Like onions, food insecurity is an issue with layers. The surface layers can be peeled away to reveal the internal causes and solutions that may not be apparent right away: systemic societal issues, intersectionality, and community. The more you peel away, the closer you get to the root, or in this case, The Bulb.
The Bulb is a donation-based nonprofit organization in Charlotte that provides barrier-free access to mostly local produce as well as education on health and wellness to food insecure neighborhoods. They partner with local farms, grocery stores and communities to work toward a world in which fresh and nutritious food is a right and not a privilege.
First founded in 2016 by Alisha Street, The Bulb has partnered with Trader Joe’s, American Heart Association, Veggie Van Mobile Market, Wooden Robot and others to help fight food insecurity.
Ebonee Bailey, executive director of The Bulb since 2020, remembers the organization’s humble beginnings, when it consisted of just five volunteers for the first few years of its existence.
Now, the team has grown into five full-time employees and 12 members across the board, and are currently looking to hire a food rescue assistant to join the staff and work with grocery and farm partners to pick up, sort and store food that would have otherwise gone to waste.
“We are still heavily, heavily, heavily operated with volunteers. Volunteers are everything for us,” Bailey said.
Bailey recalled how Street kicked things off on her own. Working as a social worker housing homeless veterans, Street (then named Pruett) quickly recognized the issues surrounding food accessibility in certain communities around the city, as many of the people she helped find housing were not located anywhere near food resources.
Even when she would go to the food pantries herself to pick up food for her clients, she realized that all of the food was processed.
“Even though that was a great resource, it was just not healthy food for the people I was serving. Diabetes was rampant in my caseload,” Street said in 2018. “I didn’t feel comfortable with that, so I started going to farmers markets and gleaning off of what they couldn’t sell.”
Street would load up the back of her truck, drive out to neighborhoods and give the fresh produce away. She eventually purchased a mobile market so she could carry more food to the neighborhoods she served, as well as plan pop-up markets at spots like the Charlotte Transportation Center in Uptown.
Fast forward to 2022, a year in which The Bulb has organized 559 mobile markets and 23 delivery routes. The organization has served over 17,000 area residents and impacted more than 52,000 individuals along with distributing more than 209,000 pounds of food this year alone.
The Bulb recognizes that food insecurity intersects with a lot of different issues within the Charlotte area. Along with their distribution of fresh produce at their mobile markets, they work with Hope Five to provide toiletries and Promising Pages to offer books to fight literacy inequality at their 14 weekly mobile markets, including a new one in Wadesboro that was announced in early December, expanding The Bulb’s presence to Anson County.
The holiday season is one of the most intense times for food pantries around the country. The Bulb has two ways of stepping up during the cold season: an annual winter clothing drive and a holiday catalog, a registry of sorts to allow donors to see exactly what The Bulb’s clients and teams need, this year ranging from tablecloths and tents to a new tractor.
The winter clothing drive is held at The Innovation Barn in Charlotte’s Belmont neighborhood, with large pink bins set out for drive-by drop-offs of items like scarves, gloves, coats and winter foods that will be distributed throughout the various mobile markets.
The Bulb is also offering a “Party HEARTy New Years Box” full of fresh produce that serves as a gift idea for friends, family, or neighbors, with proceeds going toward local farmers and The Bulb’s mission to fight food insecurity.
Fighting food insecurity
Based on the USDA’s definition of the term, food insecurity means the disruption of food intake or eating patterns because of a lack of money and other resources. This disruption may be influenced by a number of factors including unemployment, race and ethnicity, loss of transportation, or disability.
One term that has become a common refrain in most discussions around food insecurity, and wrongfully so according to staff at The Bulb, is “food desert.”
Lisa Wendling, communications director at The Bulb since 2020, explained why the team tends to steer away from using that term, as what they’re fighting for doesn’t encompass a singular entity or area.
“A food desert is only looking at your general proximity or a person’s general proximity to full-service grocery, so places that are more than a convenience store,” Wendling said.
As Bailey further explained, food insecurity is a broader issue with many more causes than just location.
“It can be illness, if you’re disabled, you know what I mean?” she said. “You don’t have the proper resources to get to the bus stop or whatever it might be. Food insecurity is bigger. For example, income is bigger than just one area. You could live in the area that’s not considered a food desert based on the average income and still be food insecure.”
Food justice — a term that refers to communities exercising their right to grow, sell and eat healthy food — is a large part of The Bulb’s overall mission. Healthy food means food is fresh, nutritious, affordable, culturally-appropriate and grown locally with care for the well-being of the land, workers and animals.
“Food justice is serving the communities,” Wendling said. “It’s increasing access. It’s removing barriers. It’s empowering sovereignty. It’s empowering people to take charge of their own health, well-being, nutrition and offering that sort of education to people. We’re not looking to impose our personal views of what healthy is on a community.”
Their weekly mobile markets are another key aspect in serving Charlotte and surrounding areas. The Bulb’s mobile market team comes in Tuesday through Friday to load up their van with produce designated for that market then set up a table with anything ranging from four to 10 different options of produce, including milk, eggs and bread, depending on the market.
Prior to the pandemic, the mobile market team hosted cooking demos at the pop-ups, teaching recipes and best practices, and could be bringing them back soon.
While they haven’t been leading classes, per se, the team has worked with Johnson and Wales University, collaborating with students and professors to provide recipes and nutrition cards for the seasonal produce they offer at markets.
“We can say, ‘Hey, this is how you slice and dice roasted butternut squash,’ and then ‘This is how you prepare Swiss chard, and these are the benefits of them,’” Bailey said.
Everything at the mobile markets is set-up like a traditional farmers market — baskets are set out on the table for bulk items, a headcount is taken, and folks walk down the line to tell an employee or volunteer what they’d like. Based on household size, they have their groceries bagged for them and are sent on their way.
The Bulb follows a no-barriers approach, which means there is no money expected from individuals coming to the markets and no terms that neighbors need to meet to receive food.
“No referral is required to come to the market. I don’t care if you make $0 or you make $100,000 … whatever,” Wendling said. “Everybody is welcome to come shop with us. We’re not asking for any sort of identification or proof of anything. Nobody has ever had a concern about people abusing the process.”
A few of The Bulb’s partners host the markets with their own volunteers, and all Bailey’s teams need to do is drop the food off.
“We are fortunate enough to work with four churches that we just deliver the produce and with their own volunteers, they execute markets. They’re a partner, a sponsor, an extension of serving and food justice,” Bailey expressed.
There are some communities where The Bulb has offered services for a couple of years only to see the need in that area diminish. For The Bulb, that’s the best-case scenario, and with their mobility, they can move wherever the need is.
But The Bulb also understands that the act of consistency goes a long way for those in need. Reliability is important when it comes to this kind of work. Every day from Tuesday to Friday, The Bulb hosts its markets at the same times and places so clients can build a sense of regularity with them.
So as long as the need is there, The Bulb is there.
“As weeks go by, more and more people hear about us and then they come to rely on the fact that this is where we’ll be — that we are here to serve you,” Wendling said. “Even if it’s raining or if it’s 20 degrees outside, we’ll still be here.”