Jan. 24—LUMBERTON — Southern Carolina Housing is one of five organizations selected by the national Rural Child Hunger Research and Innovation Lab to receive $100,000 in funding and additional support.
The funding is to be used to develop innovative food access programming to Robeson County housing authority communities, where traditional groceries and fresh food are hard to access. Led by community organizations across five states, the projects have been selected and funded by Save the Children's newly-launched Rural Child Hunger Research and Innovation Lab, and will begin implementation in the coming months.
"We are thankful for this opportunity to not only help public housing residents, but we will be able to help combat food insecurities within the county as a whole — improving the quality of life for our residents and the place they call home," said Colton Allen Oxendine, a Resident Services director representing Southern Carolina Housing.
A nonprofit of the Lumberton's Housing Authority, Southern Carolina Housing has been awarded the funding and ongoing support to develop a mobile pantry that will distribute fresh, affordable groceries to housing authority communities in the county, which will be initiated through a pay-what-you-can mobile service.
Southern Carolina Housing was established by the Lumberton Housing Authority to offer its residents assistance exceeding that of housing.
"We decided as a housing authority that we needed to give back whether that be education, whether that be food, whether that be pretty much anything to get them off where they're at on their own," Oxendine said.
"I hate to hear that we have children that are going without food so I put my heart and soul into this so that we can get this started and actually make an impact not only in our community as a Housing Authority but in the county," he added.
It was during a conversation with Cathy Hunt, a grant facilitator for UNC Health Southeastern, that Oxendine decided to pursue funding that would address food insecurity among housing authority residents.
"We talked and said we need to look for a grant and do something completely different than what everyone else is doing," Oxendine said.
Oxendine said that some Lumberton Housing Authority residents have walked up to two miles in rain, heat or cold weather to get groceries.
"We want to be able to take this [bus] and be able to go to their doorstep," Oxendine said.
The idea of the mobile food pantry is to partner with Walmart, Food Lion and farmers throughout Robeson County to bring fresh produce, meat and dairy items to the doors of Lumberton Housing Authority residents. The pantry will be equipped with freezers and refrigerators to house these food items.
"We don't want it to be just like a gas station where they can get chips, where they can get something to drink. We want it to be healthy food ... We all know that people who are in poverty, the food that they can actually afford is not fruits and vegetables. It's corn syrup and corn starch," Oxendine said.
Acting on a pay-what-you-can base, the mobile pantry will be flexible for residents who are struggling to make ends meet, Oxendine said. An example of this is when Oxendine came into contact with a mother living with three kids. She had food stamps but was expected to stretch about $50 worth over the next month.
"$50 in food is not going to get them by until next month," Oxendine said.
This is why the pay-what-you-can method is pivotal, Oxendine said.
"We're going to be able to accept debit, credit and food stamps and if we do have one of those situations where it's pay-as-you-can, we'll work with them the best that we can and make sure they have fresh food," Oxendine said.
Nearly 90% of counties with the highest food insecurity rates are rural, and one in five rural children are facing hunger, according to Save the Children. The Innovation Lab was launched this past fall, to "cultivate game-changing ideas into large-scale solutions that work to eliminate child hunger across rural America, ensuring kids have regular access to nourishing food."
At the time of the September launch, Save the Children initiated the Lab's first annual open call for innovative ideas from community organizations across the country. The five selected community organizations — or 2023 lab grantees — were chosen after more than 100 organizations expressed interest in participating.
"Geographic isolation, lack of transportation, and limited access to stores with fresh food are making it very difficult for many rural families to give their children the nutritious meals they need to grow and develop," said Betsy Zorio, vice president of U.S. Programs for Save the Children. "Rural community organizations and leaders across the country are rising to meet the challenge of food insecurity in their communities every day. With the Rural Child Hunger Research and Innovation Lab, Save the Children wants to inspire and embolden these organizations and leaders, to help make food more accessible, affordable and dignified for rural families nationwide. We are excited to bring the inventive ideas of the 2023 lab grantees to life, to help ensure rural America's kids get the nourishing food they need to thrive as learners and in life."
The Innovation Lab grant recipients will gather for a three-day incubation workshop this week, in Waco, Texas, to help refine their ideas before they begin implementing the programming in the coming months. They will also receive ongoing support from a team specialized in rural child hunger, and a community of peers addressing similar challenges.
"They're going to guide us year by year ... We don't want this to be a one-year thing," Oxendine said.
The Innovation Lab will initiate its next annual open call for innovative ideas later this year. To learn more, go to www.RuralHungerInnovation.org.
Tomeka Sinclair can be reached at email@example.com or 910-416-5865.