Putting Food Back on the Table: Ada Jenkins’ Holistic Approach to Solving Food Insecurity

Scarcity. It is the fundamental economic problem of having unlimited wants and needs in a world of limited resources. For many of our neighbors in North Mecklenburg County, scarcity presents itself through food insecurity. Families struggling to make ends meet have incredible difficulty finding quality and affordable food on a limited budget, if they have any income at all. Food is the fuel needed to get through a normal day; lack of quality foods leads to poor nutrition habits, physical and mental health issues, and setbacks for children in school. At the Ada Jenkins Center, we address food insecurity holistically through our health, education, and human service programs.

When someone is food insecure, they are without reliable access to a sufficient quantity of affordable and nutritious foods. According to the Food Resource and Action Center (FRAC), 17.3% of North Carolina households were food insecure in February of last year. In Mecklenburg County, 18% of residents are food insecure. Many of these people have access to SNAP benefits, but transportation problems make it difficult to access full-service grocery stores. Take a look at this map; nearly all of the Food and Nutrition Services locations in Mecklenburg County are located well within the 485 loop.

 

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For the populations we serve, Food and Nutrition Services are often too far away or too expensive to reach by public transportation. Many of our client-partners have little choice but to shop elsewhere, such as a convenience store or fast food joint. The limited choices offered at these stores lead to poor nutrition and health problems. At Ada Jenkins, we eliminate barriers to access through our food pantry. We partner with Loaves and Fishes, the Davidson Community Garden, grocers, area houses of faith, and generous community members to offer quality choices for any family size.

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The Davidson Community Garden. Last year, volunteers harvested over 1500 pounds of food for our pantry. 

Once they have obtained a shopping referral, client-partners may visit the pantry once every forty-five days. We provide food for one week for the entire family, regardless of whether that’s a family of two or a family of eight. And we don’t just serve food; our pantry offers household goods as well! Toiletries, vehicle fluids, pet food, and various other supplies can be found on its shelves. We know that sometimes, life happens whether you trip over your own feet or have the rug pulled out from under you. We ensure that we’re offering products that can help weave a safety net for any given crisis.

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Ada Jenkins Pantry. A current list of most needed items can be found at adajenkins.org.

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Cannon School senior students painted this mural for the pantry’s waiting room.

 

When resources are scarce, oftentimes we don’t get to choose what we want to eat. Our pantry operates as a client-choice pantry; shopping for items is just like shopping in a grocery store. Trained volunteers shop one-on-one with client-partners, swapping recipes, building rapport and sharing good will.  Beans, potatoes, fresh produce and multiple grain options can generate a variety of different recipes. It is an honor and a privilege to provide these options, and especially healthy options, to client-partners. This year, we have expanded our Healthy Eating Initiatives program to encourage client-partners to make healthier choices. We offer a recipe bank, monthly food demonstrations, and AdaCooks!, a cooking class taught here at the Center in English and Spanish.

Research conducted in Mecklenburg County shows that access (or lack thereof) to quality food was closely related to health outcomes. Areas that are food insecure have higher rates of diabetes, heart disease, and other health problems. Some experiencing food insecurity are forced to make the difficult trade-off of food versus medical care; at Ada Jenkins, they don’t have to. Each Thursday night, hallways and offices transform into a full-service walk-in primary care clinic for uninsured and underinsured individuals in North Mecklenburg. Doctors, nurses, specialists, and college students volunteer their time to provide quality care to  patients. Community Health Nurses then coordinate with NC Medassist and local pharmacies to get patients the prescriptions they need at little to no cost. These cost savings allow families to reallocate funds in ways that are best for their individual needs.

Our goal is to help entire families build success and healthy habits; this is achieved through a multi-pronged approach as well. Many client-partners utilizing Ada’s services have a child or children in the LEARN Works after school enrichment program. Each year, we serve 125 elementary and middle school students who are referred to our program by a school teacher or administrator. All 125 students participate in our Healthy Eating curriculum, and many choose the popular Cooking and Organic Gardening clubs for their enrichment activity. A recent grant awarded by the Burt’s Bees Foundation will allow us to further expand the garden, create a solar-powered irrigation system, and build a small greenhouse.

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The LEARN Works organic garden. Expansions will begin in the next two months.

 

 

“What I like about the club is how much it teaches you about food,” says student James Drayton. “We also learn about leadership and how to help people.”

Would you like to help too? Support our efforts to combat food insecurity and its related health issues in North Meck. Here’s how you can be a part of the solution:

Donate. Donate pantry items or a few extra bucks to our food pantry. Get your neighbors involved in a community food drive and see how much of an impact you can make.

Advocate. We need help spreading our message! Come and take a tour of the Center and see what program or service area touches your heart the most. Tell others about what you’ve seen, and educate your friends and family about important issues facing our community.

Serve. Become a volunteer and work with our client-partners one-on-one. Develop relationships and carry those relationships out beyond the walls of this Center. Food may be scarce for some families in our area, but love doesn’t need to be.