As more struggle to afford healthy food, Asheville-Buncombe council works to collaborate, make change

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Susan Garrett, with Asheville Buncombe Community Christian Ministry, facilitates a meeting of the Asheville-Buncombe Food Policy Council on Monday, Feb. 27. Efforts to start the group began a year ago, and it's now working to improve access to affordable, healthy food for area residents. The group went on support a proposal asking the city to devote 10 percent of the its food budget to locally produced food. City council unanimously approved the measure. Matt Rose/Carolina Public Press

ASHEVILLE—The first general council session of the Asheville-Buncombe Food Policy Council met Monday, but ideas for how this group should tackle food insecurity have germinated for nearly a year.

And, now, its work takes on increased significance, as research released this week showed that more people in the Asheville area are struggling to get enough nutritious, affordable food.

The 18 representatives from the Food Policy Council’s nine working groups discussed a range of proposals, including a measure supporting the statewide 10% Campaign at Tuesday’s Asheville City Council meeting. The campaign, an initiative of the Center for Environmental Farming Systems, advocates that governments spend 10 percent of food budget dollars locally. Council unanimously approved the effort on Tuesday.

It’s just the latest activity for the all-volunteer Food Policy Council, which started forming last year after the Washington, D.C.-based Food Research and Action Center released a national study then ranking the Asheville area the seventh-worst metropolitan statistical area in the nation for food insecurity.

This week, the organization’s updated study showed the area is now third worst in the nation, based on 2010-2011 data. Generally, households are considered food insecure when they cannot access healthy, affordable food. Download and read the report here. [PDF]

Jodi Rhoden

Jodi Rhoden, one of the Food Policy Council’s founding members and owner of Short Street Cakes in West Asheville, said the Food Policy Council formed to work for policies that increase accessibility and affordability of local food systems “so the community makes decisions rather than agribusiness.”

A year ago, she began meeting with a handful of concerned citizens including Darcel Eddins, director of the Bountiful Cities Project; Brandee Boggs, UNC Asheville Student Environmental Center director; and Olufemi Lewis, an Asheville resident.

Gordon Smith, a member of Asheville City Council, soon joined the growing effort, which spent the next three months learning about local food security from community members and leaders.

Over the summer, they drafted a white paper recommending the formation of a food council to advocate for improving food security in Asheville and Buncombe County. Then, last fall, three large organizational meetings drew about 90 people — ranging from community leaders to backyard gardeners — to foster partnerships between government, nonprofits, the private sector and community members.

The Food Research and Action Center released, on Feb. 27, a national study of food hardship. It ranked the 100 largest Metropolitan Statistical Areas, and Asheville ranked third worst in the country for the ability of residents to access enough healthy, affordable food. The chart pictured here is from the report.

Rhoden said she hopes that by bringing together community members, agencies and nonprofits, the council will impact the policies of large employers, both public and private, in Asheville.

“We’re looking for a balance between economic sustainability with ecological sustainability,” she said. “The larger view represents a step towards greater food sovereignty and taking control of our food systems.”

Smith compared the process of developing the council to “building a plane while we’re flying it.”

Council helps put markets in neighborhoods, make other policy changes

But they’ve already had some impact on how Asheville residents get healthy food closer to home.

In December, leaders spoke before Asheville City Council for the first time, recommending an ordinance allowing farmers’ markets in residentially zoned areas. Council passed the measure, effectively allowing more, smaller markets to pop up across the city.

“It’s a generational cultural change to produce your own food and distribute it in old ways,” Smith said.

Allen Smith, pastor of Asheville’s Kenilworth Presbyterian Church, said he was unaware of the proposal’s passing, but now plans to hold a neighborhood market.

“This would be one way to build community spirit and connections and to fulfill the mission of the Presbyterian Church,” he said. “We are very concerned about food insecurity.”

Rhoden called it a victory for the council.

“We’re off to a really great start,” she said, but “we haven’t seen the impact yet. We need a full growing season.”

Members want local coordination, consideration of regional council

Alan Rosenthal writes notes during the Monday, Feb. 27, meeting of the Asheville-Buncombe Food Policy Council, held at the French Broad Food Co-op in downtwown Asheville. The council is working to plan and collaborate on strategies and policies to improve area residents' access to affordable, healthy food. Matt Rose/Carolina Public Press

But, organizers know, efforts to improve access to food and advocating for food policies aren’t new to Asheville or Buncombe County. What is new is the effort to coordinate work among local government agencies, nonprofits, the private sector and community members, and, potentially, building a regional council.

Cathy Cleary, owner of Asheville’s West End Bakery and volunteer coordinator of the FEAST program of Slow Food Asheville, has been involved with the Food Policy Council since October. The FEAST, or Fresh, Easy, Affordable, Sustainable, and Tasty, program has been holding cooking classes for area children since 2008.

“The idea of it (the Food Policy Council) is really fantastic,” she said. “It is an enormous undertaking.”

Though Cleary said she valued the opportunity to come together with people doing similar work for the council meetings, she said conversations about collaboration have yet to begin because so much time devoted to organizational procedure.

“When all of that is in place,” she said, “we’ll be able to share information between groups that are doing similar work. I am excited that, in six months’ time, we’ll be seeing the fruits of this labor.”

Emily Jackson, director of the Asheville-based Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project’s farm to school program, agreed that the council should coordinate with ASAP and others, such as MANNA FoodBank, “so people aren’t proposing work that’s already in the pike.”

Jackson also said she wonders if the Food Policy Council will evolve into a regional council, considering that some Western North Carolina counties have less food-related activism and need more assistance with combating food insecurity.

“Some of those counties have great need and aren’t serviced by as many organizations,” she said.

When and whether a regional council will form hasn’t been determined, though.

J. Clarkson, director of resource development at MANNA, said there was interest in a regional council during a food insecurity summit held by Western Carolina University’s Public Policy Institute last spring.

Todd Collins, interim director of the institute, said he is not aware of any regional food policy council being formed or coming from the institute, but they are holding a forum on poverty on March 9.

Clarkson said the poverty forum and Western North Carolina’s inclusion in the Appalachian Foodshed Project “deal with a lot of the same issues as a regional food policy council.”

Coming up: A look at the increase in food policy councils across the state, including another in the works in Buncombe County.

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About the Author

Katy Nelson

Katy Nelson is a contributing reporter for Carolina Public Press. Contact her at katy.nelson@gmail.com.

3 Comments on "As more struggle to afford healthy food, Asheville-Buncombe council works to collaborate, make change"

  1. Faye Perry March 8, 2012 at 9:48 am · Reply

    It’s really sad to see that two of NC’s wonderful progressive cities are in the top 10 of this survey on food hardships.

  2. Skippy March 8, 2012 at 2:08 pm · Reply

    The top three cities listed are liberal utopias, cause and effect? You betcha ya!

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