How can Bladen, Columbus and Robeson counties gain better access to food?

By Rachel Baldauf

Four open-house forums about the future of food access in southeastern North Carolina will take place across Bladen, Columbus and Robeson counties this month. The events, organized by N.C. State University’s Visioning Our Food Future project, will gather community input on how to improve residents’ access to healthy and affordable food.

Visioning Our Food Future brings together N.C. State researchers with community members in Bladen, Columbus and Robeson counties to come up with solutions to food access shortfalls. The program is funded by a grant from the Kate B. Reynolds Foundation, which also funds the Border Belt Independent

Since 2021, the initiative has conducted focus groups and collected data about food issues facing the three counties. As the group prepares to develop an action plan for the region, the upcoming forums will give residents the opportunity to learn about the researchers’ findings and collaborate on solutions.

“We want to actually hear what’s already going on, how we can help, how we can support these organizations that are already doing the work,” said Dr. Niesha Douglas, one of the project’s researchers. “What are some other things we can create or maybe collaborate with to increase access for everybody?”

Rural southeastern North Carolina has long suffered from poor access to food. More than 14% of residents in Bladen, Columbus and Robeson counties were food insecure in 2021 according to data from the non-profit Feeding America. Statewide, the figure was about 12%.

There are many factors at play, Douglas said. The region’s rural landscape means that grocery stores are spread out, and many people lack reliable transportation. In 2016, Bladen County had only six grocery stores, according to USDA data. Columbus had 16, and Robeson had 28.

Rising food costs are also a hurdle. More than 20% of residents in Bladen, Columbus and Robeson live in poverty, and over 22% participate in SNAP, the food-assistance program for low-income families. “People aren’t able to buy food like they were about five or six years ago,” Douglas said. “That money doesn’t stretch as much as it would have a couple of years ago.”

Demographic and climate shifts that have made farming more difficult mean that less food is produced. “In these areas where farming was such a vibrant income that people could count on, now they have to resort to other things,” Douglas said.

Following input from the forums, researchers will create a strategic plan in the coming months. The focus will be on bolstering already existing local organizations. “We want to be as collaborative as possible with all of the other programs that are happening in this area,” Douglas said. “We don’t want to reinvent the wheel. We want to support the ones that are working, and maybe create some that need to be created.”

The events are planned for the following:

  • Feb. 20 from 1-3 p.m. at Thomas Entrepreneurial HUB, 202 Main St., Pembroke
  • Feb. 22 from 12-2 p.m. at Bladen Community College, 7418 N.C. 41 W, Dublin
  • Feb. 27 from 11:30 a.m.-1:30 p.m at CHEC Community Center – Biggs Park Mall, 2800 N. Elm St., Lumberton
  • Feb. 28 from 12-2 p.m. at the Southeastern Community College auditorium, 4564 Chadbourn Highway, Whiteville