The Hunger Project

Faculty member Maureen Berner and 2009 graduate Emily Anderson are documenting hunger and food insecurity in North Carolina.

Documenting Hunger and Food Insecurity in North Carolina

This article was originally written by 2009 graduate Ashley Clarke Perry for inclusion in the Summer 2009 issue of theMPA alumni newsletter, IMPACT. It has been edited for use on the website.

Hunger is one of the clearest indicators of poverty, but it can be invisible. Like poverty, hunger affects people in different ways. Food insecurity is classified as one type of hunger experienced by a household in which members are uncertain of having enough food because of insufficient resources.  In 2005, the USDA reported that North Carolina ranked higher than the national average for rates of both food insecurity (13.8%) and prevalence of hunger (4.9%). Those rates had increased significantly from previous reports.

In May 2008 Maureen Berner, associate professor of public administration and government, was awarded a Seed Funding Grant by the UNC Center on Poverty, Work and Opportunity for the North Carolina Hunger Pilot Project. The project aims to create an accurate picture of hunger in the state by documenting and evaluating the prevalence of hunger and food insecurity. Berner, along with MPA graduate Sharon Paynter, who is now an assistant professor at East Carolina University; 2009 graduate Emily Anderson; and second-year student Allen Beckman, spent nearly a year studying food insecurity in North Carolina.

Like many anti-poverty campaigns, food assistance programs are government and charity-based services intended to be short-term solutions for crisis situations. In reality, many people seek regular assistance from food pantries, and the use of pantries has increased dramatically since 1980. Berner said, “I am particularly interested in how local governments and nonprofits such as food pantries are taking on more of the burden of providing a social safety net for our citizens.”

Size and Location of Food Pantries Vary Widely

Food banks often act as distributors of bulk donations to individual member agencies including shelters, assisted living facilities, soup kitchens, and senior centers, in addition to traditional pantries. The researchers have narrowed their focus to 40 traditional food pantries and members of the Food Bank of Central and Eastern North Carolina. Their findings reflect the wide range of pantries visited during their travels. Some of the pantries are large, with extensive operations that include many paid employees and volunteers assisting with operations and outreach. Other food pantries visited by the team have limited operating hours—often only a few hours a week—and rely on a small cadre of faithful volunteers for distribution. The location of these pantries varies widely too. In addition to warehouses, the team visited a pantry in a renovated tobacco barn, one in an old town hall, and one in a residential home.

The extensive travel across North Carolina was a particularly rewarding experience for Anderson. As a New York City native, she appreciated the opportunity to explore both urban and rural parts of the state and meet a diverse group of North Carolinians. “Food insecurity is a pressing and widespread issue,” she said, “not just for North Carolina, but for the country.”

An Aging Pool of Organizers, Volunteers, and Clients

Project researchers also found that a notably large number of pantry organizers, volunteers, and clients are elderly. This presents issues for pantries’ sustainability and raises flags about unmet social needs among the elderly. The pantries must compete for coveted and scarce donated food. The federal government’s supplement to this resource is based on the number of clients served, creating incentives to attract and retain clients. But dedication to serving people in need drives pantries to send clients to other locations, if necessary.

The Hunger Pilot Project has begun to attract the attention of various media, and Berner and her team are presenting findings at conferences and in publications, including a forthcoming book.

For more information about the Hunger Pilot Project, contact Maureen Berner at 919.843.8980 or mberner@sog.unc.edu.