Political Reporting

Democratic Senate candidates keep gloves on in first, only debate

BY EVAN SEMONES

esemones@newsobserver.com​

RALEIGH, N.C. — Four largely unknown Democrats vying to become their party’s nominee for the U.S. Senate faced off Thursday night in their first and only debate.

Durham businessman Kevin Griffin, Ernest Reeves of Greenville, Spring Lake Mayor Chris Rey, and former state Rep. Deborah Ross of Raleigh discussed issues ranging from immigration to healthcare in the half hour debate moderated by WRAL News Anchor David Crabtree.

The candidates mostly agreed with each other. All support Medicaid expansion, an increase in the minimum wage, and better mental health services.

Griffin and Reeves, however, broke with their party’s position on immigration, saying they would not support legislation that would give immigrants a pathway to citizenship.

“I do not believe (immigrants) should be awarded citizenship,” Griffin said. “There’s path for them to follow already.”

Reeves, a retired Army captain who has never held elected office, followed up by saying, “I do not favor a pathway to citizenship, but I do favor a path to stay.”

Ross, a former American Civil Liberties Union lawyer, and Rey disagreed and said they favored a path that would give undocumented immigrants citizenship.

Ross said she would have supported the DREAM act that would have provided legal status for undocumented immigrants, and noted that Republican Sen. Richard Burr voted against it.

Burr faces three challengers in the Republican primary but is favored in the polls.

When the debate’s focus turned to the economy, all candidates agreed that an increase in the minimum wage was a way to help bolster the economy and support low to middle income North Carolinians.

Ross said increased investments in infrastructure needed to be made, while Griffin argued that he was the best candidate to address the economy with his experience as a business owner.

“For the last 23 years, that’s what I’ve done on a day-to-day basis,” he said.

The candidates did not attack each other and the only negative exchange came when Griffin said Ross couldn’t represent North Carolinians well.

“Miss Ross has 240 unanswered comments on her Facebook page,” Griffin said. “She’s not working for the people.”

Ross responded by saying that she communicates with voters regularly. “I have criss-crossed this state talking to voters in their hometowns,” Ross said.

Following the debate, the North Carolina Republican Party released a statement stating all four candidates were not prepared to lead North Carolina in the U.S. Senate.

“Their willingness to turn to government to create jobs instead of the private sector should concern taxpayers and job creators,” NCGOP Executive Director Dallas Woodhouse said.

Ross, having been endorsed by the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, leads her opponents in fundraising. She raised $585,692 for her campaign in the last quarter of 2015.


See this article on the News & Observer's website

Legislature opens with $200 million shortfall

BY EVAN SEMONES

 

RALEIGH, N.C. — The North Carolina General Assembly reconvened on Jan. 14 with a projected $200 million shortfall in revenue for the first half of the state’s fiscal year.

A revenue report released earlier this month by the General Assembly’s Fiscal Research Division states that personal income taxes are to blame for the weaker than expected collections.

Withholdings from residents’ paychecks declined significantly in 2014 due to the legislature’s 2013 tax law changes. In addition, 2014 income tax collections were about 5 percent below the expectations legislators had set when the current budget was drafted in 2013.

However, according to the report, written by economist Barry Boardman, “sales and corporate income tax offset some of the weakness in personal income tax collections.”

Boardman stated in his report that because of the state’s poor salary growth, withholdings would have continued to weaken even without tax cuts.

Leadership members Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger (R-Rockingham) and newly elected House Speaker Tim Moore (R-Cleveland) held a press conference on Jan. 15 to discuss the budget and other issues such as education, transportation, and healthcare that are expected to dominate this session’s agenda.

“We’ve got some things that we need to let a little more time go before we know exactly how we’re doing,” said Berger. “Some folks think it’s a timing issue.”

According to Fiscal Research Division Director Mark Trogdon, the lag in revenue can be mostly attributed to the lack of individual tax filings that have yet to come in to the state’s coffers. Corporate taxes are paid to the state four times over the course of a fiscal year. North Carolina also sees a significant sales tax boost after the holidays.

“Most of your [revenue] variability is after the third quarter filings until April. This is when everyone pays,” said Trogdon. “It’s a big month.”

If the income gap remains or widens, legislators will have less money to spend in writing next year’s budget, thus calling into question the state’s social safety net, new raises for state employees and teachers, and other possible new proposed spending.

When asked what would need to be done if revenues continued to come in lower than projected, Berger replied that he “wasn’t going to deal with hypotheticals.”

“This is not something that…we consider to be a major concern,” Berger said as he praised the tax reforms his party passed and the direction they have taken the state in. “There’s a need, always, for us to take a look at things, and if something needs to be done, we’ll see what needs to be done.”

Pressed for further clarification on what options he would consider, Berger’s press secretary Shelly Carver reiterated the senator’s earlier comments that the legislature would manage in a way that “moves North Carolina in the right direction.” 

Berger was also quick to remind reporters that the $200 million gap was less than the $2.5 billion shortfall legislators had to plug when they took control of both chambers in the General Assembly in 2011.

Boardman’s report remains optimistic that revenues will continue to improve over the course of this year as the economy rebounds and the state’s labor market grows.

“If the pace of employment growth stays on track this year, it will greatly improve the prospects for stronger wage growth by 2016,” the report said.

North Carolina’s unemployment rate for December was 5.5 percent, down from November’s rate of 5.9 percent. The national rate is 5.6 percent.

Published 1/27/15

New bill aims to lift craft beer production cap

BY EVAN SEMONES

 

RALEIGH, N.C. — North Carolina’s burgeoning brewing industry could receive a shot-in-the-arm if a recently proposed bill to increase the self-distribution limit passes the General Assembly.

H.B. 278, filed Wednesday by Rep. Michael Speciale (R-New Bern), would quadruple the self-distribution limit from 25,000 to 100,000 barrels so that small North Carolina breweries could retain control over distribution of their product.

A barrel is equivalent to approximately 14 cases or 330 beers.

Per North Carolina law, once breweries produce 25,001 barrels of beer annually, they are required to sign their distribution rights to a third-party wholesale distributor.

Before they reach that threshold, however, breweries are allowed to sell beer independently, both in their taprooms and through their own distribution networks.

Margo Knight Metzger, executive director for the North Carolina Brewers Guild, said the bill was not filed with the support of her organization.

“We have no problem with raising the cap on self-distribution,” said Metzger. “We prefer a compromise approach.”

The compromise that Metzger hopes she can reach with brewers, legislators and distributors would allow a brewery to maintain its right to self-distribute the first 25,000 barrels and keep assets such as delivery trucks and employees. Anything above that, Metzger says, would have to require a wholesale partner. 

“Within the current attitudes in the General Assembly right now, we feel that an approach that works for all sides is more likely to succeed and help our brewers in the short term.”

After Prohibition ended in 1933, North Carolina adopted a three-tier system to regulate the production, distribution, and sale of alcohol. Currently, the system allows brewers to sell and distribute up to 25,000 barrels, own and operate up to three retail locations, and terminate a distribution agreement within five business days without good cause.

“We believe the three-tier system has a place,” Metzger said.

Tim Kent, executive director of the North Carolina Beer and Wine Wholesalers Association, says that under the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in the 2005 Granholm v. Heald case, raising the cap to 100,000 barrels is “unconstitutional.”

In that ruling, the Supreme Court decided that it was a violation of the Constitution’s Commerce Clause for in-state companies to receive legislative advantages for which out-of-state companies are not eligible.

“If anyone were to challenge the North Carolina beer laws as they relate to craft brewers, I think that they would win in court,” Kent said.

Todd Ford, co-owner of Charlotte’s NoDa Brewing, said in a phone interview he wants to decide when his company needs to use a distributor, not the state.

“I can easily make deliveries to Raleigh or Greensboro,” Ford said. “It’s often cheaper that way.”

However, in rural areas of the state, Ford said that using a distributor would be ideal since  it “doesn’t make sense” to drive to every part of the state.

“Taking into account the volume of business that they do, I can give a big distributor cases of my product that they can easily drop off in dozens of outlying locations.”

Ford says that distributors are opposed to the bill because they “just want a piece of the action and a share of the profits.”

Metzger argues that while small brewers should be able to compete in their own home market and deliver their product, distributors play an integral role in getting their product to market. “We’re not the only players in this industry, and we want to be respectful of that.”

Published 3/9/15

Long Form

Food truck explosion challenges chefs to come up with the new next

BY EVAN SEMONES

DURHAM, N.C. — “Don’t buy a space,” Becky Hacker’s father pleaded.

Becky and her husband, Mike, were Durham food entrepreneurs striving to start their own business. The couple had a long history in the restaurant industry. Becky worked front-of-house as a waitress at Watts Grocery, where Mike has 25 years of experience as a chef.

“His favorite food is pizza, and pizza wasn't being done on a food truck yet [in the Triangle],” Becky Hacker said.

With a $35,000 budget and an old trailer from Mike’s defunct touring rock band, the couple decided to take a chance on the Triangle and become part of the burgeoning food truck industry.

Their plan: he’d cook the food and she’d manage the business.

And with that, Pie Pushers was born.

Every week starts the same way for the Hackers. Mondays and Tuesdays consist of food preparation and running errands in anticipation of the busy weekends when they see the bulk of their business.

As head chef, Mike is in charge of acquiring ingredients and curating the menu with new specialty pies. With the help of their seven employees, Mike prepares the food, sets the truck up (usually in 90 minutes), and takes customer orders while simultaneously placing pizzas in the oven.

Becky, who received an MBA from Marquette University, handles the business side of the truck’s operations by making budgets, analyzing costs and promoting the truck on social media. She spends a majority of her day in front of the computer -- about 10 hours a day on average.

“When we set up our truck for just a few hours at one spot, it’s pretty much like you’re setting up a small event every time,” Becky Hacker said.

In peak times of the year, the Hackers said they work at least 60 hours a week.

Although Becky described the venture as “successful,” she declined to provide figures detailing Pie Pushers' monthly expenses and profits.

But that success has come with a host of challenges.

A lukewarm reception by some Triangle municipalities, food truck laws that vary from city to city, stringent health code regulations and a struggle to increase profits in a near-saturated market are just a few of the problems the duo has encountered.

What was once old, now is chic

The food truck phenomenon isn’t new.

In fact, its roots date back to the 20th century when food trucks became synonymous with greasy, cheap food, construction sites and blue-collar workers.

Bob Kramer, supervisor at Food Protection Program for Columbus, Ohio, believes there’s a reason you see mostly young people patronizing food trucks across the country nowadays.

“It’s an age thing. Older people still think of them as ‘roach coaches,’” said Kramer.

Many industry experts and food truck owners see the modern food truck era as a product of the Great Recession.

At the time, Americans had cut back on extravagances such as eating out. As a result, restaurants’ revenues plummeted, and there were 251,000 fewer jobs nationally in 2010, due to downsizing or closures, than before the recession started in 2007, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

This period of high unemployment, stagnant wages and poor job growth forced many trained and talented chefs out of their traditional restaurants and into the trucks.

Food trucks saw their national resurgence in 2008 when Los Angeles-based entrepreneurs Mark Manguera and Caroline Shin and Chef Roy Choi garnered national attention for their food truck, Kogi BBQ. They combined Korean BBQ and Mexican tacos to make inexpensive entrees served out of the back of a truck.

The rise of the smartphone, social media and mobile apps allowed owners of food trucks to reach customers, market their brands and be accessible to many communities.

It was the perfect storm.

Restaurant employees, chefs and foodies took note, and the idea spread rapidly across the country. Food trucks were, and still are, a way for chefs and entrepreneurs to bring new food concepts to the public without incurring the traditional expenses and overhead that come with opening a traditional sit-down restaurant.

The Hackers are one example of this. They were among the early local pioneers of the food truck movement that has spread rapidly across the country, onto American streets and into the stomachs of millions.

When Pie Pushers came onto the local food truck scene in 2010, there were just 12 trucks in the Triangle, Becky Hacker said.

Now, there are more than 120 that criss-cross the Triangle everyday, driving from downtowns to suburban business parks in search of hungry customers.

Kramer feels that food trucks — forecast by Intuit to reach $2.7 billion in revenue by 2017 — are one of many ways people can now order food in the Internet age. “It’s not really a new idea, but it’s a great way to serve people at where they work or play,” he said. “It’s an ever changing industry.”

Regulation and growing pains

From the exterior, restaurants on wheels are reveling in unprecedented publicity and are increasingly seen as a glamorous new way of eating.

An expectation of food trucks is that they're inexpensive to set up and run, when compared to traditional brick and mortar restaurants. However, there are a plethora of costs that tend to be overlooked.

Food is usually the largest cost, closely followed by gas, especially if the truck uses a gas cooker.

“Mainly because we’re traveling and pulling that trailer, we fill up every couple of days on propane,” Becky Hacker said.

“It was more work than I thought it would be. It was all we did all the time for the first couple of months,” she said. Many industry insiders, including Kramer, believe that some 60 percent of food trucks fail within the first three years.

“It’s not just the part where we feed you, there’s so much more that goes into it,” she said.

“I’ve seen [food trucks operated by] either younger people or older people with families that think it will be easy … and then it takes up so much time and resources that they are like, ‘Oh wow, this isn’t what I wanted from it.’”

In addition, Hacker believes some Triangle cities are more hospitable to them than others. That has made operating in the area “very challenging,” she said.

“Durham and Carrboro welcomed [food trucks] with open arms,” she said.

Laws governing food trucks vary from city to city across the country. Becky Hacker says that the Triangle’s two most populous cities -- Raleigh and Durham – have, in her opinion, opposing views on food trucks, with Durham being the “friendliest” and Raleigh being “the most difficult” to work with.

Both cities require mandatory permits in order to operate a food truck within city lines. Durham is the less expensive at $25, while Raleigh is the most costly at $150. If truck owners wish to do business in different Triangle cities, they must purchase a permit from each one.

For a food truck, serving food in the Triangle isn’t as simple as driving up to a parking space and waiting for customers to arrive.

They’re heavily regulated as to where they can park and how long they can operate.

In Raleigh, food trucks are allowed only on private property. Durham, on the other hand, allows trucks to locate on the streets and on private property. Unlike Raleigh, trucks in Durham also may serve customers at all hours of the day.

Hacker claims this regulation keeps parking spaces free for diners and prevents customer poaching. Many restaurant owners believe that food trucks, often with quicker service and lower costs, are taking their business.

In Raleigh and Chapel Hill, Hacker feels the restaurant scene is predominant, and restaurants associations in these cities said “no” before the new movement started.

“That voice already had a presence and was able to influence a decision,” she said.

In her view, the two industries provide “very different services” and target different audiences. She feels that food trucks and traditional restaurants can, and often do, live in harmony.

“If you wanna go sit in a restaurant, you’re not gonna go and get a piece of pizza from the window,” she said.

“It’s competition, but it’s not necessarily bad.”

Health concerns

The food truck’s greatest asset — it’s mobility — has also become one of its biggest liabilities. The fact that food trucks are always on the go poses significant risks for the quality of food consumed by an increasing number of Triangle residents.

“When we started it wasn’t a business model yet and there were less things we were inspected on,” Hacker said.

In 2014 alone, Raleigh and Durham had a combined 300 food truck applications submitted to their health departments. This gives Mark Meyer, general inspections supervisor with the Durham County Public Health Department, cause for concern.

“[Food trucks] have special health challenges,” Meyer said. “They’re mobile and disconnected from reliable water, power and food sources.”

Traditional restaurants, by law, must have kitchens and industrial-grade equipment to help prepare food and keep areas occupied by employees and customers clean. Food trucks aren’t exempt from this.

The average food truck kitchen measures 14’ long by 6’ wide. Due to these rather small confines, food trucks can’t fit all the necessary equipment in their mobile kitchens.

It is, therefore, legally necessary for them to prepare and store their food in a commissary.

Most cities — including all Triangle municipalities — won’t allow individuals to prepare food in their homes before selling it to the general public. Health departments, Meyer stated, can’t go into homes to inspect them, and they almost never have the right equipment or supplies to meet the health code.

A commissary serves as a home base for food trucks and allows vendors to obey the law while cutting costs.

Often times, these special areas are kitchens owned by brick-and-mortar restaurants that food trucks pay to use, in order to avoid building expensive kitchens of their own. Here, owners of food trucks prepare and store their food in a sterile environment that meets health code ordinances.

 

Commissaries also allow a place for food trucks to park their vehicles and safely dispose of grease, used water and solid waste. 

Meyer said food truck owners have the option to create their own kitchens that comply with health laws, if they don’t want to pay rent for a commissary. However, doing so would result in thousands of dollars of extra expenses that many “just wouldn’t be able to afford.”

North Carolina was the last state to adopt the FDA’s 2009 Food Code in September 2012. The new food code, Meyer said, is the most far-reaching change ever to North Carolina’s food preparation standards. He said it has taken the General Assembly “almost 20 years” to adopt a newer version of the FDA’s Food Code.

For the first time, the new food code lists specific rules for “mobile food units,” better known as food trucks. It now requires all food trucks to post sanitation-rating cards that are commonly displayed in all restaurants.

“If they don’t have a grade, the public should ask,” Meyer said.

What the new law doesn’t address, however, is the shared commissaries food trucks and restaurants are utilizing. Meyer says the standards should be updated, because “coordinating menus becomes a challenge.” This, according to Meyer, is “unlikely to happen anytime soon” because of the “tense” political climate present at the General Assembly.

However, he believes food trucks can be “just as safe and clean” as restaurants if they’re well run.

“You want to get a sense if they’re clean,” he said.

Where do we go from here?

With the explosive food truck growth the Triangle has witnessed, the trucks are no longer considered unique.

“It is harder for the sake of [people] now have more options. The biggest challenge is getting people to know [new food trucks] exist,” Hacker said. “How do you stand out from 100 people if you're new?”

Industry experts, in addition to Hacker and Kramer, believe the answer is developing menus around signature gourmet dishes and employing unique marketing techniques that will help set them a part from their peers.

Pie Pushers has more than 9,000 followers on Twitter, close to 2,000 likes on Facebook, and a 4-star rating on Yelp. The outlet is established enough that the Hackers no longer have to travel from event to event across the Triangle in hopes of attracting customers.

Their frequent updates on social media allow their current – and future -- customers to find out where they’re located on any given day. They also try to be consistent with locations during the week.

“We don’t just pull up on a street,” Hacker said.

She wants the industry to continue growing. She encourages her truck’s customers to visit other food trucks in the Triangle.

“The food trucks get along more than you think,” she said. “In general it’s a very welcoming industry, and we’re all helpful even though we’re competing. Everybody is pretty supportive.”

Kramer added, “It’s not going to go away.”


See this article on WRAL.com's website

From forest to food bank: Venison helps protein problem in low-income communities

BY EVAN SEMONES

EFLAND, N.C. – “Don’t you leave now, I’ve got some meat for ya!” Donna Gray, director of Efland United Methodist Church’s food bank, exclaimed in her twangy Southern accent, wagging her finger in a motherly way at customer Alfredo Sanchez.

Sanchez smiled shyly and shuffled his feet, his eyes fixed on his battered boots as he waited patiently for his weekly supply of fresh meat. He lifted his head for the first time as Donna handed him a plethora of venison sausages in a white plastic bag labeled “not for sale.”

A wide grin spread across his face as he clutched the precious cargo close to his chest, expressed his gratitude with a solemn nod and made his way back home to his wife and three children.

 

***

Hearing the word “meat” uttered in a food bank anywhere in the United States is rare. Walk into most non-profit or church-sponsored food pantries and you’ll see shelves stocked high with overwhelming amounts of cheap canned, sugary, and fatty foods.

Foods high in protein — like fresh meat — are hard to come by for America’s neediest and hungriest residents.

Donna and her son, Rob, are helping to change this reality for the 70 or so people who come by each week looking for assistance in putting quality food on the table. And they’re looking specifically to venison, or deer meat, as the solution.

Rob’s passion for hunting deer came after the unexpected death of his father in April 2013. The emotional turmoil he experienced in the days soon thereafter caused him to rethink the direction he wanted his life to take.

“At this point in my life, I was not a religious person, and I was still trying to find my way and figure out what in the world my purpose in life was supposed to be,” Rob said.

At the time, he was a Research Triangle Park employee. He made the life-changing decision to trade his suit, tie and laptop for camouflage, a rifle and a Bible.

 

The self-professed firearms enthusiast stumbled upon a show about turkey hunting two months after his father died. “I was fascinated to learn about the challenge of hunting and I fell in love with the idea of trying to hunt. I logged so many hours in front of a computer every day, getting outdoors sounded like a dream come true,” he said.

He realized he has a talent for hunting deer, but after his family refused to eat the meat, Rob began to empty his venison-filled freezers and donate the bounty to those in need. The need for fresh meat was so great that Rob launched Orange County Outdoors Ministry in September 2015.

“The primary mission of the group is essentially addressing hunger needs,” Rob said. “What we can do is, from a hunting stand point, is harvest deer and have it processed at our cost through a state-inspected processor. It comes back packaged just like any other meat would. Then we go and find families that are in need.”

***

Like many families, the Sanchezes would never have fresh meat sitting in the fridge without the ministry. When Alfredo Sanchez and his wife moved from Mexico to the U.S. in pursuit of a better life, they didn’t expect to be living in poverty and struggling day-to-day to put food on the table for their three children.

For Sanchez, who has to work two jobs because his wife recently lost hers, providing food for his family is one of the hardest things he’s had to face. The Sanchez family of five receives only $150 a month in food stamp assistance. With the price of ground beef and chicken hitting all-time highs — the average price has increased 81 percent since 2009, according to the FDA — at the grocery store, providing quality food rich in protein is difficult, if not impossible, for Sanchez.

Sanchez pulled his worn-out baseball hat over his eyes and tears rolled down his withered cheeks as he explained the little assistance they receive. “It’s breaking my heart,” he said.

The ministry has proved to be very popular with Rob’s church’s food bank recipients, including Sanchez. “It was eye opening for me when I went to these people’s homes to deliver food. I’d open up the freezer and there’s nothing in there. I know when you open up my freezer at home, things start to fall out,” Rob said.

Sanchez has been receiving the venison as his only meat source every week for almost three months since Donna walked across the road into the gas station he works at and said, “We have food for you.”

“Before, when we had more money, I would go to the store and buy meat like chicken but not now,” Sanchez said. “Everything is expensive and my jobs don’t pay too much so I cannot afford meat.”

Despite the frequent trips to the food bank, he insists that his life here is better than it was in Mexico. “Right now I’m happy here, we don’t have too much money but I’m happy, I’m safe and not scared so its good.”

Since starting the ministry, Rob has seen first hand the effects of a lack of good quality protein available in food banks. He blames it on storage issues and people sometimes donating their unwanted goods. “I even find myself doing it, I’ll go to a pantry and donate my canned goods, I won’t go into my freezer and donate my best steaks,” he said.

 

“The number one issue with any kind of a church feeding program or any kind of a food bank will tell you is that there is just no access to fresh meat; it’s very limited,” he said. “Fruits and vegetables, canned goods; they can get that. Fresh meat is a whole different story.”

The ministry “did” nine deer, a hunter’s term for killing, last year. This translates to over 1800 meals, three times more than his original goal, and a lot of hard-to-come-by high-quality meat, rich in protein, for the visitors of Efland UMC’s food bank.

And it’s helping a lot. As a component of every cell in the body, protein is an extremely vital part of a person’s diet.


“Muscle wasting, edema, an extremely emaciated appearance, swollen stomachs, anemia, lack of energy, lower immunity and a life-threatening and debilitating disease called kwashiorkor.”


Gene Erb, a registered dietician at Duke Medicine, listed the harrowing effects of a lack of protein in a person’s diet as if he were reading a horror story.

He recommended the average amount of protein a person needs to consume per day: “A rule of thumb of half a gram of protein per pound of body weight.”

According to Erb, there are some key nutrients found in protein, including B vitamins and iron. “If you’re even borderline on protein intake its very often you’ll be insufficient with those other nutrients,” he said.

The way Erb sees it; venison might be the solution to the vast number of people with iron deficiencies in the U.S. The natural meat is much lower in fat and saturated fat, contains more protein and also has higher iron content when compared to traditional meats such as chicken and beef.

***

Kathleen Baird stands hunched over behind a food-filled table in the building the ministry calls “The Hut.” She smiles as she places pastries and bread into bags and offers the venison to visitors. She looks like a much-valued volunteer but when the visitors leave she steps back into the kitchen toward the fridge for her own haul of essential venison.

Raised by a family of hunters in Michigan, she is an avid fan of red meat and venison in particular. “If I could eat venison three times a day I would. I’d have it breakfast, lunch and supper and probably snacks; I’d have jerky in between.”

Baird, 64, who raised nine children and was a stay at home mom for 30 years, is now medically retired. As a result of her low income, she can’t afford good quality meat. “If I get meat at the store its whatever the cheapest is, so this has been great to be able to have this as its all natural.”

For Baird, the ministry is a great help and has kept her from applying for food stamps. “I prefer to live without government assistance,” she said, as she looked down at her swollen hands that were locked into crumpled fists because of psoriatic arthritis.

Fifty percent of her protein comes from the venison provided by the ministry. Without it, she would have to rely on poor-quality chicken or high fat content cheese and peanut butter. “For me to be able to have the venison, the red meat, which is so high in protein and so good for you, has really helped me a lot to be able to feed that to myself and my family.”

While some of his recipients have expressed hesitation about trying meat that you can’t usually buy in a grocery store, Rob said most of the people like it. “It’s an acquired taste, but it’s about as organic as you can get,” he said.

“They’re just happy to get whatever they can get.”

 

Donna headed to the kitchen and pulled a packet of Chili’s Applewood BBQ glaze & Pioneer gravy mix from the cupboard. She explained that she has to help teach recipients different ways they can cook and prepare the venison they receive, as many people are often confused and scared about cooking the game meat.

Baird laughed as she described the first time people in the food bank considered the venison idea. “When we had our first meeting about it they were like, uh, how do I cook it and I was like just like you would any other meat; it’s not alien food.”

“If you didn’t tell people it was venison, they probably wouldn’t know the difference,” Baird said. “Some people are like, ‘We’re not eating Bambi.’ But this meat has really helped me.”

As median income decreases, N.C. families pay record tuition rates

BY EVAN SEMONES

 

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — “It works out to just pennies per inspiring moment.”

 

This is the headline that greets thousands of prospective students and their families on UNC-Chapel Hill’s cost-of-attendance website.

 

But college tuition works out to be more than “just pennies” for many North Carolina families, who were better able to afford the cost of a college education — at one of the state’s 15 public universities — more than a decade ago than they are now.

 

The cause?

 

When adjusted for inflation, median income has decreased in more than 90 percent of the state’s 100 counties since 2004, resulting in an ever-widening gap between incomes and rising state college tuition rates.

 

*****

From the mountains to the coast, residents in all corners of North Carolina have experienced significant the drop in median income.

 

The state’s average median income decreased nine percent from $51,272 in 2004 to $46,651 in 2014. The average median income in the U.S. decreased as well, but at less than half the rate North Carolinians experienced.

 

Residents of the state’s 80 rural counties, as defined by the North Carolina Rural Center, witnessed an average decrease totaling $3,200 between 2004 and 2014.

 

Wilkes County, located an hour west of Winston-Salem at the foot of the Blue Ridge Mountains, witnessed the highest drop in median income in the state. On average, Wilkes residents made $44,408 in 2004 compared to $33,438 in 2014, an almost 25 percent loss that equates to $11,000 in lost earnings yearly.

 

The state’s 20 urban and suburban counties, including Wake and Durham, fared worse. Residents there averaged an inflation-adjusted loss of more than $4,500 in median income during the 10 year period.

 

Guilford County, home to Greensboro and High Point, the state’s third and ninth largest cities, respectively, experienced the most significant decline for urban counties. Its median income decreased by almost 16 percent from $53,382 to $44,881.

 

Only five counties had increases in their median income averages: Camden, Granville, Gates, Hoke, Hyde, Onslow, and Pasquotank. When adjusted for inflation, residents in these counties saw an average increase of only $1,500 from 2004 to 2014.

 

*****

While most North Carolinians have experienced double-digit percentage losses compared to the annual income they received in 2004, college tuition rates for UNC system institutions have done the opposite during the same period of time.

 

Tuition at several state universities has increased at triple-digit rates.

 

North Carolina State University, Appalachian State University, and Winston-Salem State University all posted tuition increases above 100 percent.

 

The UNC system’s colleges had a collective average tuition increase of $3,084 between 2004 and 2014.

 

At UNC-CH, for example, in-state tuition increased by more than 90 percent to almost $4,000 per semester — not including the rising costs of books, housing, meal plans, and other expenses — between 2004 and 2014.

 

Psalms White, a freshman at UNC-CH, understands a little too well the struggle to afford the increasing tuition and fees.

 

White, a Charlotte, N.C. native, currently attends UNC with the help of multiple needs-based scholarships, private scholarships and loans. She receives $12,400 in need-based scholarships alone and wouldn’t be able to afford tuition otherwise.

 

When adjusted for inflation, Mecklenburg County residents (where the Whites live) now make more than $3,000 less than they did 12 years ago.

 

Her father is a Baptist pastor and her mother is currently unemployed. “My parents were really bad spenders back in the day when credit cards became a thing so, although they saved up some money for my college, most of it has been spent on getting rid of debt,” she said.

 

White, who applied to UNC Greensboro and Howard University in her senior year of high school, said one of the main reasons she chose to attend Chapel Hill was simply because it was the only school that offered her a loan to make it affordable.

 

“The amount of money UNC gave me was more than any other school I applied to,” White said. “Howard was $40,000 a year and they only offered me $5,000. That’s nothing, so I couldn't afford to go there,” she said.

 

White isn't a first-generation college student. Her mother, Pamela, graduated from UNC and has noticed the difference in tuition rates. She said it costs almost $10,000 a year more than when she graduated from the university in 1985.

 

Psalms White is currently the only person in her immediate family in college but her younger brother, T. J., 14, is hoping to become a movie director one day.

 

“My parents don't really talk about TJ going to college. I don't know how they're going to afford it,” Psalms said.

 

Families are taking on unprecedented levels of debt, and she’s skeptical of her degree’s worth  in today’s economy.

 

“We’re paying all this money and for what? I want to know what’s so special, I better learn how to do witchcraft or something,” she said.

 

*****

An economic study conducted in 2015 by South by North Strategies, a North Carolina-based research firm, found that, when adjusted for inflation, recent income losses have erased the progress the state had made in bringing its median household income to the national level.

 

In 2013, the typical North Carolina household received $80 in income for every $100 received by the typical American household — the largest recorded gap at any time since 1984.

 

The report also found that the state’s median income has yet to fully recover from the Great Recession.

 

From 2007 to 2013, the inflation-adjusted income of the median North Carolina household dropped by more than 8%. Median income fell by 5.5% from 2007 to 2009 and by another 3.2% during the recovery that started in 2009 and ran through 2013.

 

“Since peaking in early 2010, North Carolina’s unemployment rate has fallen sharply, a development that has led many civic leaders and pundits to herald a ‘Carolina Comeback,’" John Quinterno, the report’s author, said.

 

“That claim, while alliterative, glosses over the deep problems that still trouble the state’s labor market and ignores the erosion in household income levels and living standards that have occurred since the last recession,” he concluded.

 

The report stated that the state’s poor labor market conditions and public policy choices have kept the average household median income from rising.

 

“Allowing inflation to erode the value of the minimum wage, refusing to enforce and to modernize labor laws, undercutting the effectiveness of the unemployment insurance system, making work more costly by repealing the state earned income tax credit, and enacting tax policies that fail to boost growth yet drain needed public revenues—these choices have tamped down wages and incomes,” the report said.

 

Quinterno’s report also found that real median household income in North Carolina was effectively no different in 2013 than in 1984.

 

N.C. Department of Commerce Spokeswoman Kim Genardo countered, saying that economic conditions have “greatly” improved in North Carolina since the Great Recession, and the state’s cost of living — including state college tuition — is lower than what others across the country pay.

***

Tabitha Privott, a first-generation college student, has seen her tuition increase during the four years she has studied at UNC-CH. The graduating senior said she had to take out a higher amount in loans each year to cover rising tuition rates, leaving her deeper in debt.

 

The 22-year-old resident advisor has borrowed more than $40,000 to pay for college — $3,000 higher than what the average Class of 2016 graduate has in student loan debt, according to a CBS News report.

 

She has had to rely on her family to pay for her personal spending, including her on-campus meal plan and has to live, in her words, “extremely frugally.”

 

“I personally, as an individual student, don’t think I’m getting anything extra with the increase, but I do know some of the things [the tuition increase] goes toward is academic advising. Behind the scenes stuff that they said it went to, but I have no idea,” she said.

 

On the cost side, schools continue to compete for students by working to attract top faculty, build and maintain the latest facilities and offer the next generation of students amenities officials tout on campus tours for prospective applicants.

 

Higher education payrolls, one of the most frequently cited reasons for rising college tuition rates, have also been rapidly adding non-teaching jobs in recent years. Public and private colleges and universities expanded their payrolls by 28 percent between 2000 and 2012, more than 50 percent faster than the previous decade, according to an analysis of higher education staffing by the Delta Cost Project.

 

"Many of these new positions appear to be providing student services, but whether they represent justifiable expenses or unnecessary 'bloat' is up for debate," wrote Donna Desrochers, the report's principal researcher.

 

Shirley Ort, the director of UNC’s Office of Scholarships and Financial Aid, said tuition increases can mostly be attributed to retaining talented faculty member and cuts in education funding at the state level. The legislature reduced the University of North Carolina system budget by $26 million last year alone.

 

“Due to budget cuts, we’ve had to increase professor salaries, because our faculty members were required to teach more classes,” Ort said.

 

Privott believes that means she got less out of her classes as professors were less prepared and she doesn't believe there has been innovation to justify the increase.

 

“I had a professor last semester who was teaching four classes, and two were grad classes,” she said. “What am I getting out of this? While I’m pinching pennies to survive here, [the university is] just reaping the benefits.”

 

*****

 

North Carolina’s General Assembly has crafted a plan to better help students, like Priovtt and White, and their families afford tuition at state schools.

 

Under a new bill sponsored by Sen. Tom Apodaca (R-Henderson), in-state students admitted to UNC system schools would enter with a guarantee that their tuition would not increase if they graduate within four years.

 

The bill would also drastically lower tuition at the University of North Carolina at Pembroke and Western Carolina University.

 

In-state tuition would be set at $500 per semester at those schools. Out-of-state students would pay $2,500 a semester.

 

The bill also would have lowered tuition at three of the state’s historically black universities - Elizabeth City State University, Fayetteville State University, and Winston-Salem State University.

 

However, after alumni and students from the HBCUs protested and said the legislation would threaten their schools’ economic viability, Apodaca said he would drop those schools from his plan.

 

If the bill passes, the flat tuition would begin this fall, and the $500 per-semester tuition at the remaining two schools would begin in 2018.

 

White said the bill would provide much-needed certainty for her family’s budget.

 

“My parents’ financial struggles don’t allow them to save as much as they would like. Tuition just keeps going up, and that makes it so much harder,” she said.

 

“They’ve just always said to me, ‘We’re going to make it happen some way.’”

© 2016 By Evan Semones