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CARES Act funding fresh food in Surry

Surry County will use some of its federal CARES Act money to expand fresh food access for residents.

The board of supervisors voted this month to allocate $300,000 to the county’s economic development authority to disburse on a grant basis to Surry Marketplace LLC to support the distribution of fresh food throughout the county.

Through this initiative, residents — especially those in vulnerable populations such as the elderly — will have an opportunity to access fresh, healthy food without needing to travel outside the community. Officials are planning food distribution and pick up on two dates to be announced in November and December in the town of Surry.

Surry’s social services officials are “working diligently to outline the at-risk and vulnerable populations who need special accommodations in receiving the food,” said David Harrison, the county’s economic development director. There is no application or purchase required.

Residents will also be able to place orders for food delivery to their homes to help mitigate the risk of the further spread of the COVID-19 virus, an accommodation that “will greatly benefit Surry’s elderly and high risk populations,” Harrison said. County Administrator Melissa Rollins said access to fresh food is key to a community’s health and economic vitality.

“For Surry County, not having direct grocery access during this healthcare crisis is surely one of them. I commend the Surry County Board of Supervisors for its action of approving $300,000 in federal stimulus CARES Act funding for food access and distribution to the citizens of Surry, and we look forward to witnessing the positive impacts that this action will have on the residents of Surry County,” Rollins said.

“We have worked really hard over several years to provide fresh food access to this county that has been a food desert for over two decades,” she continued. “Initiatives over the years have included building the vital relationships needed between town and county officials and individuals desiring to make investments in the community, advocacy for grocery investment funding, and application for healthy food access grants.”

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, a community is a food desert if the poverty rate is 20% or greater or the median family income is at or below 80% of the statewide or metropolitan area median family income; also, at least 33% of the population or at least 500 people must live more than 10 miles from a supermarket or large grocery store in a rural census tract.

Surry County doesn’t currently have any stores that meet the USDA’s definition of a supermarket or large grocery store — a business with at least $2 million in annual sales that offers fresh meat, poultry, dairy, and dry, packaged and frozen foods.

“As many may know, Surry County has been designated as a food desert and its citizens have been without regular access to fresh food for over 20 years,” Harrison said. “The COVID-19 pandemic has worsened this issue because citizens of our small rural community are having to travel to larger more populated areas for grocery needs thereby increasing the risk of their exposure to the COVID-19 virus.”

Harrison also said the board’s approval of the marketplace also aligns with a resolution adopted in September 2019 — Healthy Eating and Active Living or HEAL — that encourages residents to practice healthy lifestyles and eating habits.

Multiple county agencies and organizations are collaborating to bring the market initiative to fruition.

“We support the actions of the Surry County Board of Supervisors to provide county wide food access and we remain committed as a community partner to this and all fresh food access endeavors that will continue to benefit the Surry community and the health of its citizens,” said Valerie Pierce, Surry’s director of social services. Ray Phelps, the county’s emergency services coordinator, said “creating food delivery services utilizing CARES funding will decrease the amount of potential exposure to the coronavirus for our elderly and more vulnerable populations.”

Surry has a pending application with the Obici Healthcare Foundation to establish a permanent fresh food market.