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Campus forum explores issue of hunger

A panel of experts heard from community members and students Tuesday night as ideas were shared for more effectively serving those confronting food insecurity and hunger in Alamance County.

United Way of Alamance County President Heidi Norwick anwsers questions from the audience during a March 31 "Community Connections" forum sponsored by the Times-News and Elon University. (Photo by Steven Mantilla/The Times-News)

From mobile food banks to cooking lessons, members of the Elon University and broader Alamance County communities offered observations and suggestions Tuesday night at a campus forum focused on addressing hunger across the region.

The "Community Connections" forum in McKinnon Hall on March 31, 2015, brought together about 100 people for a question-and-answer exchange that was both creative and heartwrenching as nonprofit leaders, local school teachers and others shared stories of the damage hunger inflicts on impoverished children, the elderly and the homeless.

The four panelists were:

  • Kim Crawford, Executive Director, Allied Churches of Alamance County
  • Heidi Norwick, Executive Director, United Way of Alamance County
  • Linda Allison, Deputy Director, Alamance County Department of Social Services
  • Svetlana Nepocatych, Assistant Professor of Exercise Science, Elon University

​Nineteen percent of Alamance County citizens are considered food insecure, higher than the national average of 14.3 percent. More than half of all students in Alamance County were eligible for free and reduced price school lunches in 2011, and close to 21,000 residents receive food stamp benefits.

And North Carolina ranks 10th in the nation for food hardship.

Despite the challenges, panelists agreed that Alamance County is a very charitable community, especially after the largest food bank in the county closed suddenly in 2013. “This is one of the most giving communities,” Allison said. “After the crisis of 2013, we just had so many step up. We had churches that had never been involved in food pantries say, ‘OK, what should we be doing?’”

Conversations about hunger are also starting to change. A greater emphasis is being place on teaching people about nutrition and ways to cook the variety of food now available to those in need. 

“If we start providing different types of foods, we also have to provide education,” Nepocatych said. “We can’t just provide the lentils or chickpeas. People won’t always know what to do with them.”

Nor does the issue of hunger exist in a vacuum. There are other social ills that accompany food insecurity, and for children who go hungry, the stakes are high. Malnutrition harms academic performance and often hampers future career prospects, which continues the cycle of poverty.

“Can you imagine going to school hungry? Or that you’re moving around, and you don't have  a permanent home?” Norwick said. “How you can be successful in school?”

For Crawford, there's hope to be found in the way community members are beginning to talk about hunger. A broader focus on education, coupled with a more concerted approach to what types of food are distributed, signal potential improvements in the delivery of services.

“What’s important is that the conversation is starting to change here in Alamance County,” Crawford said. “It’s not where we’d like it to be, but we’re starting to have these conversations.”

The Tuesday night forum was the last of three “Community Connections” events planned for the 2014-15 academic year. Sponsored by Elon University and the (Burlington, N.C.) Times-News, the forums afford an opportunity for the campus and surrounding Alamance County communities to create thoughtful dialogue on critical issues facing the region.

Previous forums have explored health care, gun violence and education, among other topics.

“We hope the audience takes away an understanding that the issue of hunger is much more complicated than you might think,” said Assistant Professor Jason Husser, Elon’s Faculty Fellow for Civic Engagement and the program moderator. “This is a tough issue, and I’m sure we can all agree - because you all came here - that this is important.”

 

Eric Townsend,
Staff
4/1/2015 3:20 PM