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As Pandemic Continues, Food Insecurity Climbs

File Photo
Food insecurity is ramping up in the Cape Fear region. Local organizations are bracing for the long haul.

With no clear end to the pandemic in sight, food insecurity is skyrocketing. And local organizations in the Cape Fear region are bracing for the long haul. 

The definition of “food insecure” is simple:

“If I were to ask you, Hannah, if you know where your next meal is coming from -- and if your answer is ‘I'm not sure,’ or ‘I don't know’ -- then you're food insecure.”

That’s Beth Gaglione. She’s the Branch Director of the Food Bank of Central and Eastern North Carolina. And she says that like many other areas in the country, food insecurity is ramping up in the Cape Fear region.

“The staff is feeling the growth, in the amount of food that we're putting out every day, every week, every month. The numbers have been significantly higher.”

And those numbers continue to climb. Pre-pandemic, a national hunger-relief organization called Feeding America estimated that a little over 67,000 adults and children in Brunswick, New Hanover, Pender, and Columbus counties were food insecure. Based on unemployment and poverty rates, the group estimates that number is now just under 94,000. 

Credit Feeding America
Feeding America
Feeding America estimates that numbers of food insecure individuals will increase nationally throughout the pandemic -- between 3 million and 17 million.

Feeding America also reports that 1 in 5 people in Central and Eastern North Carolina will or already have experienced food insecurity in 2020. 

When it comes to food insecurity, one size doesn’t fit all. It can mean not being able to afford nutritious food, like fruits and vegetables -- relying on frozen meals, or processed, cheaper products. Or, it can mean losing weight because you can’t afford to eat. 

“It’s a wide-ranging definition. And I would say that definitely more people are food insecure than we realize, including college students.” 

That’s Dr. Jill Waity, Associate Professor of Sociology at UNC Wilmington. She says that as many college students now have to move back home, some come from lower-income households and may be losing access to food resources they received on campus. 

College students may also face more stigma to reach out for help, than other populations. And certain food assistance programs aren’t available to them.

“I think for a long time, maybe the general population didn't realize that college students aren't all middle class, or wealthy. Some people are trying to pay their own way through school. They don't necessarily get access to government programs like SNAP [Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program].”

Dr. Waity says food insecurity is tied to a lack of financial resources. As the pandemic drags on, people lose jobs, or hours -- draining their savings accounts. Financial stress snowballs, making it harder for lower-income families to get back on their feet -- even after the economy improves, and wealthier households begin to recover.

Credit Feeding America
Feeding America
Lower-income individuals -- like those in the service industry -- are particularly at risk for losing access to food.

“Research I did around the Great Recession saw that even after it was officially over in 2012, people were still using food pantries and soup kitchens at a much higher rate than they were before the recession. So it’s not going to go away.” 

Dr. Waity and Beth Gaglione stress that, fortunately, there is assistance. Both say the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, continues to be monumental for propelling the economy and helping people stay out of poverty. 

Local organizations are also providing resources. On the Cape Fear Food Council’s website, you can find guides and visual maps for food assistance in New Hanover, Brunswick, and Pender counties. Lists of local hunger support programsare also on the Wilmington Food Bank’s website. 

The bottom line, says Gaglione? Don’t be afraid to reach out for help.

“Families just may not know, cause they've never reached out -- and it is a pride issue, and I am extraordinarily sympathetic to that. But this is also an extraordinary time.”

Note: The numbers of food insecure adults and children in Brunswick, New Hanover, Pender, and Columbus counties (both pre-pandemic and current) have been corrected from the original version of this story. The numbers in the web version of this story are correct.

Hannah is WHQR's All Things Considered host, and also reports on science, the environment, and climate change. She enjoys loud music, documentaries, and stargazing; and is the proud mother of three cats, a dog, and many, many houseplants. Contact her via email at hbreisinger@whqr.org, or on Twitter @hbreisinger.