Even before he joined the Wake County Board of Commissioners in 2014, Matt Calabria had something of a pet project in mind.
“I’ve always been interested in food security broadly,” he says. “I’ve been especially interested in universal breakfast [in schools].”
Universal breakfast, he continues, has markedly positive effects on schoolchildren: better performance, better attendance, fewer behavioral problems. And while he was running for the commission, he learned something else he found startling: the county was “underutilizing the summer food-service program
”—a U.S. Department of Agriculture initiative that ensures that low-income children have food even when schools is not in session—“leaving up to nine million dollars in federal money on the table.”
So when he joined the board, he wanted to tackle those issues. He started reaching out to members of Wake County’s staff, then Rolesville Mayor Frank Eagles, then the school board. Quickly, he says, “we realized we didn’t want to just focus on those two programs.” More than that, “we didn’t want to just focus on emergency strategies. We wanted to create systems in place and networks of organizations so that we have a resilient system that provides food for folks both in emergency circumstances and in general.”
Even in the relatively affluent Wake County, nearly 14 percent of residents and 20 percent of children were food-insecure in 2014. That’s more than 131,000 people—and more than 44,000 children.
The idea, Calabria continues, was to make sure food-insecure families had access to food stamps and things like Backpack Buddies
, a program that gives low-income kids a backpack full of food for weekend snacks and meals, “but we also want to create a community where people don’t necessarily need to take advantage of those services as much.”
In other words, they wanted to think bigger.
Thus began the Wake County Food Security Working Group, which has been toiling mostly in obscurity for the last three years. At a meeting tonight, the culmination of those efforts—a 108-page plan called Moving Beyond Hunger
, which the county received last summer—will likely be approved by the Board of Commissioners. And when it does, Calabria says, Wake will probably become the first county in North Carolina—and one of the first in the country—to have such an expansive and comprehensive program in place.
The plan is built around five strategies—ensuring food access, communication and education, developing a sustainable food supply, building economic opportunity, and leading through networks—and forty-one action items that will be evaluated and updated every three years, to “accommodate new lessons learned and new ideas in the field.”
It’s not yet clear which of those action items the county will tackle first—or, for that matter, which ones are the most needed or feasible, or how much they’ll cost. That’s something county officials will address point-by-point in coming months. Rather, the import of the plan is that it sets a framework by which the county can establish a culture of food security, stem to stern.
Still, the plan does call for some immediate steps: an expansion of school pantries and universal breakfast and summer-meal program, for instance. Beyond schools, it also calls for community gardens at local food banks and resources for grocery cooperatives, while encouraging people to donate food, reducing barriers to food assistance, and making farmland more accessible to incubate new local farmers.
There are also some more indirect action items, including a voluntary living-wage certification for local businesses (as Durham and Orange counties already have), a county composting program, and job training in local agriculture. There’s also a more nebulous emphasis on cooperation between various organizations. The plan will be coordinated by the Capital Area Food Network
, a nonprofit established in 2015 to sustain and improve the local food ecosystem. But the working group says twenty-four groups will be needed to help implement the action items, and there are more than 120 organizations considered existing or potential partners.
“There are lots of better ways organizations could better target services and improve the way they do things,” says Calabria, who is running in the Democratic primary to challenge state representative Nelson Dollar this fall. “The best-situated hub for that information is the county government. We want to make sure that we bring folks together and help provide the data and the connections that they need to maximize their mission.”
Already, some of these initiatives are in progress, particularly those related to schools. In 2015, the county budget sought to expand universal breakfast from twelve to twenty-five schools. By 2016, five county-funded school food pantries had opened. And by 2017, all forty-eight Wake schools with a majority of students receiving free or reduced lunch had dedicated food sources—universal breakfast, Backpack Buddies, a food pantry, or a partnership with a nearby nonprofit—up from thirty-two in 2014.
In fact, Calabria says, there is a dedicated food resource in 157 Wake schools, out of a total of 183
“Different schools often work in different populations,” he adds. “Backpack Buddies are more well-suited to elementary-school populations because high schoolers often feel a stigma in taking food home with them. That’s why we wanted to have culturally and contextually appropriate means for helping students.”
Tonight’s vote won’t allocate any funds toward the project. Instead, it will direct staffers to begin implementing the steps the plan envisions. The costs of some of the near-term action items are likely to be folded into the county’s annual budget. And the county has already started the process of hiring what Calabria refers to as an “air-traffic controller,” or someone who specializes in food issues full-time.
In other business tonight, the Board of Commissioners will hold a public hearing on its annual Affordable Housing Action Plan, a prerequisite for the four federal grants the county uses—along with its own capital improvement program to fund its efforts to preserve existing housing and develop new units, as well as to provide homeless services, fund facilities improvements in low-income neighborhoods, and provide rental assistance. Together, these grants total more than $4 million, according to county documents.
At the hearing, commissioners will take public input on the county’s affordable housing and community development needs in low- and moderate-income neighborhoods. The Board of Commissioners meets at five p.m. in the Wake County Justice Center.
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