By Ann Norinne Suk, PhD Candidate in Anthropology
Food insecurity impacted many in the US even prior to the pandemic. Data suggest that in 2019 around 10.5% of US households experienced food insecurity at some point during the year – and the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated this issue. A report from the Institute of Policy Research at Northwestern University indicates that food insecurity nearly doubled in 2020, impacting as many as 23% of households in the US. Many of the efforts to mitigate hunger and precarity during these times have involved grassroots responses and direct action at the local level – like the movement to connect small farms to food banks or the creation of community fridges that increase accessibility of fresh food items.
This emphasis on mutual support and neighborly solidarity is not a new concept in the Northside neighborhood, a historically Black community in Chapel Hill, NC. The rich history of the Northside community includes residents who are leaders, past and present, in the civil rights and labor rights movements, owners of businesses that constituted The Midway, and educators at Lincoln High School in Chapel Hill. Deeply intertwined with this history are food and foodways – in recognition of both the food-related traditions that connect people and of the community-based activism around issues related to the food system. As a response to food insecurity and inequities in food access, Heavenly Groceries began in 2002 as an initiative by Reverend Troy Harrison and Ms. Bernice Harrison of St. Joseph Christian Methodist Episcopal (CME) Church. Heavenly Groceries is a local food bank that reclaims food from Trader Joe’s, Panera Bread, and the Inter-Faith Council for Social Service for redistribution in the community.
As Heavenly Groceries expanded over time, St. Joseph Church members began to collaborate with the Marian Cheek Jackson Center for Saving and Making History (MCJC). The MCJC has the mission to “honor, renew, and build community in the historic Northside, Pine Knolls, and Tin Top neighborhoods of Chapel Hill and Carrboro, NC.”
A cornerstone of Heavenly Groceries is centering the dignity and choice of each person coming to receive food. The pre-COVID setup of Heavenly Groceries enabled people to select their preferred food items, using a model that recognizes and honors differences in food traditions, dietary habits, and tastes. Likewise, there were no restrictions or requirements around receiving food. In January 2020, the MCJC hired Aisha Booze-Hall as the Heavenly Groceries Volunteer Coordinator. Aisha shared that for her, “Working at Heavenly Groceries has always felt like a calling. Some food locations provide food without allowing individuals to have autonomy and select the foods that they feel would be the best for them as individuals. This sometimes results in foods that could be consumed or could be used to then go to waste. The way that Heavenly Groceries operated pre-COVID with its grocery store style was exceptional… Food is a basic necessity and it’s nearly impossible to focus on other aspects of life when the food requirement isn’t met. I love the work I am able to complete with Heavenly Groceries because it refuels me and reminds me of my purpose: to connect Black and brown people to different food resources.”
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, Heavenly Groceries was open five days a week for food distribution and was serving around 3,000 people each month. Women elders of St. Joseph CME ensured the smooth operation of the food bank, with the MCJC overseeing a network of volunteers. Many of these volunteers were students who got involved through course partnerships; they assisted with sorting, cleaning, and distributing the food.
The pandemic has brought about a pivot in Heavenly Groceries’ approach, in order to address food insecurity in a COVID-safe manner. Rather than opening the food bank at St. Joseph Church each afternoon, Heavenly Groceries now coordinates safe, no-contact food box deliveries to neighborhood households. In addition to responding to food insecurity at a time when the pandemic has put additional economic pressures on many, this shift to distribute groceries directly to people’s houses also ensures accessibility for older neighbors. According to Diana Koo, the MCJC’s Service Partner Coordinator, “We switched to food box deliveries to fill a specific gap – assisting households that were elderly or had pre-existing conditions that put them at greater risk of contracting COVID.” Diana pointed out that transitioning to food box deliveries enabled Heavenly Groceries to extend its reach outside of the Northside, Pine Knolls, and Tin Top communities and to provide groceries to households in other parts of Chapel Hill as well.
At the same time, a challenging aspect of this transition to food box deliveries was the need to place limits on the number of households that could receive Heavenly Groceries deliveries. Diana explained the approach that Heavenly Groceries took in this case: “We focused mainly on households without cars, since people with cars could access drive-through food distributions hosted by other organizations. We also included people who had lost income as a result of COVID-19, some of whom were service workers at UNC and had been impacted by UNC’s closing. We were able to compile a list of households by asking people about their food needs during our bi-weekly wellness calls.” Heavenly Groceries now provides food box deliveries to 65 households each week.
The boxes of supplemental groceries buffer food insecurity and enable older adults and other community members to get their groceries conveniently and safely. One of the grocery recipients, Ms. Chinita Howard, shared her comments about the program with Diana. She was grateful not only for the groceries but also for the connection she developed with Rachel, the volunteer who delivers her box each week: “Since I’ve been receiving the wonderful boxes during COVID, it has helped in ways that words cannot express… The food has been a lifesaver for me, due to unemployment being cut off and living alone. Many weeks have gone by, and Rachel has been my sunshine. I look forward to seeing her, and often, she’s the only human contact I have during that week. So again, MCJC, thank you, for when I was hungry, you fed me, and sent an angel to deliver!”
In these ways, Heavenly Groceries continues to connect neighbors in mutual support and to address local food security needs, even in pandemic times.
- You can find more information about Heavenly Groceries – including how to become a volunteer – here.
- Visit the MCJC’s incredible compilation of oral histories and other material at From the Rock Wall to learn about living histories of Black Chapel Hill/Carrboro.
Peer Edited by: Ryesa Mansoor and Diana Koo
Photo credits: Diana Koo
Header image: Heavenly Groceries volunteers packing grocery boxes and getting ready for deliveries (from left to right: J.J. Tolentino, Janet Downie, and Natalie Gauger)
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