Guest Column by Terri Buckner
Each year, the Orange County Board of Commissioners is asked to fund a number of important programs that address complex social issues throughout the county.
On Friday at their annual retreat, the commissioners were introduced to an analytical tool called “systems thinking.” Systems thinking may give the commissioners, other county departments and local nonprofits insights into how to improve complex social issues within the county.
But for the purposes of the commissioners’ retreat, the focus was on a single, growing problem in Orange County: food insecurity.
Food insecurity in Orange County
Every four years, Healthy Carolinians of Orange County, a network of representatives from schools, human-service agencies, churches, civic groups, businesses, local government, UNC Chapel Hill, health-care organizations and concerned citizens collaborate to produce a community-health assessment based on a statewide format. Each county in the state produces a similar report. The reports are combined into a larger state report.
One of the factors considered in this report is access to healthy food and the ability to pay for that food. In 2015, 15.4% of Orange County residents lived in food-insecure households, p. 41, 2015 Orange County Community Health Assessment. Data collected for this report comes through surveys, interviews, focus groups, and reviewing the data reported by relevant agencies, such as the school districts and county nutrition services.
Ashley Heger, coordinator for the Orange County Food Council, is collecting the data on food insecurity for the 2019 report.
In 2018, the U.S. Department of Agriculture estimated that 11.1% of Americans – 37 million – are food insecure, https://www.ers.usda.gov/webdocs/publications/94849/err-270.pdf?v=963.1.
Although preliminary local data appears to indicate food insecurity in Orange County has increased since 2015 and is higher than the national average, there is no single uniform source for collecting the data, and definitions of food insecurity vary depending on the agency and program.
For example, the eligibility for SNAP (food stamps) is different from the eligibility for free and reduced lunches through the school systems.
The county is in the process of untangling these differences and collecting data in a central database where it can be disaggregated by race, gender, etc.
What is known today from the data gathered through surveys, focus groups and interviews for the 2019 Orange County Community Health Assessment, one-in-five respondents reported that they had to cut the size of their meals or skip meals because there was not enough money for food.
Earl McKee, an Orange County commissioner, said, “Food insecurity is the least visible issue facing many Orange County residents. Whether it is a child without breakfast, a senior without access to a hot meal, or a family having to choose between housing, heat or sufficient food, Orange County’s government must be more proactive in addressing this issue.”
The systems thinking workshop
Systems thinking is a problem-identification and problem-solving tool that enables participants to view how parts of a system interact with each other and how individual systems work with other systems. Understanding this interconnectedness uncovers potential solutions that don’t produce unintended consequences, improve the effectiveness of limited resources and help impacted individuals accept change.
The workshop started with a presentation by Michael Goodman, a systems-thinking consultant. He introduced the commissioners to a process for applying systems thinking to food insecurity. It was followed by a presentation by Heger on the state of hunger and food insecurity in Orange County.
Following the two presentations, Goodman walked the commissioners through a series of exercises to draft a focusing question that they want to answer, determine whether the end results of solving the problem are worth the investment, and if so, to identify the structural forces that perpetuate the problem.
Working through the problem of food insecurity
The focusing question developed by the county commissioners: How, in a wealthy county like Orange, can one-in-five residents be food insecure?
The next step in the systems-thinking process is to identify the benefits that would come from fully addressing the problem of food insecurity. A few of the benefits include children better able to learn in school, reduced health costs for seniors and lower spending on health-care programs throughout the county.
The ultimate goal of systems thinking is to identify the factors that work to create the problem and how those factors interact. Working through those details requires detailed investigations. As Jamezetta Bedford, an Orange County commissioner, said, “The challenge of systems thinking for elected officials and folks in charge will be to sit with a problem instead of rushing to solve it.”
There wasn’t sufficient time in the one-day workshop to complete this step, but the commissioners did work on a preliminary list of the structural problems that may be causes of food insecurity in Orange County.
Recent reductions in state and federal funding top the list. Other factors include the high cost of housing, stagnant wages, a lack of grocery stores in some parts of the county and the tendency of food-insecure residents – especially high school students – to avoid identification for fear of exposure.
The commissioners have asked the Orange County Food Council, a coalition of community members and agencies working to ensure that all Orange County residents have access to healthy and affordable food, to gather additional demographic data and propose ways for the commissioners to leverage change through their leadership role and funding authority.
Heger has a strong understanding of systems thinking. She plans to make sure that the Food Council uses this analytical tool as they work on the various aspects of food insecurity.
Next week: The Orange County Food Council and the work they are undertaking to reduce food insecurity throughout the county.
Terri Buckner is an Orange County resident.