Local Foods as Community Development, Some Questions and Answers

About the Author

Rick Morse

Rick Morse is an associate professor of public administration and government at the UNC School of Government.

tenpercentEarlier in this Fall I reported on a webinar co-sponsored by the UNC School of Government and the Center for Environmental Farming System (CEFS) on local food and local government. The purpose of the webinar was to educate local government officials about how the local food movement can be an important part of a community and regional community development strategy. Sustainable local food systems contribute significantly to a community’s economic, environmental,  social, and public health. A lot of information was covered in the webinar and a lot of questions were posed by viewers, and there was not enough time to address all the questions. In this post I’d like to take up a few of the questions, and with the help of my colleagues from CEFS, provide some answers.

One question had to do with the case study of Cabarrus County’s investments in local foods. John Day was the county manager at the time. He is now with CEFS and was part of the webinar, discussing some of the innovative things Cabarrus County has done with regard to local food. One of the first steps the county took was having a local foods assessment done, which lead to a question about how much an assessment like that costs, and who conducts such assessments? There are many organizations in the state that conduct such assessments, including CEFS, the Carolina Farm Stewardship Association, and ASAP. John reports (in the case of Cabarrus County) that their assessment cost was $27,000, which came from proceeds from a NC Agricultural Development and Farmland Preservation Trust Fund grant.  CEFS conducted the study for the county and also performed a similar assessment in Forsyth County.  There are a number of assessments that have been (or are in process) around the state that are connected with the HUD Sustainable Community planning grants that are being administered through COGs.

Another question arose regarding specific examples of getting local food systems into public policy (i.e., in concrete policies enacted by local governments). John notes that Cabarrus County has a local sourcing requirement for catered events and the Sheriff’s Office works with it’s jail food vendor (Aramark) to use North Carolina products. Supporting the development of the local food system is (or at least was) included among the goals in the commissioners’ strategic plan. The county incorporated land use regulation measures to protect farmland from encroachment (zoning requirements and a prohibition on utility extensions, a joint agreement between the county and the city of Concord) in a rural area of the county. The county also enacted a Enhanced Voluntary Agriculture District, through statutory authority (as many other counties have done.)

Currently there a number of county governments considering establishing food councils, including Chatham, Alamance, Carteret, Cumberland, Onslow, Dare, Beaufort, Robeson, among others. A food policy council in Asheville-Buncombe County was success in getting the City of Asheville formally endorse a Food Action Plan for the Asheville-Buncombe County area. Public support for the 10% campaign is another way to formally invest in local food systems. Farm-to-school programs and policies are another example of tangible actions around local food involving local government. This is the topic of the next question.

Part of the discussion in the webinar involved efforts by local school districts to utilize more locally-sourced, fresh, healthy food in school cafeterias. This raised several questions, including citing more examples, and particularly identifying ways of overcoming barriers to getting local farm food into school lunches such as equipping kitchens for storage and preparation of fresh foods and staff to be able to do the preparation involved. Nancy Creamer notes three recent examples where cooperative extension has partnered with local schools to bring fresh, local food into cafeterias while simultaneously helping consumers learn how to prepare and enjoy such foods (we thank Joanna Lelekacs , NC Cooperative Extension Coordinator for Local Foods for providing these narratives):

  1.  Harvesting Healthy Youth, a Farm-to-School program of Gaston County Cooperative Extension uses staff, a FoodCorps service member, and volunteers to provide hands-on experiences for elementary students to grow vegetables in a school garden, participate in experiential garden-enhanced nutrition education and works in partnership with Gaston County Public School’s Child Nutrition Director, Frank Fields, to source local foods into the cafeteria. Extension links local GAP-certified farms to the school district, which in turn has committed to purchasing at least 10% of its local budget to local foods. The school district was one of the first to sign on to the NC 10% campaign to track their spending on local, seasonal produce. The dynamic programming provided to the students and teachers has made a difference in the student’s willingness to try, taste and consume local food in the cafeteria.
  2. Warren County Cooperative Extension‘s FoodCorps program has made a key difference in connecting local farmers to school cafeterias. Caroline Stover, Warren CES’s FoodCorps service member partnered with the Child Nutrition Director to work with cafeteria managers and staff to teach high school students how to cook collard greens in a experiential activity designed to deepen student knowledge of cooking, nutrition, and local foods. The class was so incredibly well received by both staff and students that after encouragement from Warren CES and FoodCorps, the Child Nutrition Director agreed to source local foods in two ways: 1) Through NCDA’s Farm-to-School program and 2) through Warren County farmers. The latter farmers did not have GAP-certification, but were willing to specifically grow collards and cabbage at the request of the Child Nutrition Director.  Caroline attended GAP-certification trainings through Cooperative Extension and then worked with her local farmers to build documentation of their Good Agricultural Practices and through funding by a local non-profit, Working Landscapes, the farmers were able to pay for an audit and receive certification.  Warren county growers now have a new market with Warren County schools.
  3. Guilford County Cooperative Extension and their FoodCorps programming efforts in the High Point area have yielded fruitful partnerships between the school system, local fruit and vegetable supply company (Foster-Caviness). Guilford CES’ FoodCorps hosts cafeteria taste-testing of local fruits and vegetables through a “harvest of the month” program. To feature strawberries last May, the FoodCorps service members worked with the fresh produce vendor (Foster-Caviness) for Guilford County schools to source local strawberries from North Carolina farmers. Foster-Caviness delivered the fresh strawberries to the school system, which prepared them into a strawberry salsa and worked with Extension staff and FoodCorps service members to pass out tastings to students. The school system had not purchased local food before the relationship with Cooperative Extension and their FoodCorps program.

There is a lot going on in North Carolina around local food systems. And there are a lot of great resources for local governments, community development organizations, and other interested parties to turn to as they seek to contribute to a stronger local food system. Local Cooperative Extension offices are one great resource, as well as CEFS, ASAP, and the Carolina Farm Stewardship Association. One thing we are learning is that oftentimes small investments of time, attention, and financial resources can yield large results. Local food policy councils are an important way to help coordinate the varied stakeholders and help them come together to form a common vision and strategic agenda. This will be the topic of our next webinar coming up in Spring 2014. We hope to take up additional questions in future posts. If you have questions about local food systems, particularly how local governments can help support them, please post them here in the comments section (they might become the subject of a future post).


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