Rising Star: Marianne LeGreco says building trust helps battle food insecurity

Rising Star: Marianne LeGreco says building trust helps battle food insecurity

October 17, 2018

MARIANNE LEGRECO BELIEVES THAT A SYSTEM in which everyone has ready access to nutritious food is possible.

But those looking to build such a system must know how to build a rapport with people, so they can open up about their concerns.

“Because, it’s hard for people to talk about not having enough money to feed their family,” she says. “Or sending their kids to get free lunch and breakfast because they’re not going to get that at their house. You really have to put the time in to build trust and get people to tell their stories.”

LeGreco, a communications professor at UNC-Greensboro, has had plenty of conversations about food security over the years, developing an urban garden in the Warnersville neighborhood, helping start the Guilford County Food Council, and playing a key role in launching the Mobile Oasis Farmers Market, which sells fresh produce in the city’s food deserts.

She has also been named this year’s News & Record Rising Star. The award honors women under 40 who have made a significant impact on the community.

“The unique qualities that she possesses cause her to make a lasting impact on people she meets and places she goes,” wrotes Luck Davidson, executive director of nonprofit Triad Local First, in nominating LeGreco for Rising Star. “This is a special combination of talent and effectiveness. In fact, it’s difficult to imagine our community without Marianne LeGreco and her passion for studying, writing, speaking and acting upon the various food issues that we face in Greensboro.”

LeGreco, who grew up in Galena, Illinois, did competitive public speaking and debate in high school. She earned her doctorate in communications from Arizona State University in 2007.

“I’m very interested in how we can improve the way humans interact around important social issues,” she says. “And while I was out at Arizona State, I stumbled onto food while I was writing my dissertation. I read a couple of articles, which got me thinking about food advertising, and the way people talk about food with their friends and their families and their co-workers, and that turned into a project on school meal programs.”

LeGreco arrived in Greensboro in 2007 to work at UNCG, and got in touch with several researchers and nonprofits in the area looking at how to help people receiving government food assistance.

“I wanted to mobilize a conversation around food in Greensboro,” she says. “People started to realize that they could organize to improve access to food in their neighborhoods. And I got really lucky in that I found some great partners early on.”

One of her chief accomplishments has been helping to start the Mobile Oasis, a trailer out of which locally grown fruits and vegetables are sold. It makes weekly appearances at about a half-dozen locations around Greensboro.

In a 2014 TEDx Talk, LeGreco noted that Guilford County had two dozen food deserts — defined by the USDA as low-income census tracts where at least a third of residents live more than a mile from a large grocery store. The following year, at another TEDx Talk, she noted that the Greensboro-High Point area had ranked No. 1 in the country for food hardship. Twenty-eight percent of residents had said they experienced food hardship, meaning that at some point in the past year, they did not have enough money for food.

By 2017, though, the Greensboro-High Point area had dropped to No. 14, with 19.2 percent of residents saying they experienced food hardship.

“We have definitely established a lot of programs that are now doing a better job of talking to each other,” LeGreco says. “And the city and the county have done a lot of work to improve access. You’re starting to see projects like the Grove Street People’s Market in the Glenwood neighborhood, which is trying to create not only food access, but entrepreneurial opportunities.”

She is working on a book with educational consultant Niesha Douglas, “Everybody Eats: Communicating Food Justice Activism in a Time of Food Hardship.” LeGreco is also planning on a taking part in a storytelling series with Zitty Nxumalo, a former student who owns the communication and leadership company Deftable.

“Part of the purpose is talking about food and community and relationships,” Nxumalo says. “I’ve always been drawn to people who help me see issues in new ways. And that’s what she’s done.”

In the near future, she hopes to focus on what she calls “kitchen literacy” and teaching people cooking skills.

“I like watching other people show their creativity around food,” she says. “One of the community members in Warnersville has volunteered to do cooking demonstrations at the mobile market because she had lost a significant amount of weight by changing up a few ways that she prepared her favorite foods. And watching folks like her being able to connect with other people in ways she hadn’t before, and watching people get excited about cooking, that was wonderful. And it got people excited about coming back again and again to the market.”