Sowing Resilience Heroes: Dr. Phoebe Harris

Robeson Community College Food Pantry

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  • Food insecurity in Robeson County is almost 15%. 
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With graduation season here, thousands of North Carolina students will be headed to campus in the fall with big plans for the future. However for many food insecurity will be a painful fact during those college years.

Homeless and Hungry

In 2018, an instructor at Robeson Community College, Mrs. Debbie Lowry observed a student digging through the trash to obtain the scrap of her teacher’s lunch. This student was a 19-year-old female who was homeless and hungry. Talking with this student, the instructor learned that the student was homeless and often lived in vacant buildings throughout the city of Lumberton. 

“So, from that, this really became a mission for Mrs. Lowry,” said Dr. Pheobe Harris, Education Department Program Director at RCC, told the Carolina Journal. “We did not have a food pantry at the time, so she went to administration and asked for permission to turn an empty area in the building into a food pantry. That is where it started, and it has grown from there. It grew out of one person taking initiative.” 

According to Harris, food insecurity in Robeson County is almost 15%. 

“We received a Swipe Out Hunger grant; We received a grant for our pantry, and their whole goal is pretty much to provide funding to college campuses,” said Harris. RCC was also awarded $3500 under the Finish Line Grant. “We were able to utilize a portion of it specifically for food insecurities on our campuses.”

Dr. Phoebe Harris, Education Program Director at Robeson Community College.

Lowry passed away in 2020, shortly before the pandemic started, but Harris says they have done their best to continue her work. 

Harris says the need for more healthy food options is significant in Robeson County. This could mean options that are available, but unaffordable for most families. Many people want to eat healthier; however, due to inflation and the current state of food prices, they need more funds to sustain that lifestyle. 

“I see that quite a bit with our students,” said Harris. “A lot of them, you know, they’re coming to school and they’re just hoping they have enough gas money to get there. When they get here, they may or may not have food for the day. Sure. And so that’s kind of where I think our pantry kind of helps to fill that gap.”

Due to the cost of healthy foods, people often must choose between two things. According to Harris, this is especially true in Robeson County, where there are health disparities and many people must choose between purchasing healthier food or paying for prescriptions or medications.

“I would say that here in our area, as far as the options being available, we see that increasing; we have a lot of farmers’ markets kind of popping up in the area,” said Harris. “We have our agricultural programs in our schools that are really trying to teach students how to be able to grow their own. I do think we’re moving in the right direction, and we do have some of those options more readily available than we have in the past. But I do think it ultimately comes back for so many people in our area of being able to afford those kinds of items on a regular basis.” 

Harris defines food insecurity as needing more to eat or not even knowing where your next meal is coming from. 

Number of visits to RCC food pantry per month so far in 2024.

“I have seen that increase since COVID; of course, before COVID, we know even in the grocery store prices would have always been high, but they weren’t as high as they have been, especially during COVID and even after COVID,” said Harris. “So I do think we’ve seen that play a huge part in people’s ability to have enough to eat and even be able to plan for the next meal… with the economy being like it is, inflation being like it is, and the prices so high, parents are really trying to just get through the day in many cases. I see that quite a bit with my students because, again, many of them are full-time students, and maybe even working a part-time or even a full-time job.” 

Up until December 2023, Second Harvest Foodbank of Southeast North Carolina was the primary donor to RCC’s food pantry. Several local churches also support RCC with donations. RCC also partners with Kamren Lewis at UNC-Pembroke (UNCP). RCC has been the recipient of donations from the resource center at UNCP when they have a surplus. 

“I really worry about the cost of living and how that’s going to impact people’s ability to provide food for their families,” said Harris. “We have our community gardens. So, it’s kind of like growing our own, and so I think that’s going to be really important for us to continue to promote that, and hopefully, that’ll help with some of the food insecurities we’re experiencing. But the economy plays such a huge role; it kind of all turns on that sometimes.” 

Harris emphasized that food insecurity is a real issue that impacts the lives of real people every day, including college students. 

“I hope that people are realizing that real food insecurity is not just on paper; it’s real. For some of our students, it’s an everyday reality,” she said. “I think, first and foremost, you’ve got to recognize it for what it is, and just throwing a little bit of money here and there at it will not be the answer. For some of our students, it’s a matter of them coming in to grab something to go; they just need something to get them through the day.”