When you picture Small Town USA, you probably picture a place like my hometown – a farming community with 1,600 people and three stoplights. When explaining the dynamics of rural North Carolina, I often say that it’s nothing like the movies, but in some ways, it really is: Everyone knows everyone, people put in long hours to serve their communities and families, and we all look out for our neighbors. After all, that’s what small-town communities are all about. It’s a blessing to feel safe within your community, knowing that if you need something, someone will be there to help in the blink of an eye.
I grew up in Beulaville, North Carolina, and I lived what some would assume is the stereotypical life of a farmer’s daughter, but it was so much more than that. My dad ranches cattle and livestock alongside his brother and father. When I was little, I helped feed the cows and mind the gates.
Watching my mother and father build businesses from the ground up, all while raising a family and serving in our church, taught me a few things: Hard work always pays off, and you must always be in tune with your ‘why.’
A lot of families in the Eastern part of the state are like mine: They make a living through agriculture. If they don’t grow crops or have livestock of their own, they work at one of the nearby processing plants, waste management companies, or fertilizer suppliers.
So, when I went off to college to study health care administration and started working at the legislature, I had a unique lens into one of the top health issues facing North Carolinians: food insecurity. I knew that agriculture is the leading industry in our state and that North Carolina is a top producer of many of the staples that stock our grocery shelves. I woke up every day and watched my community work long, hard hours to put food on people’s tables. So how were people still going hungry?
When I graduated with my bachelor’s degree, I set out to be a part of the change, a conduit for my community, and an advocate for farmers. I looked for a place to start my career where I could make the biggest impact on the health of my state.
When a position opened up at Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina (Blue Cross NC), I knew I’d found the place where I could work toward addressing drivers of health like food security, safe housing, and access to care. It felt like a good fit with the principles and values my upbringing instilled in me.
I’ll never forget the day when Blue Cross NC announced that one of their goals was deepening ties with local communities. On that day, I knew I’d made the right decision to launch my career at Blue.
Not long after that, I found out that Blue Cross NC was creating a new team called County Engagement. They were hiring for my dream job, the opportunity to serve as a liaison between Blue Cross NC and local communities, including the one I was raised in. I took that job as a representative of Eastern North Carolina, and I wake up every day excited to brainstorm solutions to challenges many of my neighbors are facing. Living in Duplin County and working remotely for one of the largest players in North Carolina health care truly feels like the best of both worlds.
In my current role, I’ve returned to some of those questions I started asking myself in college. How can we support the industry that is the backbone of our state, and how can we do it in a way that feeds the hungry? How can we make sure everyone has access to fresh, wholesome foods grown right here in North Carolina? And how can we honor the individuals and industry that helped make North Carolina what it is today?
To answer those questions, I met with local farmers, neighbors, and leaders, listening to the barriers they face. We talked about the supply chain – every step that goes into getting food from farm to table. Rather than raising their meat and selling it locally, these farmers explained, they’ve had to sell their livestock to a buyer who acts as the middleman between the farmers and the larger food entities. The result is higher prices at the grocery store, which many people can’t afford to pay.
Understanding that the price of groceries starts at the production level and that farmers dedicate long hours to raising their livestock, we called in one of our partners, NC Choices, who are the experts in the connection between local agriculture and healthy communities.
Back in May, my team sat down with three Duplin County farmers, a county representative, and our partners at NC Choices for a discussion about getting healthier, fresher and more affordable food into the hands of North Carolinians. Together we came up with a plan to help farmers sell their goods locally, which puts more money in their pockets while offering food to families at a more affordable price.
Blue Cross NC is also investing in communities in other parts of our state to support food security. In Western North Carolina, we’re partnering with a local café to reduce waste and feed everyone regardless of means. And in the Piedmont, we’re supporting a mobile kitchen that brings fresh, healthy meals to food pantries, churches, schools and local organizations.
Our drivers of health team is also focusing in on food security at a time when more than 600,000 North Carolinians are struggling to put food on the table. They’re working with food banks across the state to increase enrollment in SNAP and other food and nutrition benefits so that folks can buy fresh produce for their families.
I know that the people of Small Town USA are innovative. My dad doesn’t have an engineering degree, but he can build any type of equipment, any kind of generator, and anything else he needs to get the job done. The same is true of so many local people who have had to adapt and innovate with the resources available to them. Connecting that spirit of innovation with the opportunities available through Blue Cross NC could transform the health of our state.
It goes beyond food insecurity, too. The County Engagement team has formed deep-rooted connections with county leaders and residents in 26 counties across the state. We’re working together to address challenges in behavioral health, housing, transportation, health care access, and other barriers to health in these communities.
And our leaders at Blue Cross NC are traveling county to county, from the Blue Ridge to the Atlantic coast, to meet with local leaders and learn from the people who know their communities best. We call it the Extra Miles Tour, and it’s just one way we’re working together for the good of our state.
I look at my job here as connecting Durham with local communities in a way that truly honors the community values we have here in Eastern North Carolina. In bringing together the great minds of our cities and rural hubs, we can create solutions for our shared challenges, lift up the people who work hard every day to serve their communities, and make health care better for all.
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