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Opinion

There are 21 food deserts in Winston-Salem, a legacy of racist redlining that persists today

Credit: iStock

by Hope Zhu, NC Newsline
May 6, 2024

This story is part of a series on food insecurity and possible solutions in Forsyth County, reported, written and photographed by Wake Forest University journalism students. The series was part of a semester-long class was taught by Newsline Environmental Investigative Reporter and Assistant Editor Lisa Sorg. The series will run throughout the week.

The aroma of blackened chicken, pasta and sugar cookies filled a room at Samaritan Ministries, where outside a narrow doorway, people had lined up an hour before opening.

At the stroke of 11, the soup kitchen’s doors swing open, welcoming the guests: women and men; elders and children, people in pairs, a whole family, or alone. Dishes clatter, forks and knives clank, and soon laughter and chatting fill the room as guests take turns reaching for the few bottles of hot sauce on the tables.

Samaritan Ministries, an interdenominational Christian organization, has fed the hungry in Winston-Salem since 1981. Every afternoon, the kitchen serves 300 to 400 guests at its light-filled three-story brick building on the city’s near north side. Anyone looking for a nutritious meal can simply walk in, register, enjoy a full meal, and take some fruits, salad, and bread to-go.

“We are here because our hearts and souls are similar,” said Jan Kelly, executive director at Samaritan Ministries. “We want people to know that we care; it’s not just about providing food or shelter, but also about creating a safe environment, especially for those who lack consistency in their lives.”

Organizations like Samaritan Ministries play a vital role in addressing the food scarcity issues in the 21 designated food deserts in Winston-Salem, according to the USDA Food Access Research Atlas. In these areas, residents without cars face challenges accessing affordable, quality, fresh food. This difficulty is compounded by the city’s intricate social dynamics, shaped by factors like race and poverty.

These neighborhoods are burdened by the city’s history of redlining, a discriminatory practice that denied financial services to largely nonwhite neighborhoods. Although redlining is now technically illegal, its racist legacy persists, as a lack of economic investment continues to deprive residents of amenities that wealthier neighborhoods take for granted. Based on a 1937 Winston-Salem Home Owners’ Loan Corporation (HOLC) map, regions marked with red grades, where the Black population were excluded from mortgages and targeted by predatory lenders, often coincide with a high number of households that lack vehicles and are located more than half a mile from a supermarket.

In Winston-Salem, grocery stores tend to cluster on the west side distanced from these economically disadvantaged neighborhoods, while food pantries are strategically placed in high-poverty areas, often managed by local churches. Faith communities stand at the forefront of managing and delivering free or reduced-price food to people in need. 

“When people in need come in for food and clothes, we make coffee for them and try to engage in conversation, letting them know that we pray for them,” explained Daniel Narvaez, community outreach manager at the Winston-Salem Rescue Mission New Life Center. 

Rescue Mission’s food pantry and rehabilitation facilities are situated downtown on Trade Street. In this census tract, 26.75% of the Black population lives more than half a mile from a supermarket, according to the Food Access Research Atlas from USDA

Every Tuesday and Friday around 9 a.m., Rescue Mission’s pantry opens, and the community engagement office sees a steady stream of visitors. Instead of serving meals, the Rescue Mission provides a supermarket-like experience for their guests. Next to the community engagement office, a storage room serving as a food pantry houses piles of canned fruits, cereals, bread, and candies organized categorically on one side of the shelf. 

Narvaez, in his mid 30s with thick eyebrows, deeply set eyes, and long hair cascading over his shoulders, warmly greets the guests, invites them into the welcoming community office space, and guides them to the nearby food pantry. 

The pantry at Rescue Mission has become more of a communal space. Here, volunteers are encouraged to listen to patrons’ needs while guiding them through the food pickup process.

“The food pantry part is secondary to the people,” said Bev Whan, who has volunteered at the Rescue Mission for three years. “Every time I come here, I need to remind myself that this isn’t just about food; it’s also about people, making connections, and forming bonds with them.”

Groceries are scarce in formerly redlined neighborhoods This historical redlining map shows areas in red and yellow that federal mortgage companies deemed undesirable. These neighborhoods were largely Black. Although redlining is technically illegal, residents of these neighborhoods continue to suffer from a lack of economic and municipal investment — such as access to health food and well-stocked grocery stores. (Source: Mapping Inequality) This map of Forsyth County overlays high-poverty census block groups, in gray, with the location of grocery stories and general stores, such as Target and Walmart. The stars represent “other food stores,” generally convenience marts or dollar stores that primarily sell highly processed, unhealthy food. Some census block groups have no groceries at all.

For those on the front lines of a food pantry, disparities can be stark. A snapshot survey conducted by Samaritan Ministries on a single day found that approximately 68% of the guests are African Americans, with most guests aged between 31 and 54.

Tangela Towns, assistant professor of sociology at Winston-Salem State University, notes a racialized divide within the city that segregates Latino and Black communities into distinct, less affluent areas, particularly noticeable on the east side. “There are a number of barriers that have been in place from redlining to deep restrictions,” Towns said. “People being priced out of certain areas has just led to marginalized groups being in areas that are underfunded or low-income or don’t have access to certain resources.”

Marry Cotton, 62, visits the Rescue Mission about six times per year. She said she doesn’t take free food from the pantry unless she really needs it, aware of the rule that allows food collection only once every 30 days. 

With four sons to feed and various bills to manage, Cotton usually goes to Food Lion, the closest grocery store to see what’s on sale.

But the food selection at the Rescue Mission offers her more options. “I usually get broccoli, peppers, all kinds of grains,” Cotton said, “Because they’re healthy.” Back home, she steamed broccoli and served it with rice.

During her downtown walk, Elizabeth White, 65, decided to check out the Rescue Mission for the first time. She relies on SNAP benefits, also known as food stamps, and normally shops at the nearby Walmart. But lately, rising food prices have made it hard to stretch her budget, so she tries to go to one food bank each day. 

“I didn’t know there is one [food pantry] here,” White said,  “They don’t usually make the food bank available for people.” 

White picked up some packed meat, vegetables, and snacks; the volunteers also gave her a bag so she, arriving unprepared, could carry them home.

A convergence of hardships, worsened by hunger Samaritan Ministries offers nutritious foods for anyone who stops in — plus dessert options.

Kelly of Samaritan Ministries also noted that over the years, the food pantry has seen an increasing number of visits from clients who struggle with mental illness. “We continued to see addiction, continued to see folks trying to come in with drugs, even people showing up in our courtyard who are very high on drugs or having a mental disability, ” Kelly said. “Sometimes, it is really hard to differentiate.”

The combinations of various hardships often lead people to the food pantry, where nutrition might be among their lesser concerns.

It didn’t take Narvaez long to recall the struggles of everyone he encountered, a familiarity born from his deep connection with the community seeking solace and sustenance. Believing strongly in the power of prayer, he kept a list of individuals he wished to pray for, including those battling cancer, seeking employment, dealing with back issues, cancer, and diabetes — individuals he met regularly at the pantry.

“If you were here during one of our food pantry sessions, you’d see women arriving, single moms, 20 years old,” Narvaez pointed out. “You’d also see someone who’s 70 years old; it’s really tough, seeing someone the age of my grandpa. At the very least, someone could sit down and talk to them.”

The absence of nutritious food can lead to serious physical health issues, prompting many food pantries to offer supplementary programs, such as weekly health check-ins provided by doctors in partnership with physicians and clinics. This is crucial as individuals who regularly go hungry or who rely on cheap, highly processed food are at a higher risk of obesity and chronic diseases.

At Samaritan Ministries, the food in the pantry mainly comes from donations. However, the ministry is trying to prioritize nutrition education and creating a wishlist for donors. The group aims to highlight not just the quantity of food but also its variety, offering clients more choices. For instance, they are working on reducing salt levels, downsizing donuts, and incorporating more fruits and proteins, like beans. 

“When we have so many people relying on us every single day for their food, what we’re feeding them really does affect their health,” Kelly said.

Samaritan Ministries has also collaborated with dietitians from Novant Health, who provide suggestions on what the individual meal should consist of. “The resource we provide to people ensures that when they leave here, they’re not stuck staring at four walls in their apartment and wondering, ‘How am I going to eat? Who can take care of me?’” said Kelly. “That’s our long-term vision — to create opportunities for our guests to stay healthy and not have to come back.”

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This story is republished from NC Newsline under a Creative Commons license. Read the original story.