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Nutritious food is essential to good health. So when the coronavirus outbreak arrived last spring, closing schools and disrupting food pantries, officials at Blue Cross & Blue Shield of North Carolina knew that swift action was needed.

Within weeks, the Durham-based insurance company had teamed up with the Carolina Panthers football organization on a mission to “sack hunger.”

Through the Panthers Neighborhood Kitchen program, the two organizations kicked off a months-long project that eventually served nearly 2,000 free meals in some of Charlotte’s underserved communities.

Photo: Chad Mitchell

At six events throughout the summer and fall — replete with cheerleaders, former players and the team’s Sir Purr mascot — the two organizations worked with the Instagram group Charlotte Black Owned to identify Black-owned restaurants in Charlotte to prepare the meals.

They also worked with the Boys and Girls Clubs of Greater Charlotte to identify areas of the city where meals were most needed.

“This program really fits into our overall mission to help improve the health and well-being of North Carolinians and raise awareness of food insecurity,” said Anne Gary, Sponsorships Program Manager for Blue Cross NC.

Gary also praised the work of the Carolina Panthers.

“It’s been exciting for us to see how our partnerships with a high-profile professional sports team can come together and have a positive impact in the community,” she said. “And it’s not just on the field; this isn’t something that happens only on game day. This is a day of the week where we’re able to get nutritious meals for these families.”

Community uplift

At a November event in west Charlotte, Jimmy Pearls, a Black-owned restaurant inside Charlotte’s 7th Street Market, supplied ready-to-go seafood meals as residents lined up in their cars, waiting to be served. Music blasted from a large speaker, while Panthers cheerleaders, pom-poms in hand, jumped and greeted the drive-through guests. On top of a large bus, Sir Purr tossed t-shirts to passengers below.

Photo: Chad Mitchell

Riley Fields, Director of Community Relations for the Panthers, said that beyond the food, he hoped the event was a fun and positive experience for residents.

“The past six months have been a real challenge for everybody in all kinds of ways,” Fields said. “So to be able to work with these families and provide an uplift tonight with a great take-home meal means a great deal to everyone involved.”

A culture of giving back

Giving back to the communities it serves has long been a corporate priority at Blue Cross NC. In Charlotte, for example, the company has given money to support the 7th Street Market, the city’s bike-share program, and STEM programs at Johnson C. Smith University’s Sustainability Village, where students learn to grow crops using a water method known as aquaponics.

Statewide, Blue Cross NC last year donated nearly 16,000 meals to North Carolina food banks, including in Charlotte. The company also allows employees to take time away from their jobs, with pay, to do volunteer work in their communities.

“It’s in our DNA,” said Cheryl Parquet, the company’s Director of Community Engagement and Marketing Activation. “It’s part of who we are; it’s part of everything we do.”

Parquet said addressing food insecurity in North Carolina is one of the company’s health-related priorities. The need was especially great, she said, when the pandemic forced the closure of public schools, the only source of nutritious food for some students.

About 1 in 5 children in North Carolina must cope with food insecurity, she said.

“When people don’t have enough access to food, we realize that also may cause chronic diseases, such as diabetes and heart disease,” Parquet said. “And so it’s important for us to make sure that people aren’t just getting food, that they’re also getting healthy food

“We want people to be able to have a choice between getting a bag of chips from the store and actually picking up an apple or a banana that may give them more nutrition and may help them to be healthier,” she added.

Giving back

Looking for ways to give back? Parquet offers some easy suggestions:

  • Clean out your food pantry, and donate items that still have a shelf life to a local food bank.
  • While working from home, use your lunch breaks to find items in your closet that can be donated.
  • Working from home means spending less money on gas. Donate those savings to a local charity.
Photo: Chad Mitchell

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