Food is connecting communities to each other in new ways in western North Carolina. Last spring, Western Carolina University (WCU) held a forum on the causes and consequences of poverty in western North Carolina. The result was the new Western NC Food Policy Council. The overall mission of the Council is “planning and advocating for greater food security and stronger food economies in…Cherokee, Clay, Graham, Swain, Macon, Jackson and Haywood (counties).” The project will assist with guiding, coordinating, implementing, and funding food projects in the far west region, with the Public Policy Institute of WCU providing administrative support.
The Council is impressive because of how quickly it came together with support across a wide range of sectors in the communities. The project aims to bring together food providers, distribution networks, policy leaders, food security agencies, and economic advocates. The full 49-member council includes elected officials, state agency representatives, food pantry operators, farmers, local government officials, planners, and non-profit directors, among a wide variety of other professionals. At this point, the Council is forming two main committees to work on specific goals and projects to reach those goals: an Education/Wellness/Outreach Committee and a Farmer Support and Economic Development Committee.
The work in western North Carolina is reflective of a growing interest nationwide and in North Carolina with connecting public health issues, the local food movement, community and urban gardens, local community social needs and local economic development efforts. Consider the National Farm to School Network, which connects schools (K-12) and local farms with the objectives of serving healthy meals in school cafeterias, improving student nutrition, providing agriculture, health and nutrition education opportunities, and supporting local and regional farmers. In 2001, there were six pilot Farm to School programs in the United States. Today, Farm to School programs exist in all 50 states and in more than 9,000 schools. Statewide, North Carolina hosts Farm to School programs in 67 school districts involving 2412 schools. Growing Minds, a Farm to School program, began 10 years ago in Asheville with a school garden but now has grown to the point where it runs a Farms to School Institute training other organizations in how to initiate and run their own community programs.
Or consider farmers markets. The NC Department of Agriculture lists 190 different farmers markets statewide. Over two dozen NC agencies providing services for clients of the Women, Infants and Children program, or WIC, as it is commonly known, are now participating in the relatively new Farmers Market Nutrition Program. Forty-six farmer’s markets accept electronic benefits transfer (EBT) cards with WIC, Supplemental Nutrition Food Program or Senior food program benefits, and a bill introduced into the NC General Assembly (H975) this past summer would have extended the program to more. In May, 2012, North Carolina also received federal funds to support expanding the program.
Finally, consider the Farmer Foodshare program, with the mission to end hunger, malnutrition and poverty in North Carolina by connecting people who grow food with people who need food, in ways that are economically sustainable and socially just. Farmer Foodshare began in 2009 with collecting donations of food at farmers markets and distributing the donations to agencies serving those in need in the community. It is now working on how to develop sustainable, innovative systems “that will provide a consistent supply of food at the right price to agencies and individuals who need it.” Farmer Foodshare has redistribution systems at farmers markets, called Donation Stations, a social enterprise food hub called the POP Market that connect nonprofits, afterschool programs and social mission businesses with discounted fresh food and a funds aggregation program, called POP Funds, that brings together a variety of debt and equity financial resources to support the development fresh food retail enterprises serving food deserts.
The new Western Food Policy Council is focusing on the same philosophy of synergy and connections. One of the first activities planned is a regulatory listening session – for producers, farmers, and processors only – on October 22. Those attending may speak directly with the state agencies which regulate food production and sale, and there will be many experts including attorneys and small farm consultants there as well. Future activities may include training from development experts. For example, officials and citizens need help in navigating legal and regulatory issues affecting agriculture at the county and state levels; understanding and locating infrastructure sourcing for agriculture-related needs; issues surrounding land conservation, easements, tax credits, etc.; and how to address the lack of sufficient economic development in this area of the state.
These partnerships typically are not creating new programs. Instead, they are simply connecting programs in relationships that are innovative, crossing traditional sector boundaries. Can community educational, social and economic goals all be served by the same program? Can we do more with existing programs but new networks? The individuals in these efforts think so.
Maureen Berner is a School of Government faculty member.