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Sonya Jones has never been one to pass up an opportunity. In fact, it was an important skill for someone who, growing up, experienced hunger in a community known for its fertile farmland. But Sonya’s wasn’t the only family struggling to make ends meet. Approximately 20% of adults in Western North Carolina are food insecure.
This disconnect put Sonya on a path to learn more about food justice. Her journey eventually led her to the University of South Carolina where she taught and directed the Center for Research in Nutrition and Health Disparities and worked with innovative food access programs.
An opportunity to telecommute allowed her to return to Hendersonville, which has been her family’s home for generations. Then the pandemic hit, and another opportunity presented itself. Local Hispanic organizers were trying to ensure access to culturally appropriate fresh food. Sonya drew on her experience to support them as they established Abundancia Community Food Bank, a produce buying co-op, a seed library, and community gardens.
“If we walk alongside people who are living in food insecure situations, we are going to learn a lot from them,” Sonya explains. “We already know a lot of experts in survival – they’re living in our community.”
When she learned Hendersonville was going to be included in the Healthy Opportunities Pilot (HOP), Sonya helped her mutual aid network become a nonprofit, Caja Solidaria, so they could bring pilot resources to the community.
In just over a year, Caja Solidaria has grown by leaps and bounds. The organization currently serves 93 families enrolled in HOP by providing weekly healthy food boxes and fruit and vegetable prescriptions. Some families come to Caja to select their beautifully arranged local produce, locally farmed meat and fish, eggs, whole grains, beans, and other nutrient-dense ingredients. Caja helps families get connected to other much-needed resources as well.
“Caja was the gateway to help I didn’t realize was available,” Jessica notes. “We were already members of their produce buying club, which makes it possible for us to afford local produce. But enrolling in the pilot helped us access additional support for my child who has severe allergies.”
Through HOP, Jessica’s child received a referral for healthy home goods including a new mattress, allergenic bedding, an air purifier, and a dehumidifier.
“My child is thriving now,” Jessica shares. “I can’t say enough good things about Caja. They are family, and we love seeing them every week.”
Not everyone can come to Caja, so Caja comes to them.
HOP funding helped Sonya purchase a delivery vehicle her daughter dubbed the Cajasaurus and Sonya calls the VegeGuagua, named after the small trucks that deliver produce in some Latin American countries. No matter what you call it, Caja’s mobile farmer’s market is a welcome sight for pilot participants who are home bound or lack reliable transportation. Recently, Caja added a bicycle with a trailer to its mobile market fleet. This low-tech innovation has been met with enthusiasm by families with small children who can easily reach the fresh fruits and vegetables in tow.
“Participating in the pilot has helped Caja in every way,” Sonya explains. “It helps us meet people where they are, sometimes literally.”
By providing a new income stream, HOP has made it possible for Caja to hire the staff needed to source fresh produce, make home deliveries, bill Medicaid, and teach evidence-based nutrition classes. The pilot has also helped them purchase refrigerators and a walk-in cooler to store food longer and minimize waste. But more than anything, HOP has helped Caja build a stronger community of care.
“Food is social glue,” Sonya admits. “The carrots are important but not as important as being able to show up week after week.”
– JESSICA, HOP PARTICIPANT