According to the nonprofit organization Feeding America, food insecurity is an issue that affects every county and congressional district throughout the U.S. This means many people lack reliable access to affordable, nutritious food.
This includes North Carolina, where a reported 1.6 million people are food insecure.
To combat this issue, YMCA of Western North Carolina decided to step up to fill some of this gap. In 2013, it created a nutrition department that’s mission is to distribute healthy foods, teach nutrition habits and provide cooking demonstrations throughout its local communities.
A great example of this mission is the mobile markets program, a mobile food pantry that provides community members with access to free fresh foods, no questions asked.
“We decided to go mobile to meet people where they are, because transportation can be a huge financial burden for families,” explained Lauren Furgiuele, the nutrition manager at YMCA of Western North Carolina.
The program operates 32 markets a month, with 20 locations, including in four public housing communities. The response from the community has been extremely positive, said Furgiuele.
“A lot of the folks we see are also going to other pantries in the area, and oftentimes they’re receiving canned goods or things that just aren’t fresh from those other facilities,” added Furgiuele. “So they get really excited to have the opportunity to access things that are in season and taste really good. We also try to make it more of this fun environment, rather than something they should feel embarrassed about.”
In addition to offering fresh foods, the program takes an educational approach, providing healthy recipes and introducing people to new foods or healthier ways to prepare foods. As a result, “they can feel more empowered to be successful in their own home with the foods that we’re providing them at the market,” said Furgiuele.
Whether it’s a mobile market, cooking classes or nutrition counseling, Furgiuele explained it’s important for community recreation centers to offer programs that meet the needs of those seeking access to or education on proper nutrition. “I think we all can agree that nutrition plays such a huge role in the health of our bodies, minds and lives, and so really putting a much bigger focus on that can be really important,” she said.
Bonus Tip: According to Furgiuele, the decision to form a nutrition department has been vital to the YMCA of Western North Carolina’s mission to serve its communities. “Creating our own department, we’ve created our own vision,” she said. “To have more people on our team advocating for why initiatives are so important, both within our association and out within the community, we’re able to reach a lot more people and grow a lot more quickly than when we were operating on our own. It gives us the opportunity to grow and do a lot more work. We all work very well and close together, so we’re able to be more innovative with more brains working together in the same room.”