Bringing Local & Organic Food to Your Table

by Marianna Spence, CFSA’s Membership Coordinator

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We all can agree that food, health and agriculture have a huge impact on the quality of life in our local communities. But how can local leaders and community members address issues and work together to improve local policy, food access, farming and economic development, and community health?

 

“I’ve been working in this county for a long time, and starting our food council has been the most thoughtful, inclusive process I’ve ever been a part of,” said Alice Keene, Pitt County Recreation Projects Coordinator, who has been with the City of Greenville and Pitt County, North Carolina, for 43 years.

 

The road towards founding Pitt County’s first food council started in 2014 with a chance meeting in Beaufort, NC. Jared Cates, the Carolina Farm Stewardship Association’s (CFSA) Community Mobilizer, was dining out after concluding a public forum held by community members to form a food council in Beaufort County. He and his partners from Community Food Strategies were chatting when diners at the next table introduced themselves and asked to hear more about their food council support.

 

The diners were two employees of Farm Services Agency based in Greenville. They were excited to hear about CFSA’s work with Community Food Strategies on supporting food councils and their development. They shared news of a similar group that had been meeting in Greenville and was exploring the possibility of forming a food council to serve the Pitt County community.

 

CFSA and Community Food Strategies shared resources with the Pitt County group on the initial stages of food council development, such as forming the organizing group or “Task Force,” engaging local government leaders, writing a food council charter, and hosting public meetings. Within six months, the group had reached back out to Community Food Strategies and CFSA to provide facilitation support and help guide them through the process of forming a food council.

 

“Alice, Joni, and Leigh had already pulled together department heads from schools, parks and rec, health department, soil and water, and planning, plus community members and a good cross-section of folks from their local food system,” said Jared. “It was really impressive who they had at the table from day one.”

 

By August 2015, the interagency team from Community Food Strategies went to Greenville to help the group determine its goals and explore next steps. They supported the group in articulating its Mission and Vision statements, and came up with an 8-month timeline that included stakeholder engagement and development of a full food council charter.

“Community Food Strategies and CFSA have provided a lot of expertise – what’s working in similar food councils, how to facilitate meetings, how to identify our goals,” said Alice Keene.

 

“Community Food Strategies and CFSA have provided a lot of expertise – what’s working in similar food councils, how to facilitate meetings, how to identify our goals,” said Alice. “Jared has glued us together and helped us get through the weeds of organization. We all do other things, but the beauty of Jared’s work is that this IS what he does. “

 

With encouragement from Community Food Strategies and CFSA, Joni Young-Torres, Community Gardening Technician with the Pitt County Cooperative Extension, took the lead in organizing a brown bag lunch series. These monthly events are hosted around the community and now draw around 30 people per meeting. Participants bring their own lunch and engage in a brief presentation and discussion with a community expert on topics ranging from food waste to farm workers and food labor to community gardens.

 

“We’ve really seen a cross-pollination of ideas,” said Joni. “You go to these lunches and find out what your neighbors are working on in the community. The lunches are helping us build our base of support for the Food and Farm Council and generating new ideas and collaborations within the community.”

 

Funding through Vidant Health Foundation paid for the creation of a baseline food system assessment which helped the newly named Pitt Council Food & Farm Council better identify its goals. By July 2016, they had finalized their charter and started planning three public forums as a way to introduce the Food & Farm Council to the community and generate broad interest for council seats and action circles.

 

“We’ve come a long way because Jared knows how to encourage everyone to share their thoughts,” said Leigh Guth, Pitt County Cooperative Extension Director. “At the end of the meeting he always wants to know exactly what we’re going to do about X, Y, and Z. We can’t just only talk about it, we have lists of “to do” items and real tasks to work on between meetings.”

 

One thing that makes Pitt County’s council unique is its status as a county-sanctioned group. After nearly a year of intentional discussions and with the approval of the County Manager, they went before their County Commissioners and asked that the council become an official county committee. The Commissioners approved, and now several members of the council will be appointed by the Commissioners through an application process. The other members of the council will be appointed from the Pitt County Cooperative Extension, the Pitt County Planning Department, the Pitt County Health Department, one person directly involved with agricultural food production, and one hunger relief representative. The fact that their group is now a county-sanctioned body means that the council will have the ability to make a meaningful impact on local policy.

The council hopes to create lasting ways for the community and community organizations to come together to collaboratively improve their local food system.

 

The council was also designed in a way that maximizes community and organizational engagement. By creating “Action Circles” that will focus on “Food Access,” “Farming and Economic Development,” and other issues, the council hopes to create lasting ways for the community and community organizations to come together to collaboratively improve their local food system.

 

“We have a long-standing history of partnership is this county,” said Alice. “At that same time, I know we can’t tackle it all at once. Working with Jared, CFSA and Community Food Strategies has given us the tools to boil it down and create something we can succeed at. And that’s how you spur growth.”

 

The Pitt County Food & Farm Council, as a county-sanctioned committee of the Board of Commissioners, will have the ability to make a meaningful impact on local policy, and hopes to address issues around health, food, and farming by engaging the community through education and networking. The ultimate goal will be to create access to healthy food for all members of the community.

 

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Together We Can Build a Better Food System

How the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Food Policy Council is Strengthening Their Community and Working Towards Healthy, Affordable & Sustainable Food For All

by Jared Cates, CFSA’s Community Mobilizer

Raising funds for farmers at a Farm Hands event. Photo submitted by Erin Brighton

Raising funds for farmers at a Char-Meck Food Policy Council Farm Hands event. Photo submitted by Erin Brighton

Farming is a strong economic driver across the Charlotte metro region. Farmers have access to traditional wholesale markets as well as many direct to consumer opportunities through farmers markets and CSA’s. Locally sourced food can be also be found on the menus at many medium and high priced restaurants. But, the recent findings of a large-scale planning effort, CONNECT Our Future, drew attention to big challenges with inequity in the regional food system, low wages for food system workers, and large pockets of food insecurity. There is increasing demand for locally grown food, but farmland continues to be sold off and transformed into subdivisions. There is plenty of local produce grown in the region; however little of it is making its way into local school cafeterias. These are the types of issues that the Char-Meck FPC has been tackling. And they’ve been doing it in a variety of ways.

 

The Charlotte-Mecklenburg Food Policy Council (CMFPC or Char-Meck FPC) has been very busy over the past several years. Under the leadership of Executive Director, Erin Brighton, and Board Chair, Young-Sun Roth, the council has hosted a number of events and supported many initiatives concerned with healthy eating and local food. As North Carolina’s largest city continues to expand, CMFPC’s work is appreciated by more and more people who want to know how their food is grown and who is growing it. The Council connects people from all over the county, encouraging them to work together to create a more robust and sustainable community food system in Mecklenburg County.

 

Recent estimates put the county’s population at around 1 million people. The Charlotte-Concord-Gastonia, NC-SC Metropolitan Statistical Area, which is defined as seven counties in North Carolina and three counties in South Carolina, has a current population of around 2.5 million. Estimates predict that this region will grow 47% between 2010 and 2030. This increasing concentration of people and economic activity has created challenges and opportunities for the regional food system. CFSA recently worked with multiple partners on the food systems portion of CONNECT Our Future. This multi-faceted planning process identified supporting local farms as a regional priority, assessed the regional food system and made recommendations on actions to take to strengthen that system.

 

Better Together

Established in 2010, the Council was formed to advocate for policies that build a more sustainable, equitable and healthy local food system. Marilyn Marks, a food system activist, took a lead role in developing the Council after being inspired by a Farm to Fork Initiative summit back in 2009. This event brought together approximately 400 stakeholders from across the state for the purpose of developing a Statewide Action Plan about food and farming.

 

Photo submitted by Erin Brighton

Photo submitted by Erin Brighton

After attending the summit, members of the Charlotte community came together to discuss what could be done in their region. One of the common concerns was that there was no place for the group to go to talk about food system issues in the way that they were discussed at the state-wide forum. They realized that they all had a vision for an improved food system for Charlotte that was bigger than what any single member of the group was currently doing – and bigger than what any of them could do on their own. Creating a way to come together and hash out these big ideas to move their community forward was appealing. So, they formed Char-Meck FPC as a way to institutionalize this type of collaborative space.

 


Your gift to CFSA today will help create local food councils across the Carolinas which build the healthy, sustainable food systems all of our communities need to thrive. Every donation matters. Give today.

 


 

The goals of the Council are to enhance the health of Mecklenburg County citizens, to strengthen local economies and market opportunities, and to reduce hunger and food insecurity. Their mission is to strengthen the community by serving as a forum for discussing food issues, building relationships in the food system, educating, advocating for, and communicating policy issues, and acting as a primary information source for food related issues. The Council consists of a 10-member Board of Directors that has representatives from the community, Bank of America, Food Buy, Compass Group, Mecklenburg County Health Department, UNC-Charlotte, and Charlotte Center City Partners. The Council also has an Experts Panel made up of professionals from the farming, public health, hospitality, education, food distribution,government and retail sectors. CMFPC meets with the Panel regularly and consults with them on their work.

 

State of the Plate

Over 72,000 residents in Mecklenburg County were living in food deserts.

When the Council was first founded, the group knew that they first had to learn about food and agriculture in their community to understand what they could do to improve the community’s food system. CMFPC partnered with UNC-Charlotte to perform a food system assessment that  focused on healthy food access. They found that over 72,000 residents in Mecklenburg County were living in food deserts. The authors defined a food desert in this study as any low income census block groups that did not contain a full service store. The assessment has been used by over 50 organizations in the community to apply for grants and projects related to food access issues.

 

After five years of work, the Council decided to check back in on how the food system changed since the original assessment . Not only an update, the 2015 State of the Plate assessment also offered new information to CMFPC about how county residents make decisions about food. Based on their findings, CMFPC sees opportunities to expand access to fresh, healthy foods by creating new retail opportunities, enhancing existing retail establishments, working towards 100% availability of SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) and WIC (Women with Infants and Children) at full-service groceries, developing innovative programs that increase distribution of high quality produce, and continuing or expanding programs that educate youth and adults on healthy eating.

 

Bringing Farmers to Food Deserts

After CMFPC and their partners at UNC-Charlotte presented their 2010 assessment to the Charlotte City Council, the Council invited CMFPC to present their findings to their Economic Development group. CMFPC presented at two sessions with the group and told them about their process, what they learned and ideas for improving food access in the community. One idea that the Economic Development group strongly supported was mobile farmers markets as a way to increase access to fresh, healthy food in neighborhoods and areas that were designated as food deserts.

 

But there was one major obstacle facing mobile farmers markets who wanted to sell to consumers in the city: zoning prohibited any mobile farmers market from setting up in residential areas. The City Council instructed the Zoning Administration within the Planning Department to create a citizen’s advisory group to work to amend the zoning language.

 

With lots of input from the food council and from the Charlotte Planning and Health Departments, this advisory group created language that was used as a zoning text amendment. The amendment lays out simple regulations and creates a permitting process with a nominal fee for mobile farmers markets. When asked about lessons learned throughout the process that they went through working with city government, Erin Brighton stated “Understanding the political process and figuring out the schedule was a process itself. For us, finding a strong champion in our City Council was critical in getting the zoning changes that we wanted.” CMFPC sees mobile markets as just one piece in their work of the supporting food access and local entrepreneurs.

“We definitely would not have been able to accomplish so much in the past few years without all of our partners in city and local government, the school system, and with the many local and regional organizations working to support farmers and access to healthy foods.”

 

Lending Farmers A Hand

Another aspect of the work of the Council has been supporting is a series of events that crowd-sources money directly to farmers. Farm Hands is a micro-funding program, sponsored by CMFPC and and other local partners, that is dedicated to supporting the growth and vitality of Charlotte’s agricultural community. It is a collaborative concept aimed at creating opportunities for Charlotte area farmers while also fostering community and building awareness of the challenges that farmers face.

Now in its third year, Farm Hands raises money by hosting a ticketed community dinner. Farmers submit applications detailing a “big idea” that will help their business. A group of farmer applicants are selected through a blind review process to become finalists who then present their idea at the dinner. The finalists give a short presentation on their project and winners are then voted on by dinner attendees. Proceeds from the event ticket sales are awarded to the winning finalist to fund their “big idea” and support them in developing some part of their farm business.

 

Todd from Birdsong Farm, one of the finalists in Charlotte’s inaugural Farm Hands event. Photo submitted by Erin Brighton.

The food council and its partners plan on holding this event twice a year to connect local farmers with the community and to raise critical funds to keep the local food economy growing. So far, they have hosted three events, all at local breweries. The first event was in collaboration with CFSA and Slow Money NC. Over $5,000 has been raised and awarded directly to farmers. The next event will be November 13, 2016 at Free Range Brewery in Charlotte.

 

Putting Local on the Menu in School Cafeterias

In 2015, CMFPC worked with the Mecklenburg County Health Department to lead a coalition of partners to organize another event – A Fresh Look at School Food – which was held at Johnson & Wales University. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools serve 38,500 breakfasts and 83,000 lunches a day. This event created an opportunity for community members to come together to discuss ways to help students choose tasty and healthy meals at school.

 

The event featured many of the efforts underway in the community to make school meals fresher and healthier. The coalition partnered with MomsRising, a group working to support women, mothers and families, to screen “Cafeteria Man,” a movie about ambitious efforts to ‘green’ the public school diet serving 83,000 students in Baltimore and over 200,000 students in Memphis. Following the movie, staff members from school cafeterias went head to head in a cooking competition assisted by local chef, Clark Barlowe, of Heirloom and Chef Megan Lambert, a Johnson and Wales Professor. Students participated in a panel discussion with the audience about different topics related to school food and then judged the meals created by the teams. A few weeks after the Fresh Look the event, the chef featured in the movie, Tony Geraci, participated in a national Google hangout with Fresh Look attendees and the CMFPC director.

 

From left to right Char-Meck FPC Board Members Kathy Metzo, Young-Sun Roth, and Executive Director Erin Brighton

The Council and its partners feel that the event helped to create an ongoing dialogue on the importance of healthy food at school – not just school lunches – that continues today. One exciting outcome was a coalition of groups working together to get the gardens at Garinger High School a USDA GAP (Good Agricultural Practices) certification. This project, led by CMFPC’s FoodCorps service members, was a great way to learn from local farmers who had gone through the GAP process themselves. James Cooper, CFSA’s Food Safety Coordinator, worked with the group to make their food safety plan for the certification process. This certification now allows the school to actually serve food grown in the school garden in the school cafeteria. GAP is one of many barriers that makes it difficult for public school systems to procure local products to serve in their cafeterias.

 

There was a strong turnout and interest in the Fresh Look at School Food Event. Photo submitted by Erin Brighton.

 

Bringing Attention to Food and Farm Issues

The next event CMFPC has on the calendar is a  “2nd Annual Meet the Candidates: Let’s Talk About Food” gathering in partnership with Community Food Strategies (of which CFSA is a team member), and Plate of the Union. The event will take place on October 25 at Midwood International and Cultural Center from 8 – 10am. This will be an opportunity for community members to have informal discussions with elected officials and candidates for public office about food, health and agriculture. There will also be a moderated discussion with officials and candidates from state and federal-level offices. Please check out the CMFPC website to learn more about this forum. Please consider attending if you live in the Charlotte region! To learn about the First Annual Meet the Candidates event, hosted by CMFPC in 2015, please check out this blog on the Community Food Strategies website.

 

A Lot on Their Plate

If there’s one thing that the members of CMFPC have learned during their six years as a food council, it is that partnerships and relationships are essential to improving their community food system. “We definitely would not have been able to accomplish so much in the past few years without all of our partners in city and local government, the school system, and with the many local and regional organizations working to support farmers and access to healthy foods. Those relationships have been critical to our success. Working together is the only way forward if we are going to create more food and agricultural opportunities for the greater Charlotte community,” says Erin Brighton.

 

CMFPC has lots of work on their plate for the last quarter of 2016 and moving into 2017. They have two FoodCorps service members that are beginning their third year working within the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school system, they are hosting the candidates event, they are hosting another Farm Hands event, and they are gearing up to work on all of the goals outlined in the State of the Plate report. As a team member of Community Food Strategies – who works across NC to support the whole network of food councils – CFSA is excited to remain a part of this work and to support CMFPC in creating a Charlotte food system that provides access to healthy, affordable food for all, that is fair to food system workers, that is good for the environment, and ensures that Mecklenburg county farmers can keep farming.

Learn more about food councils and CFSA’s work with other food councils across the Carolinas by visiting our website or emailing Jared at jared@.

 

Why Food Councils and Food Networks?

ONE OF OUR 2015 INSPIRING MEMBER STORIES

By Stephanie Campbell, CFSA’s Outreach Coordinator

Grace and Cary Kanoy, of Davidson County, NC, believe putting down deep roots in a place and being an active part of a community are important. They are always being asked, “Why do we need a food network?” and “Why is food so important to you?”

Kanoys-EOY-2015 - GIVE“For a thriving community to exist,” Grace explains, “residents need to be healthy. Health comes from clean air, clean water, healthy food, physical activity, and a loving, supportive community. A healthy community that feeds itself is an independent and stable community. This is the kind of place we want to raise our family in.”

From a business standpoint, when residents, neighbors, and family members are healthy, it means healthy workers and better productivity. A healthy workforce attracts businesses and companies. Healthy students mean better attendance, better school performance.

CFSA is working with Grace and Cary to establish the Davidson County Local Food Network. CFSA staff provides resources, support and technical assistance through our partnership with the Center for Environmental Farming Systems’ Community Food Strategies initiative. Food councils are being formed at county, regional and state levels to create intentional networks around food system issues and to provide members with the skills and knowledge to identify local solutions to food systems challenges.

A healthy community that feeds itself is an independent and stable community. This is the kind of place we want to raise our family in.

Grace and Cary are filmmakers and photographers by day and concentrate their professional work as well as their community service on issues of social justice. “We have particularly valued CFSA’s efforts to affect and influence farm and food policy both in our state and on a federal level,” says Grace. “Through our relationship with CFSA and learning about other members’ efforts, we realize how much federal and state policy affects our local economy, community and even our family’s health.”

In their volunteer work helping establish the Davidson County Local Food Network, the Kanoys have learned much to share with other groups forming across the Carolinas: the greater impact that can be made working together as a community, taking time to weave a diverse network of community leaders committed to a shared purpose, building a sense of community responsibility and accountability, and sharing actual stories, both successes and failures. The Kanoys credit the leadership, experience and involvement of CFSA staff in helping establish credibility and facilitating positive change in their county.

“CFSA is our go-to resource for agriculture policy and sustainable ag resources for us in our own homestead and for our community network,” says Grace. “CFSA has had an enormous influence on our lives, introducing us to a wealth of experts, leaders and role models – from participating in farm tours, the Sustainable Ag Conference, learning about food councils and food policy, and becoming part of a larger community who are trying to live honest lives and make the world a better place.”

Read more about CFSA food council support and development at: www.carolinafarmstewards.org/food-councils/

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.