Effort building to boost food access, eradicate poverty in far WNC

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Todd Collins and Emily Elders (center left and center right) of Western Carolina University’s Public Policy Institute lead a discussion Monday about starting the Far West North Carolina Local Food Policy Council. People from Cherokee, Clay, Graham, Haywood, Jackson, Macon and Swain counties attended. Katie Bailey/Carolina Public Press

Farmers. Soup kitchen volunteers. Students. Transportation officials. Environmental officials and advocates. Educators. County planners. Social services workers.

On Monday night, representatives from these community interests gathered in the Cardinal Room at Western Carolina University to discuss the formation of the Far West North Carolina Local Food Policy Council aimed at addressing the food-related needs of residents in seven counties.

“This meeting grew out of a forum held on campus last spring that dealt with issues of poverty and potential solutions in WNC,” said organizer Emily Elders, a WCU graduate assistant with the Public Policy Institute, in an e-mail. “The lack of (a food policy council) is one of the items brought up at that meeting that the attendees…really felt would help address the increasing food insecurity in counties west of Buncombe.”

Elders led the group, representing Cherokee, Clay, Graham, Haywood, Jackson, Macon and Swain counties, in a discussion of how to combat community food-related concerns, specifically food insecurity, which is determined by a person’s inability to access and afford food.

Within the two-hour-long meeting, participants listed a long list of issues facing the counties’ residents – everything from the difficulty in accessing to healthy, fresh foods to the use – and misuse – of food stamps.

By the end, Elders consolidated the discussion of food insecurity, unemployment, organic production, local jobs and food stamps into two focal points: ending food insecurity on a long-term basis and strengthening the local food economy to help keep and create jobs.

“We need to have a grassroots ground-up movement,” said Adam Bigelow, organizer of the Sylva community garden in Jackson County. “But we also need a top-down approach…so that maybe we can meet in the middle.”

Bigelow said the council would be important to merge the interests and work of those who are directly involved with food in the counties with the resources from the state.

But the actual role of the western food policy council in the area is still undecided.

Elders said she was “afraid” of an inconclusive meeting, but was “amazed at how many people we had.”

MANNA FoodBanks’ Director of Foundation and Corporate Support J Clarkson said at the meeting that food insecurity is a multi-faceted issue and “this council can help cross-pollinate” all of its elements.

MANNA FoodBank is a nonprofit organization that collects and distributes food to other nonprofits in the area and is one of the partners with the Public Policy Council to form the food council.

MANNA is also involved in Asheville-Buncombe Food Policy Council, and, according to information on its website, one in six residents in the 16 westernmost counties of the state seek food assistance from emergency food programs in the area. Read more about that council’s activities and goals here.

Though the council’s future goals are under development, ideas of improving transportation for people on food stamps to get to the farmers markets, teaching younger generations how to freeze and can food to save for later and finding new ways to ensure farmers can continue producing without a rise in costs were all discussed.

But before organic production and policy change, the primary topic of discussion was how to solve food insecurity in the face of longer soup kitchen lines and a lack of public knowledge of how to store, save and prepare food.

Curt Collins, farmer of Avant Garden in Jackson County, said he supports his own work as an organic farmer and also a positive health status for all people. He said he intends to work more to provide food locally and figure out ways to get the food to those who need it.

Despite the lack of a concrete plan for how the council will work, Elders said the future looks bright.

“I think it’s really feasible,” she said, “primarily because we’re not doing anything new.”


How to participate

If you’re a resident of any of the counties listed above and would like to learn more or get involved with the far-western local food policy council, contact Emily Elders at emelders@wcu.edu.

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About the Author

Katie Bailey

Katie Bailey is a contributing reporter and photographer with Carolina Public Press. Contact her at bkbailey@live.unc.edu.

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