By Olivia Neeley
Times Staff Writer
While Meals on Wheels here serves about 350 meals a day, the number could be much larger. But the organization continues to get hit by cuts in federal funding, officials said.
“We have over 200 on the waiting list,” said Debbie Raper, executive director of Wilson County Office of Senior Citizen’s Affairs-Meals on Wheels. “The need is great.”
Raper was one of many who represented agencies, churches and food pantries across Wilson County who have banded together to better serve families, children and seniors who often struggle with hunger. The group, which has continued to grow in the past month, has dubbed itself the Wilson Food Network.
Members of the group have more than doubled since the first meeting in April. At least 40 agencies, churches and others who help those in the community access food are now part of the network, which has pledged to combat the hunger issue in Wilson County. Officials say by collaborating on the issues more can be accomplished in Wilson, whose overall food insecurity rate runs at nearly 1 in 4 people, higher than both state and national averages. But the numbers are higher for children here, with nearly 1 in 3 suffering from food insecurity, or the inability to access food.
The group has identified several areas to focus on including children, families, and seniors who experience food insecurity. Other areas include the need for sustainability. Officials said there are “food deserts” in are as of Wilson County and the city of Wilson where healthy food is not easily accessible to families. Resources for community gardens are available but are not being tapped. Another goal is managing logistics — for example, connecting with farmers for excess produce that could be available this summer. There is also a need for communication among organizations. Officials are working on a comprehensive food resource list in both English and Spanish.
About 33 percent of households served through food banks across the state had one or more adults working in the home, according to research. About 16 percent served by food banks across the state are seniors.
‘A PLACE AT THE TABLE’
Wilson Food Network also has plans to host a community-wide screening event of the documentary, “A Place at the Table,” which follows three families in the United States who struggle with food insecurity. Jack Clifford, of First Christian Church, told the group Thursday he has been researching possible locations to play the film, including the Boykin Center and various churches. A location has not been finalized, but the group hopes to have several community leaders speak about hunger in Wilson after the screening. Officials believe the documentary will spark dialogue among residents.
“I think it would be quite an eye-opener,” said group member Nina Hocutt of Wilson Praise and Worship, who has seen the film narrated by actor Jeff Bridges.
Howard Jones, president and founder of OIC of Wilson, said the idea was wonderful and believes it will inspire folks to get involved and become educated on the issue that plagues many. He said Wilson Food Network’s mission and collaboration was “certainly an inspiration.”
“I’ve been chasing hunger for 40 years,&rdquo ; he said. “I’ve never seen anything like this.”
EMERGENCY HELP LINES
Judi Thurston, executive director of United Way of Wilson, also discussed using existing emergency and teen hotlines. These hotlines provide 24-hour phone assistance for those in the community who are in need. Wilson Crisis Center director Nancy Sallenger said children, seniors, disabled adults and families call daily.
Louise McKinnon, chairwoman and founder of CHEW, brought up concerns during April’s meeting regarding children who aren’t able to reach feeding sites during the summer months. She worried they would go hungry.
Thurston, along with Sallenger and McKinnon, has developed a plan and will use the existing hotlines, which goes directly to the Wilson Crisis Center. The women said they plan on ensuring each child and their families receive the information before school is out for the summer months. Sallenger has also been working to get the information translated in Spanish with the help of an intern.
Sallenger said the Crisis Center receives many calls from children, teens, and seniors who are experiencing food insecurity.
“The calls are coming in,” Sallenger said. “We are already out delivering food.”
She said the most important thing is who answers those calls. When people are in need they need to hear a “warm, kind, human voice,” Sallenger said.
‘WE CAN ACHIEVE ANYTHING’
Paula Benson, executive director of Wilson 20/20, gave a presentation about what their organization is currently doing and how they are excited about collaborating with the Wilson Food Network.
Benson said over the past year they have partnered with Wilson County Schools to improve all outcomes of students by collaborating with each other.
The health and wellness team with Wilson 20/20 became interested in helping youth make healthy choices, being physically and emotionally healthy and having a healthy start in life. One of those goals for the community was to lower the food insecurity rate.
Susan Parker, Wilson County Department of Social Services’ team leader and self-sufficiency program manger, said before the Wilson Food Network existed they thought about convening agencies to discuss food issues in Wilson County. But when Parker read about the group that met in April in The Wilson Times, she knew they wanted to jump on board.
“This is exactly what we wanted to do,” she said. “In large numbers, we can achieve anything.”
Wilson Food Network is also looking at the models of Community Food Councils being developed in other North Carolina counties.
FARMERS MANAGE DEER
Sharon Taylor, Nash County’s USDA Farm Service Agency executive director, represented the StrikeForce initiative following a visit to Washington, D.C., by Wilson and other representatives.
In April, dozens of farmers, landowners, elected officials and agencies met in Wilson to kick off the state’s Farm Agency District 6 Strikeforce Initiative. The U.S. agriculture secretary commissioned all USDA agencies to work toward battling hunger in counties and communities by expanding educational and economic opportunities in those areas. This is North Carolina’s second year in the Strikeforce program, which has identified 48 counties — including Wilson — that deal with poverty. The majority of these are in the eastern part of the state.
The project aims to not only increase awareness within these communities, but also identify economic growth opportunities. And the biggest part of the initiative is about partnerships. That’s why the meeting, held in late April, brought out an array of community-based organizations and small businesses that will also collaborate with local, state and federal agencies. Other goals include promoting job creation through agribusiness, expanding resources in those communities and assisting with guidance for healthier food choices through USDA grants programs.
Taylor shared with the group projects Nash County has been working on in regard to food insecurity, including working with farmers and others to glean fields and getting that fresh food for those in need.
They’ve also been working with the “Farmers Manage Deer Program,” a model for communities across North Carolina. Deer often destroy farmers’ crops, officials said. But by getting hunters involved in the process of managing the deer population on farms, those deer can in return be cleaned and processed for food agencies to give to those who experience hunger.
The group also has a mobile cooler location to collect the deer. The venison is cleaned and stored in the mobile cooling unit, USDA inspected, then taken for processing.
“They then turn it around and give it back to the community,” Taylor said.