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Food Deserts: NC Lawmakers Want More People To Know About Healthful Eating, Take More Action

A shopper examines produce at Deep Roots grocery.
Deep Roots Coop

A committee from the North Carolina House of Representatives spent four months looking into how to address food deserts across the state.  Monday afternoon they made their proposals: to expand education about healthy eating and exercising habits across the state and to start a joint committee with members of the senate to continue looking at how to address the problem.

Some of the 13 members of the Committee on Food Deserts said they didn’t know what a food desert was until they were appointed last year. (A food desert is an area where people live more than a mile from a grocery store.) Then, in monthly meetings since January, people including convenience store owners, social workers and academic researchers talked to them about the availability of fresh fruits and vegetables in certain cities and rural parts of the state and accessibility factors like transportation.

Some members of the committee, including Rep. Yvonne Holley, a Democrat from Southeast Raleigh, wanted more concrete proposals but said they would continue to push for more state action. Holley proposed legislation on food deserts last year after two grocery stores closed in her district.

"I just think this is a beginning,” Holley said during a hearing Monday. “I will continue to champion this issue.”

The proposal to expand education on healthful lifestyle habits is a bill that calls for the North Carolina Cooperative Extension, which is run by NC State University and NC A&T University, to implement education across the state for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, known as SNAP and previously known as food stamps.

The state Division of Social Services currently pays the Cooperative Extension and five other entities to handle the SNAP-Ed program: the Surry County Health and Nutrition Center, Durham County Health Department, University of North Carolina at Greensboro, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the Alice Aycock Poe Center for Health Education.

Collectively, the six groups do not reach SNAP recipients in North Carolina’s 100 counties, but the extension plans on reaching people in the whole state with increased funding and by subcontracting some of the work, said Carolyn Dunn, a nutrition professor at NC State. Cooperative organizers want to help create more opportunities for people to have access to fresh fruit and places to exercise and want to use social media to reach more people, Dunn said.

Rep. Chris Whitmire, a Republican from the town of Rosman in the western part of the state, said allowing the Division of Social Services to contract with the Cooperative Extension would help create a central place to share “success stories” of how communities across the state have addressed the problems associated with food deserts.

“We need a clearinghouse,” Whitmire said.

The House of Representatives will consider the bill when the General Assembly meets in May, and a joint committee on food deserts is created, it would consider legislation for 2015 at the earliest.

Also on Monday, committee members approved recommendations encouraging schools to find new ways to encourage students to take advantage of subsidized breakfast programs, and encouraging the state Department of Agriculture to expand a Farm to School program.

Jorge Valencia has been with North Carolina Public Radio since 2012. A native of Bogotá, Colombia, Jorge studied journalism at the University of Maryland and reported for four years for the Roanoke Times in Virginia before joining the station. His reporting has also been published in the Wall Street Journal, the Miami Herald, and the Baltimore Sun.
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