Qualitative Analysis

Determining Barriers using Interview and Survey Data

To augment the statistical analysis and provide some fine scale resolution on what consumers, retailers, and producers identify as barriers, Kimberly Hill conducted surveys and interviews of local retailers, producers, and community stakeholders in both Washington and Beaufort Counties collected over three weekends and weekdays in February and March 2014.

Unfortunately, I was unable to find a suitable community partner in Washington County to disseminate the consumer surveys.  Thus we only have data for Beaufort County, courtesy of Jared Cates, Community Mobilizer, Carolina Farm Stewardship Association, who completed a similar study for Beaufort County.  However, Beaufort County contains the town of Little Washington (population about 10,000) which serves as a regional center for shopping, doctor’s appointments, and other community needs.  Some of the respondents (7 percent) live in counties other than Beaufort according to their zip codes.

Notably, Washington County is much smaller than Beaufort County, with a population of 12,736 in 2012 (Census Bureau, 2014) as compared to Beaufort County’s 47,507 (Census Bureau, 2014).  Beaufort County is primarily white (71.7%) while Washington County is split between Caucasian and African-American residents (47.9% and 49.7% in 2012, respectively).  Beaufort County also has a relatively higher median household income ($40,147 in 2012) versus Washington County ($33,718 in 2012). The poverty rate is 26.5% in Washington County versus 20.6% in Beaufort County in 2012.  Beaufort County and Washington County are similarly educated (80.6% with a high school degree in Beaufort County versus 80.8% for Washington County) (Census Bureau, 2014).

Consumer Survey Results

The results of the survey indicate that it is not a representative sample of Beaufort County, as the identified ethnicity of the sample (44.0% African-American and 48.4% Caucasian) does not match US Census values (25.6% African-American and 71.7% Caucasian as of 2012).  Additionally, 67.4% of respondents identified themselves as food insecure, compared with average food insecurity of 17.1% according to the Food Environment Atlas (2012).  The Atlas is suspect, however, because North Carolina averages food insecurity across the entire state.  Despite the lack of state-driven county-level data for comparison, it is well known that Eastern North Carolina faces more poverty and food insecurity than any other region of the state (North Carolina Department of Commerce, 2013).  Thus, while it is not a representative population of the entire county, the sample can be considered a representative population of people lacking access to quality food.

The data was further analyzed in STATA (a statistical analysis program) to determine connections between any two of the seven variables using the “tabulate” command.

Results and Discussion

  • Everyone faces food insecurity. All ethnicities with a statistically significant sample size (more than 40 observations) were equally likely to say they had a hard time stretching their budget to the end of the month with a consistent 2:1 ratio.  They were also equally likely to note they were able to have enough fruits and vegetables from month to month at a ratio of about 1:1.
  • But people differ in where they shop, how they get there, and if they use government-provided benefits (SNAP and WIC).  People who identified as African-American were slightly more likely to use convenience stores as primary sources of food (39% versus 31% for Caucasian-Americans).  However, Caucasian-Americans were more likely to use discount stores as primary sources of food (57% compared to 39% for African-Americans).  Both groups were equally likely to use retail grocery stores as primary food sources.  A small, but similar sub-sample of each group, were most likely to shop at farmer’s markets or eat at restaurants.  Notably, both groups were most likely to use cars or trucks to reach a food source.   However, African-Americans were more likely to walk to the grocery store, though only 19 respondents identified walking as their primary means.  Notably, 18% of African-American respondents noted they were likely to travel with friends or family to the grocery store as compared to 11% of Caucasian-Americans, perhaps signifying cultural differences, ongoing poverty in the African-American community, or a combination of the two.  African-Americans were somewhat more likely to be on SNAP benefits (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, commonly called “food stamps”) with 45% of African-Americans as opposed to 35% of Caucasian Americans.  Approximately 52% of Caucasian Americans versus 38% of African-Americans do not use any supplemental benefits.
  • SNAP and WIC benefits decrease food insecurity and improve nutrition. However, SNAP benefits and WIC (Women, Infants, and Children) benefits for mothers with young children do decrease food insecurity and improve nutrition. People receiving some form of food assistance were somewhat more likely to indicate they received adequate nutrition. WIC participants in particular responded they had an adequate budget and received adequate nutrition.  SNAP and WIC/SNAP participants were more likely to say they had problems stretching their food budget, but did receive adequate nutrition.  Those receiving no benefits were more likely to identify themselves as food insecure (59% said they had problems stretching their budgets to the end of the month), but only half of those receiving no benefits said they received adequate nutrition.
  • Transportation influences food choices. Consistent with previous research on the topic, people who shop at grocery stores for their food were less likely to identify themselves as food insecure than people who shop primarily at discount stores or convenience stores.  No matter the store type, all groups were evenly split on whether they receive adequate nutrition.  Additionally, people who drive with a car/truck were more likely to use grocery stores.  People who walk are most likely to use a convenience store/gas station as their primary source of food.
  • People go without, use food pantries, or ask for help when they cannot afford to eat. A short answer question for number 3 asked “If you have a hard time stretching your food budget, what do you do in those months?”  Nearly every respondent identified three different methods of dealing with food insecurity.  Some people said they went without, bought less food, or used what was in the freezer in times of need.  Some respondents noted they used local food pantries or church food drives to get enough to eat.  Still others noted they would ask friends or family for money or would eat at their friends’ or family’s homes when they could not afford to buy their own food.

Limitations of the Survey

The survey is subject to some response bias and likely some acquiescence bias.  Because people know it is a survey to better understand the food environment of Beaufort County, they are more likely to identify themselves as occasionally facing food insecurity, via being unable to stretch their budget to the end of the month.  Most of the questions are simple descriptive questions, including self-identified ethnicity, primary source of food, and mode of transportation, helping to reduce this bias.  However, the survey was developed from the work of several community meetings and one longer survey developed by Carolina Farm Stewardship Association Community Mobilizer Jared Cates and should be viewed as such.

While not the fault of the survey results, it is difficult to compare them to statistics collected by the state and national government due to missing data on the counties of Eastern North Carolina.

Retailer Survey Results

Harry Zhang identified possible grocery stores, roadside stands, and specialty markets that would meet the definition of “a grocery store or supermarket” using Google maps.  ReferenceUSA data using the NAICS (North American Industry Classification System) code 541105 for both Washington and Beaufort Counties was also used to identify retail grocery stores and to determine the accuracy of both Google maps and ReferenceUSA.

Kimberly Hill drove to the sites over two weekends in February 2014 using the addresses provided by Harry Zhang and cross-referencing them with ReferenceUSA.  If a site was primarily a gas station, restaurant, or convenience store/corner market, I marked it as such and took it off the list of surveyed grocery stores.  If a site could not be found or had changed owners or store type, I marked it as such.  If a site had the wrong address or geocoordinates I marked it as such and corrected the information. Nineteen survey sites were identified – three sights were not surveyed due to time constraints, one site had an absent manager, two sites were based on original data from Jared Cates of Carolina Farm Stewardship Association, and fourteen sights were successfully surveyed. Of the fourteen survey sites, only one store refused to be surveyed.

Results and Discussion

  • Retailers are interested, but most already buy locally.  Most retailers expressed interest in sourcing produce locally (10/12 surveyed or about 83%).  11 out 12 retailers surveyed source from North Carolina, though only 9 retailers source from local counties.  One retail grocery store chain, Food Lion, is centrally owned rather than franchised and sources all its produce from a regional distribution center in Salisbury, North Carolina (Food Lion, 2014).  Therefore, the Food Lions surveyed were more likely to point to the “Got to Be NC” signage to identify local produce rather than buying directly from farmers. MDI (Merchants Distributors Incoporated) is a major distribution center for Piggly Wiggly stores throughout the state.  However, each Piggly Wiggly surveyed noted that they are independently owned, thus they choose their own mix of local and non-local produce.
  • Nearby counties besides Beaufort and Washington are major production centers. Chowan County was cited four times by four different retailers.  Both Edenton and Rocky Hock are located in Chowan County, and according to retailers are a common source of fruits like watermelons and cantaloupe. Various other counties and in some cases specific producers were mentioned. Two of the stores surveyed, Petals and Produce, who identified themselves as “roadside stands” or “produce specialty markets” have their own farm in Yatesville, North Carolina near Pinetown, North Carolina.  They try to source everything as locally as possible, but note that better produce and processed products (for example, pickled vegetables) are available as far away as Pennsylvania. Western North Carolina, where three of the five mentioned wholesalers are located, was cited as well.
  • Retailers want good quality produce and a variety of produce. One small grocer noted she had problems sourcing food in general, and thus decided not to carry produce.  She noted “people did not buy it,” and “it usually went bad.”  One store that identified itself as a tienda, occasionally sourced tomatoes and peppers locally, but usually purchased from a warehouse in Raleigh because they have “Mexican vegetables” appropriate for their consumers. Most respondents (9 out of 12) noted they sourced locally when possible, but sourced elsewhere when they could not get the number or kinds of produce they wanted.
  • Customers want fresh local produce, encouraging retailers to buy local. Seven retailers cited “customer perception” of fresh, local produce not from a warehouse as their main reason for carrying produce in general and for sourcing it locally. Lower local price was also a factor.
  • Bureaucracy may be a problem. Only one store noted that state-level bureaucracy was a factor.  The surveyed store manager noted “NCDA could come in and take our produce and cite us if it is not up to code.”  This may be a bigger issue for all the surveyed retailers.  However, it was not explicitly included in the survey and may limit the survey’s effectiveness.

Limitations of the Survey

The survey is subject to some response bias and likely some acquiescence bias.  Because Kimberly Hill conducted the surveys orally and in person, all respondents were more likely to respond in a way to please the surveyor.  “Local food” has a positive connotation almost everywhere, and is largely driven by consumer demand and to a lesser extent, price.  A follow-up survey should include some questions to reduce this bias as well as one yes/no question on whether the retailer accepts SNAP/EBT or WIC benefits. In discussion with store owners or managers, the surveyor noted that small grocery stores and roadside stands do not accept SNAP/EBT and WIC and thus are less accessible to low-income consumers.  Additionally, though not discussed with store owners, a question regarding certification requirements for produce should be asked.

Stakeholder and Producer Interview Results

Barriers producers face were determined via structured interviews with local producers in Washington and Beaufort Counties, primary data from Jared Cates’ interactions with local producers, and via interviews with community stakeholders including representatives of the North Carolina Public Health Foundation, the Washington, Beaufort, and Martin County Extension Offices, Center for Disease Control (CDC) Community Transformation Grant representatives, North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services, North Carolina Department of Agriculture, and others.  Interviews were recorded using an Olympus voice recorder, partially transcribed using InqScribe software, and analyzed using NVivo software to identify common themes and barriers.

Nearly all people identified as possible interview subjects were interviewed, save the Center for Disease Control Community Transformation Grant Healthy Eating Lead from Region 9. Farmers were identified via a contact of Resourceful Communities, Jared Cates.  Of 14 local producers, three were contacted and one responded. Notably, most of these producers are only part-time or seasonal producers for one crop such as “u-pick” strawberries.  While there are a dozen local fruit and vegetable producers in Beaufort County not including producers of processed products such as honey, there are only two identified producers in Washington County.  Primary data from Jared Cates, including survey data and notes from community meetings, was used to supplement the interviews.

As of 2012, Beaufort County has 369 farms to Washington County’s 187.  The four major crops of both counties are corn for grain, cotton, soybeans, and wheat.  Interestingly, while Washington County reported approximately 15 million dollars in sales of vegetables, fruits, nuts, and berries in 2012 ranking it number 12 in the state, Beaufort County only produced 1.6 million dollars in sales, ranking it number 60 in the state.  This is likely because Washington County is home to one of the largest vegetable farms east of Raleigh (NCDA 2013).

Based on the structured interviews, several themes were identified that were barriers for producers and the local food system in general:

  • Geography matters.  Two interviewees in Beaufort County and one interviewee in Durham noted the division between the “Northside” and “Southside” of the Tar-Pamlico River in Beaufort County.  People have historically divided themselves geographically along the river.   One interviewee in Washington County noted it was not divided geographically, though residents of towns in the eastern part of the county such as Creswell shop in Tyrell County due to its closer proximity.  He noted that it was the I-95 that divided the Piedmont “from the rest of the state,” arguing that the counties were generally poorer east of Interstate 95.
  • History matters. One interviewee in Washington County and one interviewee in Beaufort County noted the impact of the so-called tobacco buyout in 2004.  Many small farms closed or leased their land to large farms.  If they remained, they shifted from tobacco to soybeans or corn.  North Carolina lost 26,300 farms between 1990 and 2006 (Department of City and Regional Planning-UNC, 2008).  While the Southeast still has the largest number of small farms of any region in the United States, the number and diversity of farms has dwindled over the last 20 years.   One interviewee noted that Washington County once had a thriving farmer’s market that was shut down in 2009.  Since then, the last two producers in the county have passed away.
  • Culture matters. While reluctant, four interviewees noted racial divisions still exist in Eastern North Carolina and discourage cooperation and development of the local food economy.  One producer noted the number of African-American farmers has dwindled.  He hopes to increase that number via an educational agribusiness farm.
  • People do not trust the government. Three respondents in Beaufort County and one respondent in Durham noted that the history of disenfranchisement and distrust of government in Eastern North Carolina has hampered development of the local food economy.
  • Local food producers have more resources and money than the average farmer. Five interviewees in both Washington and Beaufort County noted that farmers who produce food usually also grow row crops.  They are usually well-established with resources and money to take the risks associated with food crops.
  • However, some producers are extremely isolated due to location and lack of connection with other producers and community resources. Two interviewees noted an owner of a roadside stand in Beaufort County who was only connected to local resources when a Carolina Farm Stewardship Association employee stopped by his roadside stand.
  • Regulations have a mixed record of encouraging local food. While one producer and some interviewees stressed the importance of local, state, and federal government in providing funding and resources for local food, others noted food safety concerns and regulations have discouraged the growth of the local food economy.
  • The market is a huge challenge, but also a big opportunity. One interviewee noted the seasonality of tourism in Beaufort County and the Outer Banks in general made it difficult to effectively market local food to restaurants and stores only open five to six months out of the year.  However, one interviewee in Washington County was very hopeful about the possibilities for agro-tourism and local food purchasing agreements the tourism industry could provide.
  • Labor is a big issue all over eastern North Carolina. All interviewees involved on the production side of food in both Washington and Beaufort Counties (n=8) noted farm labor was a huge issue for local producers.  One interviewee noted labor shortages prevented some vendors from participating in Beaufort County’s two farmer’s markets.   She also identified a past program that paid Beaufort County residents to work on local farms.  She said that “most all of them quit after two weeks” due to the low pay and hard physical labor required for farm work.
  • Farmers want to mitigate risk. Food is a risk. One interviewee in Washington County noted that most farmers choose to either lease land or grow row crops because it is less labor intensive and has a guaranteed return on investment.  She said “That [food] is not our specialty.  That’s just not what we do here.”
  • However, people involved in the movement are cautiously optimistic. Interviewees in Beaufort County were generally involved in the ongoing development of a local Food Policy Council.   While the representative of the Center for Disease Control and Prevention Community Transformation Grant Program for region 10 noted the program will shut down in September due to the new Farm Bill, more money has been invested by the Kate B. Reynolds Charitable Trust to set up Community Catalyst Coordinators in various Eastern North Carolina counties.  These coordinators organize local community coalitions to encourage healthy eating and active living.
  • Washington County has less energy. Only one interviewee was optimistic about the local food scene in Washington County. However, Washington County is smaller and poorer than Beaufort County.  It also has fewer resources and very little statewide or regional attention focused on it.  For instance, while the interviewees in Beaufort County have been contacted multiple times regarding local food systems, no one was contacted in Washington County prior to this researcher’s work.

Results and Discussion

The identified barriers are consistent with work conducted by Cates (2013) and UNC (2008).  What was not expected were the cultural barriers discussed by multiple interviewees.  While some were very upfront about the racial history of Eastern North Carolina, others only inferred it.  Though not directly addressed in the results section (below), culture, race, and demographic variables should be taken into account when trying to build a cohesive system that acknowledges and incorporates every participant of that system.