More than 30,000 people in New Hanover County are food insecure, according to Brandon Foy, marketing coordinator for Feast Down East in Burgaw.
The nonprofit is working to grow the region’s food system by supporting farmers, increasing access to fresh food and increasing food security. Feast Down East’s food hub in Burgaw provides a way for area farmers to get their crops to restaurants, grocers and institutions. Local farmers bring seasonal produce to the old train depot in Burgaw where it is aggregated out to customers, restaurants, grocery stores and Feast Down East’s Mobile Food Market.
To date in 2023, Feast Down East has purchased over 120,000 pounds of food from local farmers for distribution in the communities it serves.
For the past couple of years, the organization’s refrigerated van made rounds Tuesday through Friday in downtown Wilmington to Wilmington Housing Authority sites, after-school programs and community centers servicing food insecure people and those with transportation issues that keep them from getting fresh affordable healthy foods.
Feast Down East purchased a second van in 2023.
Recently, the nonprofit announced Food Rx, a program that will service three Novant Health Medical Group sites: Coastal Family Medicine, Novant Health Coastal OB/GYN-Shipyard and Novant Health Zimmer Cancer Institute.
“Food Rx is a food prescription program,” said Susannah Spratt, Food Rx’s program manager. “It works like any prescription works. Patients go to an appointment with a doctor or primary care physician at one of the Novant offices where a full screening of social determinants of health is done. This includes food security, transportation and financial status, to get a complete understanding of the patient’s situation.”
Based on the screening, Spratt said, patients become eligible for a voucher to use at the Mobile Food Market.
“The voucher, treated just like cash, is used for anything from the market,” she said. “We offer a variety of produce, vegetables, seasonal fruit, meats, goat cheese, eggs and honey. We want people to have power of choice at the market.”
The partnership with Novant Health was made stronger by a grant through the BlueCross BlueShield of North Carolina Foundation to strengthen food as medicine programs in the state.
“We were looking to partner with a large health care organization and hospital. The grant got the ball rolling,” Spratt said.
As part of the partnership, Novant is funding the food voucher program.
Based on the premise that food is medicine to help improve health, Food Rx is consistent with the Feast Down East mission to strengthen the farming communities in and around Southeastern North Carolina by providing resources, education and distribution opportunities to farmers while addressing equitable food access in communities with the greatest need.
Feast Down East began as the Southeastern North Carolina Food Systems Program (SENCFSP), a University of North Carolina Wilmington-affiliated economic development project. Founded by Leslie Hossfeld, former chair and professor of sociology at UNCW, and Mac Legerton, executive director of the Center for Community Action in Lumberton, SENCFSP was an initiative responding to massive job loss and poverty in Southeastern North Carolina. In 2010, SENCFSP established itself as Feast Down East.
The mobile market was initiated in 2018 by Feast Down East executive director Jordyn Appel-Hughes around the time of Hurricane Florence.
“Since then, the van named Flo has serviced people who don’t have time or transportation. We are really trying to bridge those gaps and bring food to those people,” Spratt said.
The Food Rx program is allowing expansion of the existing mobile food program.
“This is a pilot program. It will help us get a better understanding of the needs of the community, what we can do better to meet people where they are at,” Spratt said.
Longer term goals include launching on a larger scale and ultimately seeing an improvement in health outcomes and reduced health care utilization.
In addition to Spratt, the mobile markets are run by mobile market manager Kaiyon Williams and mobile market coordinators Isa Bailey and Caitlyn Andrews. The four are supported by a team of volunteers including UNCW students on internships and fellowships.
Spratt added that the Mobile Food Markets are open to the public.
“We encourage everyone to come see us and shop with us,” she said, adding that the markets take cash and credit cards and participate in Fresh Bucks, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) EBT dollar-for-dollar matching program.
“We prioritize dignity and equity, making sure everything is accessible and equitable for everybody,” Spratt said. “We are all just super committed to the work we do.”