Hidden behind Brunswick County’s thriving tourism industry and wealthy Wilmington spillover is an ongoing cycle of hunger and food insecurity among residents.
That was the topic of discussion at a recent community forum by Carolina Public Press at Brunswick Community College.
Brunswick County was one of five counties Carolina Public Press investigated as part of a yearlong journalism project on hunger in rural North Carolina.
North Carolina Justice Center policy advocate Heba Atwa said that in Brunswick County, one in six people are hungry.
Emily Kraft, benefits outreach manager for the Food Bank of Wilmington, added that food insecurity affects all genders, ages and races. She explained common situations she sees are people who lose a spouse and do not earn enough to live on their own, or retirees who unexpectedly have to raise their grandchildren on fixed incomes.
“So often, the narrative that gets told is people who are hungry aren’t trying hard enough,” said Stephanie Carson, news and community partnership manager at Carolina Public Press.
While the county faces many of the national economic issues, panelists pointed out some of the area’s unique challenges, such as a lack of public transit, rising housing prices and a tourism industry that can contribute to the hardships of living in poverty.
Kraft explained people are often caught in a cycle in tourist counties. During the
offseason, workers are out of a job and cannot afford a place to live. When it’s summer, people are making enough money to afford a place, but those places are usually taken by vacationers.
Plus, it is becoming increasingly difficult for natives to afford to live in the area as Wilmington spills into Leland and more newcomers — especially retirees — relocate to the coast.
“It’s an affordable place for them (newcomers) to live, but at the same time that’s bringing prices up,” Kraft said.
A lack of transportation and infrastructure also prevents people from obtaining groceries or finding and keeping jobs, explained Kraft.
All of these factors also have an affect on kids. In Brunswick County 23% of the hungry are children, said Tamara Cox Baker, project and communications director at No Kid Hungry. Sixty-six percent of public school students are eligible for free or reduced-price lunches, she added.
“It is now the majority, but yet there are a lot of stigmas associated with the children actually participating in those meals,” Baker said.
This year, Brunswick County schools entered the Community Eligible Provision Program, which provides all students free lunch and breakfast without having to fill out any paperwork. Still, some students will not take those meals.
Baker said in the most recent data, just 40% of eligible children were eating breakfast.
She described how, in some schools, kids must choose between the “walk of shame,” to the cafeteria or joining the other students as they head elsewhere to enjoy free time before the bell rings.
“That really is a divide that we should never put a child through,” said Baker.
No Kid Hungry recommends schools serve breakfast after the bell rings. The state board of education and governor recently signed a resolution stating that breakfast should be part of the instructional day, preferably served in the classroom.
Baker said that since 2015, cafeterias are serving healthier meals with more grains and less sugar. She advises families to have their children eat food from the cafeteria instead of bringing a lunch box: the more kids that go through the lunch line, the less stigma there is.