Progress doesn't happen without action. This Black History Month, Blue Cross Blue Shield of North Carolina (Blue Cross NC) is celebrating all the changemakers advancing the health and well-being of the Black community.
Here for Changemakers. Here for All.
For many people, hunger is a problem that can be quickly solved. But for millions in North Carolina, it is an emptiness that occupies every second of their day.
In our state, 10.9% of households – and 1 in 6 children – suffer from food insecurity, according to the NC Department of Health and Human Services (NCDHHS) State Action Plan for Nutrition Security. Food insecurity is defined by the US Department of Agriculture as “a lack of consistent access to enough food for every person in a household to live an active, healthy life.” Food insecurity is not as simple as the physical discomfort of an empty stomach. The impacts can include:
- lack of energy and focus to complete tasks
- persistent stress, anxiety, and agitation
- malnutrition that can leave lasting scars on long-term health and well-being
Persistent hunger swallows physical and emotional strength. And it is a major, yet often overlooked, contributor to mental and behavioral health issues. Studies have shown food insecurity increases the risk of mental illnesses, such as depression, anxiety, and psychological distress.
Finding a place in the community
Ron Pringle grew up food insecure, but never knew it.
“Statistically, we were, but it wasn’t a feeling that I ever had because food was always present,” he says.
When Pringle was 12, his mother died and his father was suddenly on his own, raising 4 children. Pringle would go with his grandmother to the Lowcountry Food Bank in Charleston, South Carolina, to pick up supplies for their family and others in the community. That food bank stood between Pringle and hunger.
As an adult, life took him across multiple continents before returning him to that very same place. Pringle had dreams of becoming an Air Force pilot, but after a routine test found he was colorblind, flying was no longer an option. Instead, he served as a chaplain’s assistant during Desert Storm.
Coming home from war was an adjustment. He suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder, felt lost in the world, and experienced homelessness. One day, while shopping at Lowcountry Food Bank, he learned they were hiring a warehouse associate.
“The director at the time said, ‘You know what? I'm gonna give you a shot,’” Pringle recalls. “And that moment changed my life because when I started working at the food bank, I felt like I had purpose again.”
For 13 years, Pringle worked in various capacities, eventually becoming the operations director. The food bank went from providing 700,000 meals each year to 18 million.
Having played a role in the growth and stability of the food bank, Pringle decided it was time to “let the team carry the organization further,” he says. “I wanted to start all over and do what I love doing, which is building communities. And, as I became more connected within communities, I began to understand the challenges and the barriers that were beyond food. The more I listened to people, the more specific I could be in helping them to meet those needs.”
Solving challenges in the community
Pringle became the CEO of Inter-Faith Food Shuttle (Food Shuttle) in 2020. He made intentional listening and creative thinking priorities for the organization.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, his team evolved the processes of their child hunger initiatives to serve the community while following guidelines from health officials. They created touchless mobile markets and pantries throughout Wake County for children and their families who relied on the school system for meals.
“When a child isn’t receiving healthy, consistent, nutritious food, it affects the brain's development and the body’s chemical makeup,” Pringle says.
According to the American Psychological Association, “Too little energy, protein, and nutrients during this sensitive period can lead to lasting deficits in cognitive, social, and emotional development. School-age children who experience severe hunger are at increased risk for poor mental health and lower academic performance, and often lag behind their peers in social and emotional skills.”
Hunger can create educational inequities. As children’s moods and cognitive abilities waver, they often “act out” in the form of hyperactivity, anxiety, or aggression. According to the No Kids Hungry Program, these factors can cause them to suffer academically. As Pringle says, “Their learning experience was not maximized, simply because they could not eat.”
Pringle also sees behavioral health issues at the opposite end of the spectrum, with seniors living on fixed incomes.
Social Security and Medicare are often not enough to cover their household and health expenses. As a result, they learn to go without. According to a 2022 study published in the National Library of Medicine, older adults are more likely to be food insecure if they live alone, feel lonely, or perceive themselves to have little social support. In addition, according to the NCDHHS report on Older Adult Food Insecurity (PDF), seniors facing food insecurity are 233% more likely to experience depression. Pringle and his team are working to offset this surprising statistic in Central North Carolina.
The organization’s Grocery Bags for Seniors program delivers more than 2,000 bags of food each month to seniors in 30 low-income areas within Wake and Nash counties. Each bag has recipe cards, whole grains, proteins, milk, and fresh fruits and vegetables. Shirley Barnhart shows up 3 times a week at the farm to volunteer because she has seen firsthand what the farm provides.
“Our Backpack Kids program serves children for whom this may be their only meal,” Barnhart says. “And many seniors are unable to get out of their homes, so this is important work.”
Feeding, teaching, and growing a stronger community
The Food Shuttle’s motto is “Feed, Teach, Grow.” And the organization aims to reflect this throughout its operations.
Grocery bags and backpacks filled with food for vulnerable citizens take care of nourishment. Teaching happens in spaces like learning gardens, where the Food Shuttle invites community members in low-income areas to adopt garden beds, learn how to grow their own produce, and make healthy and affordable meals.
The organization also has a culinary apprenticeship program that is designed to break the cycle of poverty by providing unemployed and underemployed people with hands-on education and paid work, while growing their experience in the food industry.
The Food Shuttle’s work aligns with ongoing efforts from Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina (Blue Cross NC) to improve food security across the state.
In 2021, Blue Cross NC conducted a study on the impact of food delivery and health coaching for at-risk populations. Results showed that participants experienced a reduction in food insecurity, obesity, and medical expenses while simultaneously improving their physical and mental health.
Blue Cross NC has been a longtime supporter of the Food Shuttle, and has contributed to its emergency response fund – reactivating its mobile unit and providing 75,000 meals to communities most in need of food.
“We know that addressing drivers of health is an integral part of the equation when it comes to improving the physical and mental wellness of our communities,” says Melissa Biediger, senior program manager of Community and Diversity Engagement at Blue Cross NC. “Ron’s leadership at the Food Shuttle has been extraordinary. His expertise in food security – combined with his lived experience and passion for feeding children, families, and seniors in innovative, dignified ways – has changed the lives of many. We are proud to support his vision, and all the great work happening at the Food Shuttle.”
The Food Shuttle currently serves 7 counties with more than 222,000 people who are food insecure. The services that the organization provides are helping community members strengthen themselves and their homes, giving them more energy to address other parts of their lives that need attention.
According to Pringle, providing people with basic human necessities like food are fundamental to a successful future.
“People have life to deal with. They have decisions to make. Food should not be one of them,” he says. “If we can ease that little bit of tension, that gives them an opportunity to pursue other goals. I remember the excitement of having a dream, even if it didn’t turn out the way I expected. Everyone deserves that same opportunity.”
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