Bringing Fruit To The Doorsteps Of Greensboro's Food Deserts

Jun 10, 2015

Matthew King’s motto is simple: “think global but act local.”

For King, this is the solution to food insecurity. He is the executive director of Vision Tree Community Development Corporation, a nonprofit that helps Greensboro residents get food to their doorstep with mobile food markets. He said the basic idea of connecting urban farmers to local consumers can be applied anywhere in the world, but Greensboro needs it more than ever.

King calls his mobile market a “grocery store on wheels.” It is a mobile trailer unit surrounded by tents that offers fresh fruits, vegetables, tilapia and even healthy smoothies every Wednesday to Greensboro residents who are suffering from food insecurity.

“We are trying to drop eggs off on your front door,” King said. “This is a very basic humanistic need. If people are hungry, your education is going to go up, your education is going to fail. People just aren’t going to be happy.”

In April, the Food and Research Action Center (FRAC) named Greensboro-High Point the most food insecure municipality in the country. The study asked residents, “Have there been times in the past 12 months when you did not have enough money to buy food that you or your family needed?” In Greensboro-High Point, 27.9% of households answered “Yes” to food hardship problems.

The lack of food security in Greensboro is daunting, but a look at the city’s food deserts shows a closer and more tangible view of the problem. A food desert is defined as an area where at least a third of residents are more than a mile away from a grocery store with more than 20% living below the poverty line. The Guilford County Health Department has identified 17 food deserts in Greensboro.

Grocery stores and supermarkets cannot make the enough profit in low-wealth neighborhoods where people lack disposable income. So they move out of the area and the communities become sucked of fresh and nutritional food options. Residents in areas like East Greensboro are left with convenience stores and gas stations to supply their groceries.

“When I drive around a food desert, all I see is ‘We Accept EBT,’” King said. “But do I feel comfortable getting my produce where I get my gas? We’ve seen that people in these communities want to know where their food is coming from.”   

At his mobile market, King accepts EBT benefits and said he offers fresh food at fair market prices lower than what customers see at places like Whole Foods.

As hungry people search for nutrition in a food desert, Mark Smith, epidemiologist for the Guilford Co. Health Department, said the pipeline from local farmer to consumer is blocked on both ends.

'Do I feel comfortable getting my produce where I get my gas?'

“We have hundreds of farmers in Guilford county and many of them would like to market their produce locally but don’t have the distribution networks that they need to plug their food into restaurants or other outlets.”

Smith was a part of a 2013 study that found in Guilford Co., 84% of convenience stores in food deserts accepted SNAP/EBT benefits, but only 12% carried fresh vegetables. And for the families that are more than a mile away from a grocery store, 42% do not have a vehicle to shop for food.

Instead, people are left to use public transportation if they want the food they need. But Smith said that too bears a burden.

“There is a rule in Greensboro with our bus system where you can’t take more than four bags on the bus. I don’t know about you, but when I go to the grocery store I end up with a lot more than four bags of food so that becomes a problem.”

Greensboro residents browse Vision Tree's vegetable options
Credit Joseph Rodriguez / News & Record www.greensboro.com

Smith is also a part of a steering committee with the City of Greensboro that is trying to combat food insecurity. When Greensboro-High Point tied with New Orleans as the second most food insecure area in 2012, the city started to take serious notice. The city recently received a $25,000 Local Food Planning grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and is in the process of applying for a larger implementation grant by this fall.

Russ Clegg of the City of Greensboro Planning Department said the purpose of these grants is to broadly look at the city’s food system and “meet people where they are.”

“At the end of the day it is an economic problem,” Clegg said. “Long-term the issue is money insecurity but short-term people are hungry.”

To make sure the city is appropriately using its grant money, it is holding a public meeting Wednesday at the Peeler Recreation Center. It is a “drop-by” meeting to share ideas and collaborate with grassroots efforts that are already strong with local communities. That includes groups like Vision Tree and the Renaissance Community Co-Op (RCC).

For about three years, residents in Northeast Greensboro have been trying to plant a community-owned co-op on Phillips Avenue after the local Winn-Dixie closed more than 15 years ago. The RCC is asking for a one-time payment of $100 if people want an ownership share, and aims to create 32 jobs as a result. The co-op needs $1.79 million and has raised more than $1.4 million of that through gifts and city grants.

Another local effort is the “Little Green Book: Free Meals in Greensboro.” The Greensboro News & Record reported that the eight-page booklet was created by “Chicken Lady” Amy Murphy and lists places that offer weekly and monthly free meals.

King, of Vision Tree, said he is glad to see the City of Greensboro getting involved in food security, but sustainability should largely come from the community and hunger does not wait for a grant.

“The city is going after this $100 thousand planning grant but how many are going to be hungry by the time they get it?” King said. “Y’all are working on fixing the roof but I’m telling you the basement is on fire.”

Nevertheless, while King recognizes that the solution may be simple: “get people food,” this can only sustain itself with finesse.

“Food security is an investment. If all roads were stopped tomorrow, the most important person would be the farmer,” King said. “So before we get to that point, let’s make sure they can stay in power with the resources they need.”

Clegg agrees and said the city sees its grant as an opportunity to grow Greensboro's economy by strengthening local businesses and helping local farmers in that simple step of getting food to Greensboro's hungry people.