As a child growing up in Western North Carolina, food was often a source of joy.
It was an opportunity to be with my grandmother, otherwise known as Maw, at her “meat and three” diner before school or over the summer. Amy’s Cafe, named for my grandmother, was bright purple, as if my Maw was determined to make up for the lack of originality in the name. The parking lot was gravel, video poker machines sat nestled next to the Coke in the back, and the walls carried a faint hint of cigarette smoke.
The food was the standout, next to my Maw’s personality. Back then she served up livermush, made-from-scratch biscuits, sausage gravy that I still dream of years later, and the best chili cheeseburger I have ever had come lunch time. Although I must acknowledge, those chili cheeseburgers made a damn fine breakfast too given my spoiled status as Maw’s first grandchild meant I could beg my way into one before school.
Food also served as a reminder for what we were missing. My birth mother, try as she might, was not always able to provide nutritious meals three times a day. But at school, I could count on a meal. As a child, food became an escape from the poverty I faced at times as I bounced from house to house.
Food offered an opportunity to bond with older folks in the community. I was taught to love tomato sandwich bit by bit, by an older gentleman, who I recall was an army veteran. I can still remember him, tanned to the verge of looking burnt, eating two tomato sandwiches each day for lunch. He always offered, and I always declined, until I dug in one day, and experienced the near religious experience of a fat, juicy tomato combined with Duke’s Mayo, salt and pepper, and Sunbeam.
Food later offered a chance to bond with my adopted parents, my great-uncle and aunt by birth, in the early morning hours around our breakfast nook. I fondly remember my Dad making livermush sandwiches, my Mom whipping up sausage gravy, or, on summer days when I was left to fend for myself, sopping up over easy eggs with lightly burnt toast.
The flavors of my past give me a sense of place. They remind me that I am from the mountain passes of Deep Gap and the pine trees of Piney. Those flavors remind me of the school cafeteria at Chesterfield Elementary School, the kind lunch staff of Happy Valley School, and the fried chicken sandwiches I had too often at Hibriten High School.
We are from North Carolina, sure, but we are also of it. Our community enjoys traipsing down dirt roads in search of great BBQ, ramp festivals, or apples just ready to pick.
The flavors of childhood — the stickiness of molasses at Sims BBQ in the woods outside of Lenoir or the burst of juice from biting into my great-grandmother’s blueberries — and the memories that come along with them are still with me as I pursue my work today.
I wear two hats on a daily basis.
By day I am the Chief Growth Officer of EdNC.org. I focused on fundraising, platform development, and content creation around adversity in childhood, hunger within our schools, and nutrition.
I am also the Co-Founder and President of the Jamie Kirk Hahn Foundation, named after my late wife who was violently ripped from us over three years ago. The foundation focuses on investing in leadership development, elevating the voices of those who are often left out of the conversation, and investing in emerging solutions.
Both of these Raleigh-based projects remind me and my colleagues that too many of our students statewide are hungry and without access to nutritious food.
One in four of our children in North Carolina are food insecure and lack consistent access to adequate food. More than 50 percent of our public school children are eligible for free and reduced price lunch. For children in the free lunch program, this means if they live in a three person home, the combined household does not exceed $26,116 — or 130% of the federal poverty threshold.
Ask any teacher, it is really hard for students to focus on learning if they are hungry. I have heard from teachers who witness profound differences in food-insecure students when they had a chance to eat. I have been told of kids from large families who take turns to eat. Take turns. In one of the wealthiest and economically developed countries in the world.
We can do better.
For many North Carolina counties, the largest commercial kitchens and, the largest pre-existing food delivery systems are in public schools. In recent years, we’ve seen remarkable innovations from organizations like Working Landscapes in Warren County that are attempting to tie school cafeterias closer to the local communities and food sources, instead of only using large-scale suppliers.
Working Landscapes is building a resilient local economy focused around the local assets of farms, forests, and the waterways. In 2015, they launched the Chopped Produce Initiative in an effort to get vegetables grown by local farmers into Warren County schools. They have also created the Warren County Produce Center which helps process and chop vegetables, helped multiple Warren County farmers receive Good Agricultural Practices certification so they can grow produce for the schools, and helped place the farmers’ collard greens and cabbage into nine school districts, three child care centers, and one university.
Jim Keaten, the head of School Nutrition for Durham Public Schools, is leading the effort to change how we think about food and school in Durham County. Keaten, one of eight children, grew up in a poor, occasionally hungry household in Maine. He vividly recalls the “stigma and embarrassment” of being one of “those kids” who had to eat school cafeteria breakfast in order to have a full stomach when he showed up to class.
He has stewarded a number of alternative breakfast options — including universal breakfast programs and snack packs as a grab-and-go breakfast— that attempt to remove stigma from school breakfasts. He strives to make sure no child goes hungry, while also working to improve overall nutrition and taste of school food.
Hunger transcends the school-calendar year, and rural districts face a tremendous issues addressing food insecurity when students are out of school for the summer. Federal subsidies are available for our schools, nonprofits, and faith-based organizations to meet the need, yet often times they go underutilized, in part, because transportation often hard to come by. Some districts are meeting the challenge with resourcefulness. The folks at Rowan-Salisbury schools are taking the food on the road. With funding from No Kid Hungry North Carolina, the district has by repurposed school buses into food delivery vehicles.
Other states, like Oregon, have risen risen to the challenge and instituted a Summer Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) program which provides an additional food subsidy to families on a per child basis over the summer. North Carolina could learn from them.
In that vein, EdNC, in partnership with the Jamie Kirk Hahn Foundation, Terra Vita Festival, the Bitter Southerner, and UNC Food for All, will host the inaugural Carolina Food Summit on September 28 and 29.
Food is fundamental, and it’s a part of all our stories; the summit will celebrate that fact and explore the challenges facing our state and our children, and perhaps more importantly the opportunities, as we connect with one another.
Over the course of two days, we will seek to answer how do we ensure that the lives of all North Carolinians are enriched daily by a vibrant local food economy that fosters health, flavor, culture, and entrepreneurship by exploring five themes: Hunger, Change, Flavor, Policy, and Sustainability.
The agenda features conversations with UNC food scholar Marcie Ferris, Chef Clark Barlowe of Heirloom, Chuck Reece of the Bitter Southerner, Wyatt Dickson of PICNIC, Sam Jones of Skylight Inn Barbecue, Bill Smith of Crook's Corner, CNN Hero Richard Joyner, and Vansana Nolintha of Bida Manda.
Every child deserves a joyful relationship with food. Whether or not you’ve faced hunger in your life, attending the summit will help you better understand the challenges of hunger in our state that far too many of our students know.
For more information or to purchase tickets, please visit Carolina Food Summit.