Learning from Leaders: Food Systems and Community Voices in the Carolinas

Brownbag with Gini Knight and Jared Cates from Community Food Strategies

As professionals working at the intersection of community development, land use, transportation, and economic development, planners are uniquely situated to help their communities address food systems issues. In fact, the American Planning Association recognizes food systems work as an opportunity for leadership in the field and the North Carolina chapter recently announced “food” as its theme for 2017.

Sharing lessons from experience at a DCRP Brown Bag. Photo Credit: Alison Salomon

On February 13, 2017, DCRP students had the chance to learn about an innovative, community-driven approach to food systems planning that is taking root in North Carolina: food policy councils. As part of this semester’s Brown Bag Series, Plan for All hosted Gini Knight and Jared Cates from Community Food Strategies (CFS) for a presentation titled “Elevating the Community Voice: An Update on Food Councils in the Carolinas.”

Knight and Cates discussed how food councils are effecting change in local food systems and they shed light on the work that their group, Community Food Strategies (CFS), is doing to support these efforts. CFS is a multi-organizational partnership with representatives from the Center for Environmental Farming Systems (where Knight works), the Carolina Farm Stewardship Association (where Cates works), the Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project, and the Care Share Health Alliance.

Bounty of a farmer’s market

CFS aims to model the best practices it preaches by emphasizing diversity and equity, implementing interactive and flexible governance, and forming relationships with individuals. The speakers suggested that all of these approaches contribute to successful, long-lived organizations. In the case of food councils – which bring people together across sectors and are usually led by volunteers – these approaches can be instrumental in ensuring groups’ survival. In addition to these best practices, CFS recommends that food councils use baseline assessments to inform their focus, share leadership responsibilities, and create and leverage networks.

Food councils in North Carolina. Credit: Community Food Strategies

Cates and Knight explained that food councils’ power lies in their ability to effectively advocate and organize. Food councils bring people together to assess the local food system, connect stakeholders, align efforts, educate leaders and the community, and recommend policy and program changes. The alliances that emerge from food councils can have synergistic results by reducing duplications, enabling targeted collective action, and securing larger grants.

Even though food councils have a lot going for them, they face significant challenges. These include a lack of diversity, difficulty in creating clear messaging and communicating with the wider community, and trouble measuring their impacts. CFS addresses some of these concerns by providing food councils with valuable resources. At present, CFS focuses on building and convening the food policy council network, publishing toolkits (including a baseline assessment toolkit and a “phases of council development” toolkit), and providing strategic and action planning consulting services.

Throughout their presentation, Cates and Knight shared success stories and drew on specific planning-related actions that food councils have taken. During this past election season, several food councils hosted candidates’ forums, bringing voice to food and agriculture issues. The Upper Pee Dee Farm and Food Council successfully lobbied to change a zoning ordinance to allow for the shared use of agriculture and solar on farmland. Similarly, the Char-Meck Food Council successfully petitioned the Charlotte City Council to pass an ordinance allowing mobile farmer’s markets in the city.

Food system relationships. Credit: Wikimedia Commons user Hunt041

Food councils present a great opportunity to be a part of community-driven, systems-level change. If you would like to get involved with our local food council, the Orange County Food Council, consider attending the community forum today, Monday, February 20, at the Cedar Grove Community Center from 5-7pm.

For more information on Community Food Strategies, please visit www.communityfoodstrategies.com or https://www.facebook.com/communityfoodstrategies/.

For more information on the Orange County Food Council, visit orangecountyfoodcouncil.wordpress.com or https://www.facebook.com/orangecountyfoodcouncil/.

About the author: Alison Salomon is a first year student pursuing a dual Master’s degree through the Department of City & Regional Planning and the Gillings School of Global Public Health. She studies the intersection of land use and health behavior and is passionate about food systems, placemaking, and active transportation. She takes pride in her buttermilk biscuits, shoe tying skills, and ability to turn anything into a game.