Q&A with Jared Cates on Food Council Development

by Jared Cates, Community Mobilizer

Editor’s Note: On April 17, 2014 a webinar was held by UNC School of Government, the Center for Environmental Farming Systems (CEFS) and the NC Community Transformation Grant on food councils. Community and regional food councils (sometimes called food policy councils) are rapidly emerging as important mechanisms to stimulate the kind of dialogue and concerted action necessary to improve local food systems.  In the last five years, food council activity in NC has grown to include more than 24 NC counties participating in or developing community-based food councils or networks. CFSA staff is part of the Community Food Strategies team, a CEFS initiative, that is leading food council support and development efforts across the state.

This post is the second in a series over the next several months that will be cross-posted to the Sweet Potato, the UNC School of Government Community and Economic Development Blog, the Community Food Strategies blog, and various CTG blogs around the state. Each post answers specific questions asked by webinar participants. This post was written by Jared Cates, CFSA Community Mobilizer.

 

Are there examples of commercial grocers being involved in food councils?

Yes, commercial grocers have a role to play in food councils. It is important that food councils interact and collaborate with all food system stakeholders, and commercial grocers are an integral part of the community food system. Having representation from grocers on a council will help expose the challenges that grocery stores typically run into when trying to source local products. Creating a space where local food producers, community members, local government and grocers can come together to discuss these challenges leads to increased collaboration, creation of supportive policies, and increased opportunities to bring locally produced foods into commercial groceries. Lowes Foods has been involved in some of the first food council meetings in Brunswick County, NC and recently in Cleveland County, NC. Company Shops Market in Burlington has been active in Alamance County, NC food council discussions.

How do we begin bringing different food groups together to be more productive?

A food council is a great way to help food groups become more productive, but you don’t have to start with a formal food council! Instead it could be something as simple as a monthly potluck to talk about local food and farming issues. In Forsyth County, lunch meetings created a space for intentional networking around community food systems and have grown into a formal consortium of groups interested in collaboration.

Sometimes the greatest challenge in coordinating efforts to improve the food system exists in a lack of networks or weak networks. A food group working on food issues in one municipality may be unaware of similar efforts being undertaken by a food group in another municipality in the very same county. Natural opportunities arise for self-organizing and collaboration by developing an intentional space for community food system networking.

Networking is a great way to build social capital and collaboration but often something more intentional is needed to create lasting connections and increased productivity in such a complex system like the food system. It is important to align groups around the work that they are already engaged in as their primary organizational focus. This helps to keep people engaged and helps to prevent burn out. For increased productivity between groups there needs to be an awareness of interests and opportunities so that groups can learn what others are working on and appropriately cluster together for collaboration. Groups also need to learn how to coordinate their efforts and how to share and reflect on those experiences. This is where a formal food council can really benefit the network by providing the structure and intentional processes that are often needed to help groups actualize their true potential for collaboration.

How do you encourage people in various regions to engage in a group?

Food councils are place-dependent and community context should determine a council’s geographic scope. Sometimes working across an entire region can be challenging because of the difficulty of getting people and organizations to work out of their own backyards. Hyperlocalism is a real challenge to regional work of any type.

There are many different ways in which regions are defined, each having an effect on food. The NC Regional Council of Governments (COG) regions differ from health department regions, which differ from Cooperative Extension regions. A council that forms regionally may actually limit its ability to fully participate in initiatives that are defined by these external boundaries.

Counties are already established as units of the state. Data tracked by agencies tends to be available at the county level, not at municipal levels. County level staff in departments such as Cooperative Extension, Soil & Water Conservation, Public Health, and Social Services are important voices to include in council work, and are often working on county-level strategies and plans. However, choosing a county level scope does not remove the possibility of strong regional partnerships. In fact, councils with a similar structure and process can provide an opportunity for strong cross-county collaboration.

The rationale behind the Community Food Strategies approach to statewide action planning and collaboration involves strategic support for food council development at the community level (community can be defined by a county or region!). By providing the same resources and trainings and by encouraging community level councils to use common structural features, operational values and organizational processes, common goals and opportunities are starting to emerge across individual communities. These community level goals will be key to collaborating across regions and working as a single body for statewide action and cooperation.

The Local Food Council of North Carolina, with the support of the Community Food Strategies team, is encouraging regional and statewide collaboration by providing opportunities like the upcoming Food Issues Forum to be held in 2014. This event is being planned as a way to share what’s happening locally across North Carolina, foster connections among and with local councils and statewide council members, and strengthen local efforts with content that supports local councils’ priorities. More details about this event will be announced soon.

Suggestions on getting more engagement for people on the council?

Many hands make for light work! A council must be very aware of the time commitment and asks that they are making of their members in order to have sustained engagement and prevent burn out. The best idea is to think small – distribute small tasks across many people. Crowdsource the work – find others in the community who are willing to help and support the council by doing small tasks or projects.

Food councils need to constantly cultivate champions – do not get lulled int a false sense of security with one or two dedicated folks on the council. Councils have to find people for whom the work is their passion – people who love structure and working on the organizational development aspects (not pulling out weeds at the community garden or event planning), while also finding the other people who love “pulling weeds” and get them involved in some small wins that can show action is occurring.

It is also extremely important to recognize the significance of small wins. Taking the time to reflect on small accomplishments is important not only to learn from your process, but also for individual council members to reflect on their contribution that helped bring the accomplishment to fruition. These reflections will help council members stay engaged in the big picture process of food council work and to realize that by taking baby bites you can eat an entire elephant.