Why one of the nation’s breadbaskets is also its unlikeliest food desert

A deserted store near Beaufort, N.C. Photo by Kate Medley.

Eastern North Carolina is a flat, low-lying stretch of land that begins at the Atlantic Ocean and ends more than a hundred miles west, where a fall line marks the boundary between the east’s soft, rich soil and the red clay of the central piedmont landscape. Drive through the region in the summer and it’s easy to become lulled by the particular pulse of its rural rhythms. Unprecedented explosions in industry, population, and urban growth have changed the physical and economic landscape in other parts of North Carolina, but the aftershocks of those seismic shifts have yet to be felt in the state’s eastern counties. Here, the demarcations of a deeply-held agricultural identity remain apparent. Large swaths of these lands, described by early British settlers as the “goodliest soil under the cope of heaven,” have been turned into carefully tended crop fields, the plants growing low and green, baking in the famously hot summer sun. Slight, modest homes punctuate the plane. Outbuildings, small wooded areas, and the occasional cluster of commercial buildings, big box stores, and restaurant chains materialize every so often around highway off-ramps and country road intersections.

Less obvious are the large swaths of acreages cordoned into industrial farms, their sometimes hazardous processing plants tucked neatly from view of the road. Bolstered by the help of large-scale machinery, commercial seed, and fertilizers, what was a once a swampy shallow has been transformed into one of the most powerfully productive agricultural areas to compete on the world’s stage. Here and there, hand-painted signs for fruit and vegetable stands, and “pick your own” harvesting experiences, still appear with some regularity. More common, though, are the large, bright billboards that cheekily declare the proximity of fast food retailers, pork barbecue joints, and the virtues of the North Carolina economy. Nothing Compares, the state’s advertisements proclaim. That slogan is, with little exception, the truth: in terms not just of the extraordinary volume of food the region produces––but of the number of residents who are chronically hungry, too.


Despite an agricultural industry that accounts for more than 17 percent of state income, the organization Feeding America estimates between 17 and 25 percent of Eastern North Carolina residents are “food insecure.” This means they lacked access to enough healthy, nutritional food at some point in a given year. In 2014, the U.S. Department of Agriculture reported that North Carolina was one of the five worst states for hunger levels among both adults and children in the nation, with roughly 160,000 residents receiving emergency food assistance in a given week, and one out of every six adults, and one out of every four children, suffering from hunger and malnutrition.

For those who have preconceived notions about what kinds of Americans are hungry, those numbers may come as a surprise. Both the media and the public often conceive of food insecurity as close kin to extreme poverty: the direct result of long-term joblessness or homelessness among disadvantaged city dwellers. “The common stereotype is ‘urban homeless,’” says Alan Briggs, Executive Director of the North Carolina Association of Feeding America Food Banks.

But hunger can be prevalent among rural populations and in socioeconomic spheres less visibly dire.

“A lot of the population that rely on food pantries are working poor,” explains Liz Reasoner, Executive Director of Food Bank of the Albemarle. “[This] region of North Carolina is heavily reliant on service, hospitality, and leisure jobs triggered by tourism… it’s seasonal, so it asks for an influx of employees for only part of the year.” In the off-season, those working poor join the ranks of local “seniors…the unemployed, the unemployable, [the] disabled, uneducated,” who regularly rely on her food bank’s more than six million pounds of distributed food a year. “It’s incredible,” she adds, “but it’s only half of what we should be doing in order to meet the demand today.”

Misconceptions about what it means to look hungry can skew Americans’ understanding of the issue, too. In a 2010 article for the New York Times entitled “The Obesity-Hunger Paradox,” journalist Sam Dolnick wrote that, “When most people think of hunger in America, the images that leap to mind are of… rail-thin children in dingy apartments reaching for empty bottles of milk.”

Common beliefs about malnourishment––that it leads to weight loss for instance––have remained doggedly popular despite widespread evidence of their inaccuracy. Jodi Phelps, Agency Advancement Director of an anti-poverty agency that runs the Second Harvest Food Bank of Southeast North Carolina, says that contrary to stereotype, “One of the things we recognized over the last several years is the correlation between food insecurity and chronic health problems.” The low-income and food insecure, she explains, “suffer from high diabetes, heart disease, malnutrition, and obesity,” illnesses that have been identified by public health experts as particularly difficult in Eastern North Carolina.

Combating stereotypes is a perennial challenge, says Briggs. “There is no face of hunger…when we have 1.8 million people experiencing food insecurity, there is no stereotype that expresses the width and breadth of the issue.” He adds that it is exactly because hunger doesn’t stand out in the ways Americans expect that, “It shocks people when they see how pervasive it is.”

Long-time hunger and poverty researcher Dr. Maureen Berner, Professor of Public Administration and Government at the University of North Carolina’s School of Government says she believes that with more attention being paid to the issue, “There’s [an] opportunity to change the nature of the conversation away from, ‘Oh this is just an issue that affects that neighborhood or those people.’ [Y]ou start realizing that it’s in almost every neighborhood, and affects almost all people in different ways.”

But even with the acknowledgement that hunger is more widespread than commonly understood, it seems counter-intuitive that the same stretch of fertile soil could host millions of pounds of food and hundreds of thousands of hungry people, at least without the issue quickly resolving itself. What keeps local food from its malnourished neighbors? Who benefits from the wealth it generates? And at a time when city communities are combating food scarcity with abandoned-plot gardens and back-alley farms, why don’t rural populations in North Carolina use the fruitful environment to their advantage and grow what they need to survive?


Reverend Richard Joyner knows a lot about poverty in Eastern North Carolina. Born into a sharecropping family of thirteen in Pitt County, North Carolina, Joyner has become a regional celebrity in the last few years, recently recognized as a CNN Hometown Hero for his work addressing the economic, physical, and spiritual needs of his parishioners in the tiny (less than 300-person) town of Conetoe, in Edgecombe County. When he first came to Conetoe, he was asked to attend to more than 30 funerals for people who had died under the age of 35. Nearly all of the deceased had mortally suffered from hunger and obesity-related illnesses. The issue, he says, was that even when residents had the best intentions, many simply could not access fresh and affordable vegetables. “The nearest supermarket was ten miles away in a Walmart. There was a [local] corner store that had canned food––sometimes out-of-date canned food. Nothing that wasn’t packed with sodium. The prices were high and the food was terrible, it was unhealthy. Most of the sales out of that store were alcoholic beverages and soda,” he explains.

Michael Binger, the North Carolina Regional Director of the Society of St. Andrew, a faith-based anti-hunger organization, says the fundamental problem is food distribution. In addition to locating grocery stores miles away from rural residents, “We throw away enough food away in the United States to feed every person. Not every hungry person. Every person.”

By some estimates, nearly 100 million pounds of produce is thrown away or left to rot on the vine for cosmetic reasons. “Any perceived imperfection [in a vegetable], grocery stores and restaurants won’t buy it, so the farmer won’t sell it. What is their recourse? In most cases, it’s to throw it away,” says Binger. He relates that one vendor throws away “half a million cucumbers a year, because they are curved and not straight,” but adds that to local farmers, waste can make more sense than inviting locals onto fields or giving imperfect food away. “Farmers are concerned about liability, the liability of having people on their farms. [They] wonder if someone were to believe their produce gave them food poisoning,” if they would be held responsible. Further, Binger adds, with the growth of large, industrial farms, even those who do invite their neighbors to glean what’s left of the harvest only end up helping “ten to fifteen families that are nearby…[I]t doesn’t answer the larger systemic distribution problem,” he says.

In an effort to effect broader change, many food bank and anti-hunger organizations report that they are working at a variety of points along the food distribution pipeline, hoping to re-channel portions of the fresh produce Eastern North Carolina grows back towards the rural areas from which it is sourced. “It’s frustrating,” relates Alan Briggs. “The [bread] line isn’t shortening. We’ve been at this thirty years and we aren’t ending hunger in our lifetime. We want to partner with other folks and use our strength and size to shorten the line,” he says. His Farm to Food Banks program, and many others, works with commodity groups and growers to re-channel 120 million pounds of fresh produce in North Carolina that went un-harvested or unsold because it was deemed imperfect for the market.

But even after the produce has been re-channeled away from supermarkets or landfills, it is proving difficult for many agencies to transform systems historically meant for dispensing shelf-stable canned goods into distribution centers for fresh but perishable vegetables. Briggs explains, “It’s one thing to set aside the canned goods that are approaching their sell-by date and wait to get our truck there, but setting aside produce, [you] only have a 24-hour window for when we can get it there and get it out.” The sheer logistics of moving fresh items is daunting, he says, and even once he has picked up the food, “We may have freezer space and coolers in our warehouses but we have 2,500 pantry partners where feeding takes place. Their capacity is very different. They don’t have resources, they might not have a cooler, much less a freezer,” and that’s to say nothing of people’s ability to store food safely once they bring it home.


More than ten years ago, Reverend Joyner decided to address the death, illness and malnutrition he saw in Conetoe, but he wanted to sidestep the issues that plague larger-scale anti-hunger efforts. “Hunger is really oppressive and destructive. When one feels that they don’t have capabilities to provide for themselves or for their family, it takes away from a person. [It doesn’t make sense] to live in a system that declares a community a food desert, that tells individuals that they can’t have healthy food unless it’s in a store that imports that food from outside your community, particularly when they are living with hundreds of acres of land around them and multiple opportunities for seeds” he says. He began an effort called the Conetoe Family Life Center, a program that teaches low-income children and their families how to grow food, cook, and eat nutritionally through local community gardens. What ten years ago began as a two-acre plot of land has grown to five large-scale farming sites, including a 25-acre plot with two green houses and a “bee bus” that encourages pollination and provides honey. Reverend Joyner makes it a point to allow anyone who is hungry to eat from the garden for free, and last year, he reports that half of the more than 50,000 pounds of fresh, organic vegetables they grew went to feeding hungry families.

“We had so few resources,” he says, “we came up with [a program] that was not based on money, but on the power of relationships to create resources. That’s when the garden became of our focus. We could grow more food than we could purchase, and at the same time build our human skills and our relationships.” Now he says, the garden is a space for community healing and togetherness. “Anyone can eat whether they plant or don’t. It’s a social garden, it’s for the community. It’s where we meet, harvest, plant, and play. Anyone that wants can receive out of it. We are able to supply all the food we need for our social outings, our funerals, and we are able to donate food and still sell food, too,” he says.

When one looks at the wealth that is generated from Eastern North Carolina agriculture, it’s hard to imagine community members in Conetoe having so little to begin with. According to 2012 census data, farm sales alone totaled $12.5 billion dollars, and that same year four of the top five most productive counties in North Carolina were in the Inner Coastal Plain. And yet, anti-hunger advocates like Dr. Maureen Berner are adamant that the poverty we are seeing has been increasing since the mid-1990s. “[It] is not a recession-generated bump and it’s not a bump that’s going to go away,” she cautions. “There has been a decline in median income across the state in the last decade.” Agriculture might be making the state wealthy, but that wealth isn’t distributed equally among Eastern North Carolinians.

Identifying the cause of that income inequality, though, is complex. Talk to sources working on the issue, and they will each blame a different specific economic event for the vast (and rapidly growing) number of hungry, poor people in North Carolina today. The recession in 2008, the loss of industrial and textile manufacturing in the 1990s, the decline of tobacco and cotton since the mid-20th century, each touted (depending on who you ask) as the singular reason for the memorable, dramatic shifts in the health and well-being of rural populations in this part of the state. Among rural populations, perennial poverty is also often traced to the consolidation of family farms, the increasingly mechanized and industrialized nature of agriculture, and the dismal economics of working the fields when you aren’t the one that owns them.

According to the North Carolina Department of Agriculture, in 1984 there were 79,000 farms, with an average size of 139 acres. By 2004, the number of farms had fallen to 52,000, with an average size of 173 acres. Increased international competition and the end of the federal government’s tobacco subsidy program has humbled once-mighty cash crops like cotton and tobacco in North Carolina, led to farm consolidation, and left farmers more desperate for quick-fix agricultural commodities that will give them the returns they used to regularly enjoy. “The scale [of farming] has shifted to much, much larger acreage, with more investment required of land and equipment. Bigger is now a necessity in terms of agriculture,” says Alan Briggs. “The loss of tobacco income for so much of rural North Carolina…you’ve seen a shift now for folks in agriculture [towards] hog farming and other commodities,” he continues. “The pressure of growth in the last century made it profitable to look at soybeans, crops like that, more than dinner-ready vegetables and fruits.”

Bigger farms with fewer owners means that rural Eastern North Carolinians, already faced with the loss of the textile and tobacco jobs, are also less likely to find work on a farm. Advocates say that with automation involved, fewer Eastern North Carolinians have to be employed for the agricultural sector to grow. “We lost the textiles that used to be here, and then then we lost the farm work after it was mechanized by big machines,” says Reverend Joyner. “We lost the self-empowerment that comes along with that work. We were faced with living in poverty without having a lot to respond with,” he says.

For those that do find employment as seasonal workers or day laborers, the industry offers few long-term rewards. While manufacturing and other labor groups have benefited from a century of organized reform efforts, the agricultural industry and its allies in the state and federal government have largely kept farm work excluded from regulation. As state lawmakers continue to subsidize and support industrial farming, most recently passing a controversial anti-whistleblower “ag-gag” bill, many seasonal farm workers and migrant laborers are forced to suffer low wages, dangerous working conditions, and few opportunities for advancement. “The population that picks all of our food is one of the most chronically hungry in the state,” says Michael Binger. “What they pick is not for them. What they pick is their work, and they are not allowed to reap the benefits for themselves. They make their money on how much poundage they pick, so eating would take money out of their pockets.”

That problematic relationship between labor and agriculture may in part answer why the rural poor don’t grow their own food. Of course, for some, the physical nature of growing food is too difficult. In her anti-poverty work, Jodi Phelps reports that rural populations include many people who are homebound and disabled. They might not physically be able to grow their own food. Others, she reports, lack education. “Some people don’t understand that the sweet potato or yam comes out of the ground. For some people, all they’ve ever seen is food out of a box of out of a can. They don’t understand that you can grow it yourself…or even what to do with it once you have it.”

For those who clear those hurdles, the costs can still be too high. “If people are in the situation because they are having a hard time making ends meet, if they are struggling with affordable child care, if you are talking about a home garden model you are talking about people that may have no access or time to make it successful. We need to meet people where they are,” says Dr. Berner. “Costs associated with getting started can become a barrier,” agrees Michael Binger, adding that he has seen success with the Society of St. Andrew’s “Seed Potato Project” that distributes free seed potatoes to rural poor communities. “To folks that don’t have much but have an acre of land that they could be using to their advantage, we supply them with seed potatoes and teach them how to grow it and they can work to be self-sufficient. As they learn more about it, it becomes not just a way they can supply food for themselves, but maybe make a profit from it,” he says.

But all that pales, Reverend Joyner believes, when compared to the emotional and psychic pain that the history of slavery, sharecropping, and deliberate disenfranchisement has wreaked on the minds spirits of the poor in Eastern North Carolina. “Historically, the land has been a tool and place of oppression,” says Joyner. “Sharecropping was an unconscionable and painful form of extended slavery. People, Black people in particular, worked the land but didn’t get the benefit of the productivity of the land. Sharecropping was oppression. Those who even had farms could not get equal access to resources and equipment, the finances to farm the land. Their land, their labor, was stolen from them. We still have this huge disenfranchisement around land and the benefits from land productivity. Those inadequacies have yet to be addressed,” so the poverty and pain of that inequality keeps perpetuating itself, he says. Because the system continues to “victimize the victims,” people avoid what they associate with that struggle. Growing food, he explains, feels like a socioeconomic step backwards; a re-traumatizing reminder of a painful history of oppression.

The good news, Reverend Joyner says, is that if those psychic wounds can be addressed, the very act of growing food is healing in and of itself. “There is still pain from slavery, pain of hundreds of years of intolerance, pain of people oppressing others and living off of that privilege without any thought to where it came from,” he says. But, “you can be Black, White, anything you want to be and the soil does not discriminate. Anyone that nurtures the soil…drops a seed in the soil will get that seed’s return.” If you allow people the opportunity to address that history, to approach their relationship with growing things from a renewed perspective, he says, then the act of growing food is radically self-empowering. “To watch children have a different experience with soil than I had [as a sharecropper’s son] has given me back a new relationship to my own childhood. I live in celebration now, that I am not bound by the pain of those years,” he says.

He’s not the only one living better as a result of his gardening efforts, either. Since the garden began, Reverend Joyner says that he has seen a dramatic change in his community. People are healthier now, he reports, and the community is healing. “Hunger and scarcity is oppressive and destructive. It takes away from a person, and teaches them there’s not enough. To now know that we can provide for ourselves, reinvest in ourselves. That [by growing our own food] we can alleviate chronic illness, we can make our environment safer, we can educate our children. That’s empowerment, and that’s wealth for us,” he says, smiling. “The same land that they used to rob us with is the same land that gives us freedom now.”