New Hanover Regional Medical Center is spearheading a program to create an oasis in the “food desert” that characterizes some parts of Wilmington.
Community support is rallying around the NHRMC effort to bring a grocery store to the Northside neighborhood, also known as the Youth Enrichment Zone. A meeting involving more than a dozen entities came together in April to discuss the topic, said Scott Whisnant, NHRMC administrator of community affairs, in email.
The group that gathered at The Foxes Boxes restaurant on North Fourth Street to discuss the issue included representatives from non-profit organizations, the University of North Carolina Wilmington, New Hanover County Schools, the New Hanover County Health Department, the city of Wilmington, the NAACP and two churches, in addition to about 15 citizens who live and work in the community.
“All are potential partners in this effort. NHRMC’s goal is to convene this conversation, but not own it. This project belongs to the community it will serve,” Whisnant said.
The Northside community of Wilmington is the initial target area for the initiative.
“There was overwhelming support for some type of food service. We agreed to follow up in the community with residents to learn more about what they want, and to investigate some locations and business models for a store,” Whisnant said.
He said the discussion at the meeting focused on “an effort to introduce healthy and affordable foods to these neighborhoods in an effort to raise the overall level of health.”
“If we can find a model that works, we would like to replicate what we can in other parts of Wilmington or the region,” Whisnant said.
Food deserts are generally defined as areas where sources of fresh fruit and vegetables and other healthy whole foods are far away from residents because of a lack of grocery stores or farmers’ markets near their homes. The problem, experts say, is that the lack of a fresh food source can force residents to rely on convenience foods filled with fat and sugar, contributing to the nation’s obesity epidemic and health care costs.
Among nonprofit organizations that sent a representative to the meeting led by NHRMC was Good Shepherd Center.
“Access to healthy and affordable fresh food is paramount for daily survival for your health, so there’s no end to how important it is to a community, especially if it relies on public transportation,” said Stacy Geist, associate development director for the Good Shepherd Center. “If you don’t have reliable access to a grocery store or reliable transportation it’s an everyday challenge and Good Shepherd is trying to serve as a fallback for those folks.”
Wilmington’s Southside lost a source of fresh food when a fire destroyed Everybody’s Supermarket at 1022 Greenfield St. on May 2. As a result, Good Shepherd Center expanded its food give-away program for the community.
Meanwhile, the focus of the Northside initiative, Whisnant said, ties in with NHRMC’s “overall focus on health equity.”
“We know that environmental and behavioral issues make up 70 percent of a person’s health status, and actual health care just 20 percent. There is potential in the community to address these factors that we are not yet realizing,” he said. “Ultimately, we want to address, as a community, health in all policies, with equity as the goal, with health providers, nonprofits, county governments, UNCW, community colleges, private business, faith communities, grant funders – with these entities using their collective resources, purchasing power and investment potential for the common good.”
Phillip Tarte, New Hanover County public health director, is also supportive of the multi-agency effort.
“New Hanover County Public Health leads and supports community- wide solutions that increase access to affordable, nutritious foods. This includes efforts for farmer’s markets, including mobile farmer’s markets, community gardens, healthy convenience stores, as well as advocacy and policy development,” Tarte said. “Food deserts can limit the ability for people to regularly purchase and consume nutritious food, which may lead to overall poor health outcomes.”
Whisnant said there is no set timetable for implementation of the program.
“Our ultimate goal is to afford these residents the food options they want and help them live healthier lifestyles,” he said.