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Food is medicine here, and a reminder to ‘eat the dang pie’

The Hunger and Health Coalition has been doing incredible work in Watauga County since 1982. But in the last eight years under the leadership of Elizabeth Young, the executive director, the coalition has become a model to address food and medication insecurity that could be replicated in communities across our state and our nation.

All photos Mebane Rash/EducationNC

This is a story about hunger and health. It is a story about partnerships and relationships. It is a story about serving our communities. But, most importantly, it is a story about leadership.

Hunger and health, by the numbers

To address hunger that is all too pervasive in Watauga County, the Hunger and Health Coalition offers a fresh market and food pantry year round.

In 2021-22, the coalition served 10,567 individuals, including 405 new clients.

They served 104,913 meals.

They distributed 250,229 pounds of produce.

There were 14,029 visits to the coalition’s pharmacy, with a monetary value of all prescriptions totaling $1,293,232.79. The most common medicines include inhalers, insulin, antibiotics, and blood pressure medication.

The coalition made food and prescription deliveries to 1,616 clients.

The coalition distributed 3,362 backpacks to students with foods for weekends and breaks.

Yolanda Adams is the family resource coordinator for Watauga County Schools and co-founder of Q’Pasa Appalachia.

Nutrition counseling with a registered dietician and nutritionist, firewood, children’s mattresses, and pet food are also provided.

Partnering with doctors, building relationships with local farmers

A food prescription

At doctor’s offices across Watauga County, patients are screened for chronic health issues, food insecurity, and prescription assistance using this prescription pad. Here is additional research on nutrition screening.

Patients are then referred to the Hunger and Health Coalition if needed. The coalition is integrated with statewide electronic health records. Each day, HIPAA-compliant data is uploaded by providers, including the coalition, and then is used collectively to inform future care.

This information allows the coalition to medically tailor the food that is provided to clients.

Investing in growers

The coalition invests in local farmers, who tailor crops to the needs of those served. This is Full Moon Farm, located just eight miles from the coalition. Karen Fulton, one of the owners, says working with the coalition helped her diversify where she sells food. “It’s a really great business model for us,” she says.

Juan Carlos Rivera, community outreach coordinator, and Jenn Bass, acting executive director, talk about the importance of local farms to the work of the coalition.

Serving the community

The coalition holds cookouts to foster community, known locally as “grill and chill.”

“Just come over, hang out, and we get to hear what’s going on in the neighborhoods and hollars in the mountains. It’s really fun to come together, hear their stories, what might be going on, any housing issues that they have,” says Jenn Bass, the coalition’s acting executive director.

‘Eat the dang pie’

As we walked into the fresh produce pantry, we noticed a few not-so-healthy indulgences. Bass says, “life is all about balance,” quickly adding that 95% of the food boxes are healthy, and that “one of Elizabeth’s favorite sayings is ‘eat the dang pie.'”

Elizabeth Young, the executive director, is among the most beloved local leaders you will come across in North Carolina. She is seen as a warrior, which has only intensified as she battles cancer.

“Being able to build out this food as medicine model … has been the greatest joy of my life,” says Elizabeth.

“Life is all about throwing us curve balls,” says Bass, who is rolling with the challenges of stepping into leadership, COVID, inflation, and higher gas prices, knowing all of that means the work of the coalition is more important than ever to those they serve.

On Elizabeth’s Caring Bridge site, this lyric by the Indigo Girls is lifted up: “If the world is night, shine my life like a light.”

In that spirit and to honor Elizabeth and Jenn’s ongoing leadership, please spread the word about how communities can work together to address food and medication insecurity across North Carolina.

Here is academic research on Hunger, Poverty and Health: Community-Academic Partnerships that Improve Food and Nutrition Security in Rural Appalachia, with more information about the coalition and what you need to know to replicate it.

Melissa Davis Gutschall, a professor in nutrition and foods at Appalachian State University, says, “This work makes my heart sing. It makes my heart pound.”

Mebane Rash

Mebane Rash is the CEO and editor-in-chief of EducationNC.