Saturday, April 1, 2023

Virtual roundtable: Food insecurity expands its reach due to Covid-19

WILMINGTON — Although food insecurity has long been a problem among low-income populations in the Wilmington area, the Covid-19 pandemic has forced hundreds to seek food assistance for the first time while disrupting the entire food supply chain.

According to a panel of four local food experts, the response to the pandemic has allowed key demographic groups to “fall through the cracks,” especially low-income seniors and those with underlying medical conditions who are most vulnerable to the coronavirus.

RELATED: Virtual roundtable: Wilmington-area non-profits before, during, and after Covid-19

Port City Daily hosted a virtual roundtable with the experts, each a leading voice in the local fight against food insecurity, featuring:

  • Dr. Jill Waity – University of North Carolina Wilmington
  • Beth Gaglione – Food Bank of Central & Eastern NC
  • Sarah Daniels – Cape Fear Food Council
  • Cara Stretch – Feast Down East
  • Moderator – Port City Daily reporter Mark Darrough

The next crisis

The pandemic has brought food insecurity to the forefront of several population groups, especially low-income residents living in so-called ‘food deserts’, schoolchildren who rely on two meals a day from their districts, and farmers.

In a region still rebounding from Hurricane Florence, local farmers lost an enormous portion of their market when the governor ordered restaurants closed in mid-March. The closures forced many farms to dump products like milk and eggs, others to plow under their crops, according to Dr. Jill Waity, a professor at the University of North Carolina Wilmington who studies food insecurity.

Clara Stretch from Feast Down East, a nonprofit focused on growing the region’s food system, said farmers were hoping for the first full, healthy harvest year since Florence.

“A lot of our farmers looked to this year as their first year of solid sales after Florence … Florence hit in the fall of 2018, so that impacted their ability to grow in all of 2019 as well,” Stretch said.

For Beth Gaglione, branch director for Food Bank of Central and Eastern North Carolina, the current crisis came during a time when her organization was still responding to the effects of Florence in 2018 and Matthew in 2016.

“[The pandemic] has really left no one unscathed, in so many ways. There is so much job loss, so many employees furloughed,” Gaglione said. “Whether it’s 6 weeks of no work, 8 weeks of no work, 12 weeks of no work, or just less work, when you’re trying to live on $25,000 a year and feeding four people, that is not easy to recover on.”

She said the pandemic’s impact on vulnerable families will be long-lasting, just as it has been with prior hurricanes; and before, the Great Recession.

Waity said when she was researching the economic impact of the recession on food insecurity in 2012, four years after big banks were bailed out by the government in 2008, she found that food bank workers were still experiencing its impacts.

“It’s really important for us to realize that, once this is over and they develop a vaccine and everything, there will be ripple effects with the economy and food insecurity,” Waity said. “This year was the first year the food insecurity rate finally dipped below the rate [that existed] before the recession in 2008. And now it’ll be back up again.”

Send tips and comments to the reporter at, @markdarrough on Twitter, or (970) 413-3815

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