This summer, thanks to Chapel Hill Mayor Pam Hemminger, the InterFaith Council for Social Service, No Kid Hungry NC, the Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools, and with funding from UNC’s Food for All, our community launched an effort to provide lunches to as many of the 30 percent of children who qualify for free and reduced meals during the school year as possible.
The program, which started June 13 and will end August 26, has 40 meal sites throughout Carrboro and Chapel Hill, 12 of which are open to any child, 18 years or younger, Other sites include summer school programs and summer camps where registration is required. Meals are prepared five days a week at McDougle, Northside, and Frank Porter Graham elementary schools. As of July 29, 40,686 meals had been served. By the end of August, 1,870 volunteer slots will have been filled by community members to prepare or deliver meals to children.
The success of the Food for the Summer program shows our community’s commitment to helping those in need. But while we work to treat the symptoms of poverty, we must also ask why – why are so many children in our affluent community in need of summer meals? How can we reduce those numbers? If as many people worked to address these questions as volunteered to bring meals to children, we might have far fewer children in need of summer meals.
Our problems are systemic – and require systemic solutions.
We know a lot about the answers to these questions, and what we can do about them. The inability to afford food is intimately tied to other factors related to poverty. When a family’s cost of living – how much things like housing and transportation cost – is high, paying for nutritious food is all the more challenging. When available jobs pay low wages, families struggle to pay for the basic goods they need to live. When educational opportunities are inequitable and do not adequately serve all communities and children, families face insurmountable obstacles to escaping poverty.
Consider some of these factors’ impacts here at home. According to the Orange County Affordable Housing Coalition, a family needs to earn $20.09/hour to pay the average Chapel Hill rent of $1,061 per month. With many jobs in our community paying lower than this rate, families must make choices between paying rent or putting food on the table. Since rent is nonnegotiable, food is often the cost that gets cut.
We also should acknowledge that poverty and race are closely linked. Structural racism, which normalizes the institutional processes and practices that advantage white people at the expense of people of color, continues to play a role in sustaining poverty. Our institutions prevent equitable access to education, housing, transportation, employment, health care, and other opportunities and resources. Only when we implement policies designed to overcome structural racism and account for the inequities it has promoted can we make real progress toward eradicating poverty.
We see evidence of structural racism and policy failures at all levels of government. Federal housing policy favors relatively wealthy Americans through homeowner tax credits while housing subsidies for low-income Americans fail to meet demand. The Orange County waitlist for housing vouchers is full. Zoning laws make it difficult to address our housing shortage, meaning the neediest among us bear higher housing costs or move farther away and take on higher transportation costs. Development patterns effectively require car ownership, another burden for lower-income individuals. Even in areas with public transportation, service is often limited and targeted primarily to serve university students and employees.
We can implement solutions today.
Addressing systemic issues requires policy change at all levels of government. We can take action locally to address both the symptoms and the root causes. Local governments have authority over housing and transportation policies that can be tools for reducing poverty, if implemented appropriately. Community organizations and businesses can also be leaders for change.
Chapel Hill Transit has already taken steps to provide more equitable transit service. Using revenues from the Orange County transit tax, night and weekend service has been expanded to provide better service to those who work nights and weekends. This month, the HS route has been reconfigured to provide more frequent service to the Rogers Road neighborhood, a historically African American, lower-income neighborhood.
Local businesses and individuals can also provide support to initiatives aimed at fostering economic opportunities for people in need. The Community Empowerment Fund and El Centro Hispano have programs to connect workers with job opportunities. The Orange County Living Wage project has certified over 70 businesses, plus the town governments of Carrboro and Chapel Hill. By supporting these businesses, we can support a more inclusive and equitable economy.
We often express our commitment to providing equal opportunity for everyone. We have continually failed to live up to that promise. Solutions to true equality of opportunity are complex and interconnected across many areas of public policy. We have to acknowledge this interconnectedness and work to comprehensively change and improve our policies to make a lasting impact toward eradicating poverty.