked about working. They’re looking for opportunities to get outside, and the psychological health benefits of gardening are well noted.

“We oftentimes try to deliver what we harvest, but sometimes our partners will come to get it. It’s not hard to get the food to people and they want it,” he said.

The Carolina Community Garden

On the west side of campus, tucked away on one-third of an acre, sits what Parker describes as a “production machine.” It’s the Carolina Community Garden, which has supplied food to Carolina’s housekeepers and the campus community since its founding in 2010.

The garden at 212 Wilson St. near the Carolina Inn is an engagement program of the North Carolina Botanical Garden, which is sort of a fancy way to say that volunteers work with seeds and dirt to create the miracle of plants that feed people year-round.

In normal times, the garden’s produce goes solely to Carolina housekeepers. That changed when the University paused the garden’s work and distributions in March because of pandemic precautions, according to Claire Lorch, the Carolina Community Garden education coordinator and garden manager. The garden then began operating without volunteers and donated food to the Inter-Faith Community Kitchen before donating to UNC Health’s effort to feed frontline pandemic workers.

Shortly thereafter, volunteers from the COVID-19 Student Service Corps started helping until regular volunteers were allowed to return in August.

From March through October, workers logged 1,217 hours harvesting 3,548 pounds of food that were donated to feed the campus community.

In August, the garden returned to donating most of its produce to housekeepers. Still, Lorch said that, depending on supply and demand, produce has also gone and continues to go at times to UNC Health, the Carolina Cupboard, TABLE and the Inter-Faith Council for Social Service.

“Giving to housekeepers is our primary mission, but we don’t want any of the food to go to waste, and we want to give it to people who would benefit for sure. With so many partners, nothing goes to waste, and we have been really fortunate in that way,” Lorch said.

Prior to the pandemic, housekeepers picked up produce at 6 a.m., 7:30 a.m. or 5 p.m. (depending upon their shift) on distribution days at the garden or at a nearby parking lot, often arriving in vans driven by supervisors. Now, Lorch packs bags of produce, usually 20 to 25, often weighing about five pounds each. She leaves the bags with a Housekeeping Services trainer at the Cheek-Clark Building for scheduled distribution each week. For instance, housekeepers classified as day porters benefited from a recent distribution while another group (or shift) of housekeepers was scheduled for the next distribution.

Lorch said that she misses seeing the faces of the people who pick up the food, and she hopes more volunteers will sign up.

“I don’t get to hear how people are receiving and using this food, whereas I used to hear people say things like ‘I really, really miss that vegetable,’ or ‘could we get more of this, it’s so great,’ or ‘how do you cook this?’

“My hope is that the food is getting to people who need it, and I have no reason to think that is any different as everyone is very appreciative.”

The Carolina Cupboard

During spring 2020, an increasing number of undergraduate and graduate students began visiting the Carolina Cupboard. The cupboard, a student organization, coordinates with the University’s Student Affairs division to provide food and toiletries to any student in need.

Tarah Burnette, office manager for the Carolina Housing and Residential Education Office in Student Affairs, is Carolina Cupboard’s advisor and has worked with the effort since its beginnings in 2014.

“One of our biggest challenges, which a lot of food banks struggle with, was initially getting buy-in and support because there was almost a disbelief that food insecurity was really an issue on this campus,” Burnette said. But the need is real. Requests for food increased to their highest level in the two years prior to the pandemic.

Run by an executive board of seven undergraduate students, the cupboard had regular hours prior to most students moving from campus when the University moved to all-remote classes, but now requests are by appointment through the Carolina Cupboard website.

Students can receive a pre-packaged bag of general staple items or they can request a vegetarian bag. “They get a two-week supply, so they do not have to repeatedly return,” Burnette said. Adhering to COVID-19 precautions, Burnette or an executive board member then meets the person either at the cupboard’s location in Avery Residence Hall on Ridge Road or at a mutually agreeable location.

“With students moving off campus, the numbers are down a bit, but we are continuing to serve every single student that comes to us in need,” Burnette said.

Most of the graduate students who request food live in family housing units in Carolina’s Baity Hill community. That community also provides some of the most consistent donations. “When they move in and out, they donate items to us as well,” she said.

Everything that the cupboard provides comes from donations by community partners such as PORCH, other student organizations, Edible Campus and the Carolina Community Garden. A UNC General Alumni Association chapter in Winston-Salem recently conducted a food drive and made a significant donation.

“We are so blessed right now. I wouldn’t ever say we have an overflow because on any given day we could tap out on some items, but we are receiving consistent donations from our partner organizations and the greater Chapel Hill/Carrboro community,” Burnette said.

“Our goal, our whole energy is to feed students whenever they need to be fed and not count how many times the same student needs to be fed or add a stigma to their situation because then we lose them. They don’t come back, and then they go hungry. They can’t perform well on academics or exams if they’re hungry.”

Food drives

When the UNC Employee Forum put out the call asking campus to donate food to the local Inter-Faith Council for Social Service, the “Fun Bunch” at the University Development Office responded by organizing a food drive-through in September. During just two hours in a parking lot, volunteers took in enough canned goods and other non-perishable items to fill a car and a van.

Haley Allen, an event support specialist in the Office of University Events, coordinated the drive. “We were super excited and thought that it was an excellent way to give back, especially during the time of COVID, when more people are experiencing food insecurity than typical,” she said.

The Fun Bunch also asked people to donate to the IFC through Carolina Cares, Carolina Shares, the University’s campaign in support of the State Employees Combined Campaign.

Another drive by the athletic department in partnership with the Food Bank of Central and Eastern North Carolina aims to collect 500 boxes of non-perishable food for the Rogers-Eubanks neighborhood in Chapel Hill.

Chapel Hill and Carrboro residents, students and staff may donate items through Friday, Nov. 13, from 8 a.m.-6 p.m. Collection boxes are at a bus-loading zone in front of the Dean E. Smith Center at 400 Skipper Bowles Drive.

Facing food insecurity?

The Inter-Faith Council for Social Service at 100 W. Rosemary St., Chapel Hill, offers the following process if you or your family face food insecurity:

  • Call 919-929-6380, ext. 20, and identify yourself as a member of the Carolina community.
  • Leave a message if there is no answer, and someone will return your call.
  • IFC is working by appointment, so please wait until a pickup time is assigned to you.

Read stories on Carolina’s faculty and staff at TheWell.unc.edu