A Passion for Food Pantries: Findings from the Wake County Food Pantry Study

By Monique Bethell, 2018 Community Food Strategies intern

“I have a passion for food pantries!”, commented Ruthie Wofford when asked about why she decided to conduct the study on food pantries in Wake County. It was easy to feel her passion especially when you could hear the radiant smile on her face even as we discussed the study over the phone. Ruthie Wofford was the AmeriCorps VISTA (Volunteer in Service to America) that served as staff to the Capital Area Food Network (CAFN) in 2017-2018.  As a recent graduate of Auburn University in Alabama, she fondly remembers her senior thesis project on How Food Insecurity Affects College Students. Immediately I realized we had a lot in common as my eager to understand food insecurities in communities and college students led to an internship with Community Food Strategies.

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Ruthie Wofford, the AmericCorp Vista that served as staff to the Capital Area Food Network in 2017-2018.

The Food Pantries Study conducted for CAFN, was the first of its kind for Wake County. While several websites, directories, and client-based studies contained information about select food pantries, there was no comprehensive database that captured the locations, hours and characteristics of all the food pantries operating in Wake County. The need for a comprehensive listing of operating food pantries in Wake County arose from one of several strategies listed in the Wake County Comprehensive Food Security Plan. Completed in 2017, the Wake County Food Security Plan was a collaborative effort by the Wake County Food Security Working Group and the Capital Area Food Network. The Plan was designed to be a guiding framework to mobilize efforts to address food security in Wake County through the coordination and development of new food policy.

When members of CAFN reviewed the plan and examined which priorities could be implemented quickly, they realized there were some gaps in their knowledge and understanding about food pantries. “I realized one of the first things we needed was data.” Ruthie quickly surmised as she reviewed the report. “We needed to know how many food pantries actually existed in the area.”

In November 2017, Ruthie wrote a proposal requesting permission to conduct a study to collect operational data on the food pantries that existed within Wake County. The focus of the study was to gather information about the structure, resources, general operation, food recipients, distributed food, outreach activities, goals and barriers for each food pantry. The data was collected by volunteers who were recruited and trained to conduct interviews via phone calls with food pantry managers.

Making the distinction between what was considered a food pantry versus another food distribution operation was not an easy task. After some discussion and consensus by CAFN and their partners, the decision was made on how a food pantry would be defined. For the purposes of this study, a food pantry was defined as “an agency that distributes free, uncooked food to individuals from one location at least twice a month.” Using this definition meant that they had to exclude agencies such as K-12 school food pantries, meal/food delivery services (e.g. Meals on Wheels, Backpack Buddies) and prepared meal sites (e.g. soup kitchens, brown bag lunch distributors). “It was a tough decision to make.” Ruthie acknowledged. “But we had to draw the line somewhere, otherwise we would never be able to complete the study.”

Findings from the study provided an important snapshot of the structure and function of food pantries serving Wake County. Of more than 215 organizations contacted, 99 were considered operational food pantries, while the other 116 were either closed, didn’t exist or didn’t meet the defined criteria for a food pantry. When asked what was most surprising about the results, Ruthie commented “I never realize there were so many food pantries in our area!” “There’s really an extreme need for food in Wake County.” Organizations that operated food pantries included 70 places of worship (e.g. churches, mosques), 10 religious nonprofits, 11 non-denominational non-profits, and 8 colleges and universities. Results also showed that every municipality in Wake County, except Morrisville has at least one food pantry, including Willow Springs. Below is a chart that describes the distribution food pantries by municipality.

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Notwithstanding the vast number of food pantries operating in the county, the study also revealed that there were several neighborhoods in the north and southwest sections of Wake county that are extremely food insecure, yet lack food pantries. 

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This map, generated by the Wake County Long Range Planning Department for the study, displays food insecurity by block group relative to the location of food pantries.

Another unexpected, yet very interesting finding of the study was the discovery of the unique issues faced by university pantries. Food pantry managers from Meredith College, North Carolina State University, Shaw University, St. Augustine’s University and Wake Technical Community College revealed many of the challenges and barriers of operating a food pantry for a specific population, college students. The interviews revealed that except for Wake Tech, campus pantries were in constant need of food appropriate for students living on campus that didn’t need to be cooked or stored in a refrigerator (e.g. snacks, bottled water, etc). Most of the food pantries were not equipped to meet those needs.

“Feeding those in need, so that they may continue to succeed.” That’s the motto for the St. Augustine University’s food pantry.  Jaqueline Paschal-Rand is the faculty member at St. Augustine’s that runs the new food pantry on campus. She started the food pantry less than two years ago, in response to the need she saw on campus. Jaqueline explained that “So many students would come to me in need of food and supplies and I would try to help them out”. Since the pantry opened, she received donations from faculty, staff, churches and recently connected with the Black Farmer Urban Growers to obtain fresh produce for students.

Food pantries such as the one at St. Augustine’s are one of the many that are working to address food insecurity across Wake County. The Food Access action circle is one of the CAFN workgroups responsible for following up on the food pantry study.  

Erin Gallagher is the new AmeriCorps VISTA assigned to work with CAFN, since Ruthie’s assignment ended earlier this year. As the newest member of the CAFN team, Erin is very eager to grab the baton and help take the study findings to the next level. While CAFN doesn’t have the capacity to conduct an annual food pantry study, part of Erin’s role will be to ensure the work of CAFN is woven into the fabric of the Food Security Plan updates and continues to meet the needs of the community. “Food pantries are not the solution for hunger. There’s lots of room for growth.” Ruthie commented. Erin added “It’s important that CAFN continue to find the nuances and start to bridge the hunger gap in Wake County.”

For more information about CAFN or to get involved, contact Erin Gallagher at capitalareafoodnetwork@gmail.com

For more information about the AmeriCorps VISTA Program visit: https://www.nationalservice.gov/programs/americorps/americorps-programs/americorps-vista

 

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