Wednesday, April 24, 2013

UNCW VISTA grows a Feast in Wilmington food deserts

Erin O'Donnell, an NC Campus Compact VISTA at UNCW, loves building relationships with people in the community. But at the moment, she is very excited about a machine.

After months of work navigating USDA and FIS regulations, permitting, and paperwork, Erin acquired an EBT machine for use at Feast Down East's mobile fresh market. "When it finally came (in March), I had to take a picture!" she confessed. EBT, or "electronic benefits transfer," enables an approved vendor to accept SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) benefits, also known
Erin's EBT machine!
as food stamps.

Feast Down East, an organization that supports the growth of a local food system in the Wilmington area by connecting low-resource farmers with new markets, holds a fresh market every Friday in the public housing neighborhood Rankin Terrance. As a VISTA, Erin manages and publicizes the market, recruits and trains local residents to staff it, and develops nutrition education and other programs that supplement the Feast Down East mission of bringing healthy eating to food deserts. She also wrangles with federal bureaucracies when she has to.

"When I was going through the process (of applying for an EBT machine) I joked that I could write a novel," Erin quips. "But really I could write a trilogy."

The machine was first used at the April 5 market, and Erin expects more EBT transactions in the coming weeks as the weather warms and local produce is harvested. Erin has publicized the new payment option in the neighborhood with door hangers, and she is planning an "EBT celebration" on April 26 with music, games, and food samples to draw attention to the market and healthy eating.

Erin draws on her relationships with local residents and her training in public sociology to accomplish her work. Prior to becoming a VISTA, she studied with Feast Down East founder Leslie Hossfeld in UNCW's public sociology department, working with local residents to create a leadership development program. Erin also served as coordinator of the WHA-UNCW community campus, a joint project of the university and the Wilmington Housing Authority. "I was involved in this community for 1 1/2 years before I started as a VISTA," Erin explains, "so VISTA was a chance for me to continue my work with WHA."(Read a 2011 article Erin co-authored on the partnership.)

Erin (UNCW shirt) with other national service members on MLK Day.
Since her VISTA service began in November, Erin says she has grown "in ways I didn't expect. At first, I guess I wasn't really 'sold' on the idea of food deserts as a problem that could really exist." But, after living and working with people in an area "where it is really difficult to get food on their plates," what had been "an invisible problem" became very apparent. (See Erin talk about Wilmington food deserts.)

Her time working with Feast Down East has also raised her awareness of the intricacies of developing a local food system. Her work with the mobile market, she says, makes her "feel like I'm a pioneer," by helping to provide a new opportunity to residents. She's met many people who are experts in food systems and sustainable agriculture, including at Feast Down East's regional conference on March 1, which brought together farmers, institutional buyers and consumers (including folks from Rankin Terrace) for a day of workshops on such topics that ranged from consumer spending habits to mushroom cultivation.

A native of Fuquay-Varina, NC, Erin plans to stay in the Wilmington area once her VISTA service ends and she finishes her master's thesis - on using leadership development to build community capacity - in December. "It's nerve-wracking, what's going on with budgets," she says of public service employment prospects. But she is confident she'll find new ways to serve.