WILMINGTON — Wilmington is on a roll with doling out its American Rescue Plan Act money for community assistance. In the latest announcement, Mayor Bill Saffo stood on the grounds of the former Everybody’s Supermarket and said the city is committing $200,000 of its $26 million to fight food insecurity.
“Cities don’t build grocery stores, per se,” Saffo said at the single podium in a vacant lot, “but we can assist those that are trying to make a difference to bring nutritious foods to our community.”
The Southside lost Everybody’s Supermarket, once located on Greenfield Street in Village Plaza Shopping Center, to a fire in 2018. The lot is slated to become the future site of the Food Bank of Central and Eastern North Carolina, which will begin construction by early 2022.
The last grocery store that operated on the Northside of the city was A&P, 30 years ago. Throughout the years, there have been attempts to start a food co-op, but none have taken off until the Northside Food Cooperative launched last year.
The co-op will receive $125,000 of ARPA funds to push the nonprofit toward its goal of establishing a community-owned grocery store on Princess Street.
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Cierra Washington, the co-op’s strategic outreach and partnership coordinator, said the funds will go toward operational costs, including staffing, and overall contribute to the mission of a pilot store, stocked with grab-and-go meals, opening in January.
Currently, the Northside Co-Op is hosting Frankie’s Outdoor Market every Saturday on Princess Street. In two years, after operating the pilot, organizers aim to cut the ribbon on a full-service grocer.
Feast Down East is accepting the remaining $75,000 of the coronavirus relief funds to expand its Local Motive Mobile Farmers Market, a refrigerated van that tows affordable and fresh produce to community centers, public housing neighborhoods and businesses. Launched in 2019, the program is now on pace to serve 2,000 customers this year.
“Although in 2012, we were doing a very grassroots effort of that work out of personal vehicles, trying to get fresh produce into the communities that lack it,” Cara Stretch, director of Feast Down East, said.
With increased funding, the mobile market will broaden its outreach on the Southside, Stretch said, while the food co-op is focusing its efforts on the north.
“I think it’s really amazing that the city is taking the time to invest in the Northside and the Southside,” Washington said.
Local governments are required to utilize the federal coronavirus relief funds to recover and navigate out of the pandemic. Saffo said the city is quickly dispersing the money to nonprofits who can help the community, rather than reinventing the wheel by pinpointing solutions and funding those on its own. So far, the city has announced a $100,000 commitment to Coastal Horizons to combat substance abuse, which spiked during the pandemic, and is awarding $700,000 in grants to various local nonprofits, prioritizing those that help underserved communities. Saffo said other cities are inquiring about how Wilmington is getting its money out at such a fast pace.
“I think it’s a testament to the people that work every single day in the community but also to our city staff and the connections that we’ve made,” Saffo said.
Finding solutions to food desserts was among the list of spending items on the city’s $9-million plan for economic and community assistance. Food insecurity affects one in five people in New Hanover County, according to a city press release. The U.S. Department of Agriculture has identified eight food deserts in New Hanover County, including the Northside. The pandemic only heightened the existing issue.
Wilmington branch director of the Food Bank, Beth Gaglione, said during an emergency situation, such as a hurricane, the providers regularly come across people who never before have been in a position where they had to seek assistance to access food.
“I can tell you story after story about individuals who we’ve seen for the first time,” Gaglione said.
Earlier in the pandemic, First Fruit Ministries served an older man who was unemployed for the first time in his life: “He was terribly embarrassed to have to be in a situation to ask for help for the first time for food,” Gaglione said. “And, you know, when he had gone through the process and was taking food to his car, [he] talked to one of the staff members at First Fruit and said, ‘This was an easy process. It was hard for me to come. But, once I got here, it was such a good experience.’”
Food insecurity has different faces, Washington explained. It’s college students struggling to make ends meet, families who can’t qualify for food stamps because they earn “just above the limit” or can’t stretch the benefits far enough, and senior citizens lacking transportation or the ability to carry groceries long distances.
Though it’s currently an empty untended parking lot with weeds cracking through the pavement, the Food Bank plans to break ground on its new 30,000-square-foot warehouse in the next year. The site will support 125 partner agencies distributing food in five counties, house a commercial kitchen for meal prepping and health education, and host a fresh food market, operated by Feast Down East.
It’s slated to open by November 2022.
Mayor Saffo said more announcements are to come about investments in economically challenged communities, including opportunities for workforce training in tech and film.
The city received the first installment of $13 million earlier this year; the second $13 million in ARPA funds will be deposited next year.
In addition to the $9 million for community efforts, the city is designating $4.67 million for infrastructure and $12.26 million for the continued Covid-19 response and recovery, such as staff bonuses.
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