North Carolina Division of Public Health: Food Inspired Resilience and Equity (FIRE) Internship Program

Recipients of the National Initiative to Address COVID-19 Health Disparities Among Populations at High-Risk and Underserved, Including Racial and Ethnic Minority Populations and Rural Communities grant are telling their success stories of how they are addressing COVID-19-related health disparities and advancing health equity through programs and activities funded by the grant.


The causes of food-related health disparities go beyond individual choice, diet, or price. Food councils are set up to give communities more control over the food they consume. They aim to promote more resilient food systems by identifying and strengthening connections among food, health, natural resource protection, economic development, and agriculture production.

In North Carolina, many food councils use a “local food systems” lens to improve aspects of their food system that exacerbate health disparities. Historically, food councils are under-resourced, with most accomplishing their community-based work with volunteer labor and sporadic funding, even though their work often builds a critical bridge between local governments, or leaders, and community perspective. The COVID-19 pandemic brought even more challenges to food councils. Bottlenecks within the food supply chain and subsequent food shortages highlighted the need for a food system with more capacity to support the most vulnerable communities. The COVID-19 pandemic placed demands on members and partner organizations, halting or delaying their council meetings, and shifting their strategic planning work to emergency response, which amplified many of the long-standing issues of their mostly volunteer-led work.

With funding from the North Carolina Division of Public Health, as part of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Initiative to Address COVID-19 Health Disparities Among Populations at High-Risk and Underserved, Including Racial and Ethnic Minority Populations and Rural Communities grant, the North Carolina Local Food Council and Community Food Strategies increased capacity of local food councils in their efforts to address equitable food systems and build back from the challenges presented by COVID-19 by establishing the Food Inspired Resilience and Equity (FIRE) internship program.


This program paired college students with local food councils for the Fall 2022–Spring 2023 academic year to increase local food councils’ capacity and expose students to community initiatives (e.g., community-supported agriculture) that address health disparities. Of the 35 local food councils in the state, 19 applied to host a FIRE intern to expand their capacity to address disparities in their local food systems. Ultimately, eight were selected to host interns.

Demonstrating a commitment to diversity and representation within disproportionately affected communities, 78% of selected interns identified as Black, Indigenous, or people of color; 50% of interns were supervised by people of color within the host food council; and 33% of FIRE internship organizations were Black-led community food organizations. Additionally, two of the six colleges from where interns were selected represented rural communities.


As a result of the FIRE internship program, 100% of responding food councils reported increased capacity to address health disparities, including COVID-19, and an amplification of resources to initiate new projects critical to the goals of the food council. Also, all responding food councils reported enhanced relationships and new partnerships that benefited the council, an increased public visibility for the food council, and an injection of resources to adapt to the changing needs of the community.

Through these paid internships, the interns were given valuable on-the-ground experience while supporting the day-to-day operation of food councils. Most importantly, this program also provided additional capacity for partners working within local food systems to respond to food-related health disparities that impact residents in North Carolina. The increased partnerships and understanding of each other’s work allowed for prompt, streamlined, and strategic action for emergency preparedness, coordination, and response.


This grant is funded through the Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations Act, 2021. The views expressed in this material reflect the opinions of grant recipient authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policies of the CDC; nor does mention of trade names, commercial practices, or organizations imply endorsement by the US Government.