Last week (December 4-5) I attended a remarkable event, perhaps the first of it’s kind. It was a gathering of people involved in local food system work from all across North Carolina, as well as some representatives from South Carolina and Virginia. The title of the event was “Connecting for the Future: A Gathering of NC Food Councils.” About 150 people were in attendance at the Biotech Place in Winston-Salem. The event was convened by the Local Food Council of North Carolina in partnership with the Forsyth Community Food Consortium. Many sponsors helped cover the costs of the event, including the BlueCross BlueShield Foundation and the Center for Environmental Farming Systems (CEFS). It was a great opportunity to hear about the ‘state of the art’ when it comes to local food networks/councils.
The idea for this gathering was developed at a smaller gathering of local food council representatives that met and identified the need for better networking across local councils as well as strengthening the relationship between the local councils and the state food council. Christy Shi Day of CEFS worked very hard behind the scenes, engaging many partners across many organizations, to organize the “Connecting the Future” event with goal in mind of improving communication and networking across councils as well as learning together (and from each other) and sharing resources. The vision for the event was for it to”facilitate connections” and be “the beginning of a long-term conversation between stat council and local councils.” Based on my observation these objectives were met and then some. There was a buzz in the air throughout the event and many “a-ha” moments for attendees. Some of those “a-ha’s were captured on two graphic facilitation maps (below).
I helped organize and moderate one of the break out sessions on the topic of engaging local governments in local food systems work. Dudley Watts (Forsyth County Manager), Mary Furtado (Catawba County Assistant Manager), Joe Moore, (Brevard City Manager), and John Day (former Cabarrus County Manager) shared their stories and insights. John Day spoke of his experience setting up the Cabarrus Farm & Food Council, with the county government as convener and sponsor of the group. Mary Furtado spoke about her work on Catawba County’s “Food & Farm Sustainability Plan” which eventually led to the county (in concert with N.C. State) creating an local food extension position. Dudley Watts spoke of his personal, lifelong connection to farming and how local food efforts connect to most of the core functions of county government (public health, rural land use, economic development, cooperative extension, and so on). Joe Moore offered a municipal perspective and pointed out that cities rarely have space for agricultural production (beyond community gardens or very small-scale farms), but that local food can be an important contributor to economic activity. In Brevard, the city’s investment in a farmer’s market has been seen as a small business incubator and, in fact, several small businesses in the community did get their start with the farmer’s market. Moore also emphasized the quality of life aspect that local food efforts speaks to which is a primary emphasis of municipal governments. One key lesson for people working in local food networks/councils is to view local governments as a partner and not the “other” that needs to be lobbied.
Sitting in on other sessions, one recurring issue/theme was the complex nature of these kinds of network organizations and how conventional wisdom about collaboration may not apply (at least in the same ways) with food councils. It was interesting to hear how the different local food groups went by different names. Many are “local food councils” but I also heard “food network,” “food consortium,” and “food coalition” used. In all cases though we are talking about network organizations that cut across different sectors and different parts of the food system. Conventional wisdom on inter-organizational collaboration is that you need a clear common purpose or shared vision in order bring people together in partnership. What I heard from participants last week though is that for food networks/councils, that may not be the case. In fact, it may be counterproductive. The power of food councils is in the interconnections across different parts of the food system and even different policy domains (such as hunger/food security and farmland preservation). When councils get narrowly focused at the outset, some stakeholders can be left out; a distinct or narrow focus thus becomes exclusive whereas food councils should seek to be as inclusive as possible. A nice organizational model for an inclusive food council is Asheville-Buncombe Food Policy Council, which features “clusters” around particular topics with representatives of those clusters forming a “general council.”
There are other insights and lessons-learned that I will likely take up in another post. Suffice it to say here that I found this event to be energizing and was inspired by the work going on in N.C. and beyond around local food. We have a lot yet to learn about how to best organize around local food issues. There does not seem to be a one-size fits all. Not every community needs a formal organization. In some cases, an informal network has been sufficient. But whatever the case, whether informal networks or more-formal “councils,” it is evident to me that these efforts require a lot of leadership and they are greatly benefited from local government serving as a key partner.