Feast Down East: Partnering with Local Government

Community Food Strategies and the Local Food Council of North Carolina worked with Feast Down East to provide educational and networking opportunities for new and existing food councils, as well as other engaged community members at this year’s Feast Down East.  More than 1/5 of the 300+ attendees participated in one of food council track sessions, including various non-profit organizations (29%), higher education faculty and students (21%), private sector including farmers and retail (16%), state and local government officials (15%), representatives of the health sector (8%),  and NC Cooperative Extension (6%).  During a wonderful locally sourced lunch, all conference attendees were able to hear Dr. Samina Raja’s eloquent keynote address advocating for the need and power of increased collaboration between food systems stakeholders and local government planners.  Review this conference summary divided in the following sections:


Hundreds of local food entrepreneurs, program administrators, local foods advocates, and many others flocked to Wilmington on February 12th to attend the 6th Annual Feast Down East Regional Conference.  Feast Down East, a non-profit organization focused on economic development through local foods, hosts this annual event to strengthen partnerships and provide trainings on current best practices for growing the local food system. This conference offers something valuable for everyone involved in this cross-sector work from hoop house management for farmers to extend their growing season, institution local food procurement systems for universities, best practices for buying sustainable NC seafood, and cultivating leadership in local food councils.  

Jane Steigerwald, Executive Director of Feast Down East and representative on the Local Food Council of North Carolina shared the following in summary of the event.  “It was reassuring to hear that North Carolina is recognized nationally as being on the forefront of the local food systems effort. Dr. Samina Raja’s keynote address truly inspired and motivated the group of nearly 300 people, connecting every aspect of our lives to our local food system. It is hoped that this gathering will ignite meaningful change in our local community planning and food systems development in Southeastern NC.”

Community Food Strategies and the Local Food Council of North Carolina (LFCNC) took on organizing a food council track as part of this conference and as the second of six regional listening sessions for LFCNC.  These regional gatherings are a way to better connect the state level council with the work of more localized food councils. The series of sessions specific to food council work provided leadership tools, resources, and trainings for engaged community members working to make change in their community.  This series was well aligned with the increasing interest in food councils in the region and the keynote speaker, Dr. Samina Raja, a distinguished researcher and advocate in local food policy work.

Cultivating Community

There was standing room only in John Parker’s workshop on building a foundation for your community, providing excellent context for how to start a local food council or network. Parker is a community development consultant that has worked in North Carolina for 17 years to strengthen local economies and cultivate effective, self-sufficient community leaders, entrepreneurs, and activists.  With a diverse audience of more than 50 people, he shared his experiences in engaging community leaders, ensuring the community feels welcome, valued and part of the work, and cultivating a resilient, relationship-based network that honors and values everyone where they are.  The audience clearly and audibly resonated with his ideas. His approach seems simple and requires intention, thoughtfulness, and patience to make long-lasting, real change.

A recent blog post in the Stanford Social Innovations Review agrees with much of Parker’s message – “In our research and experience, the single most important factor behind all successful collaborations is trust-based relationships among participants. Many collaborative efforts ultimately fail to reach their full potential because they lack a strong relational foundation.” Mr. Parker reiterated this finding and provided this advice to all community members in their decision-making processes – “If it helps build relationships, do it. If it separates relationships, don’t do it.”  

He emphasized the importance of taking time to build community through being authentic, creating co-chair positions to decrease hierarchy, integrating newcomers through an orientation process, expressing gratitude, and honoring the folks that are not there.  One simple action he uses for this last practice is to reserve up to three empty chairs at the table, using them as a reminder of those who are not present or not able to express their voices and needs.  One chair represents the environment.  Another chair represent the community members that are not able to attend due to work, childcare, taking care of the sick, language barriers, etc. The last chair represents the next generation, those who are not born yet and will be our future. Overall, the goal of this approach and relationship-based networking is to empower all community members with a sense of voice and agency for enhanced civic engagement. Learn more about John Parker and view his list of community resources at johndempseyparker.org.

Council Leadership and Structure

The following workshop, Recognizing and Cultivating Leadership in Local Food Councils, was led by Aaron Newton, co-founder and previous coordinator of the Cabarrus County Farm & Food Council. The Cabarrus County Board of Commissioners directed the formation of the Cabarrus Farm & Food Council in June 2010 to perform research, educate the community, develop strategies and make policy recommendations that will support a robust local food economy and a healthier population.  From the beginning this food council had very strong ties with and support from their local government which provided office and meeting space, a website, and funding for a full-time coordinator. Research and case studies show that paid staff directly correlate with council success.

Even though the Council had resources and staff, Newton noted that the council really began to gain momentum when they started collaborating with other organizations with similar missions and leveraging partnerships. The Council was involved with many successes including the completion of a community food assessment, improved consumer awareness through branding, the creation of the Lomax Incubator Farm, the opening of the new processing facility, and the construction of a new central farmers’ market.  The Council was instrumental in holding space for new collaborations to arise and getting multiple organizations and agencies at the table to make some of projects happen.

After several years of successes, Newton shared what happened after an abrupt and complete funding cut in 2014.  The Council took a year to develop a new structure without paid staff.  This year the Council is trialling it’s new innovative structure of separate quarterly meetings for the Leadership Committee, the 9-member elected Board of Directors, and the 15-member Council and broader network. They have the goal of expanding the network and building membership to have new, continuous leadership overtime.  Newton noted that although it is really helpful to have a champion, developing a strong network of diverse leadership is more sustainable, will mitigate burnout, and avoid reliance on a single person. He also gave this advice to fellow food councils:

  1. Diversify your funding streams.
  2. Engage and involve your local government early.
  3. Prioritize your needs and resources.
  4. Break bread and share food at every meeting.

The lack of dedicated funding and staff can open opportunities for creative partnerships between public and private entities. Councils across North Carolina and across the nation structure themselves very differently depending on the community member interests, collaborative partnerships, and available resources.  John Hopkins Center for Livable Future just published, Structuring Your Food Policy Council, a great summary of various council structures and the benefits or challenges of each.


Through her workshop and keynote address, Dr. Samina Raja shared an inspiring message about our food system and how we can be more involved.

Food Systems Planning

Newton’s encouragement to communities to work with their local governments was reiterated in another workshop and the keynote presentation, both by Feast Down East’s distinguished guest, Dr. Samina Raja, PhD. Dr. Raja is the Principal Investigator for the Food Systems Planning & Healthy Communities Lab at the University of Buffalo, The State University of New York.  Her research program focuses on the role of planning and policy in building sustainable food systems and healthy communities.

In Dr. Raja’s workshop, participants critiqued comprehensive food systems plans from other parts of the country and explored ways in which (local government) planning and policy can be used to strengthen a community’s food system.  In the workshop, it was clear that some communities had engaged their local food stakeholders and incorporated strategies that were more responsive to growing the local food market. In other examples, it was clear that those at the table creating the plans were not knowledgeable about food systems nor about the complexity of intersections that occur within farm to table markets.

During her keynote address, Dr. Raja shared stories of communities like Erie County in New York where stakeholders worked from the ground up and were able to incorporate an entire Food Access & Justice section in their county’s comprehensive plan. She spoke about Minneapolis doctors prescribing Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) subscriptions, where families purchase weekly produce boxes directly from farmers. Her work across the nation shows that civic efforts are strengthening food systems.

Dr. Raja shared that most governments don’t engage in food policy work because they simply don’t know much about how the food system works. She further noted that local governments are busy regulating and zoning, but not facilitating entrepreneurship and inspiring local food economies. However, their involvement can have significant impact.  Dr. Raja says “The goal is not to spend more government dollars, but to leverage resources effectively to improve counties.”  It is up to communities to educate their local government officials with food systems knowledge.  There is a real need and opportunity for this work. This task is one of the important roles of local food councils to engage with planners to make sure food systems are part of the planning discussion. Dr. Raja and her team are facilitating these connections and helping communities engage with their local governments through trainings and policy examples at growingfoodconnections.org.

Wes MacLeod, a local planner at the Cape Fear Council of Government commented that “Dr. Raja’s approach to combating the issues facing our food system is refreshing and all-encompassing. For planners, the issue of food is often outside the scope of our daily purview. Dr. Raja can help us better understand where the food system overlaps with our long-range planning projects and day-to-day regulatory tasks. Tackling the food systems challenge from a collective set of perspectives – planning, economic development, and public health – will better prepare us for initiating policy change and investment that will have long lasting impacts on our communities.”


Regional Indicators

In the afternoon, Wes MacLeod presented the highlights a recent SE NC Regional Food Systems Assessment covering five counties in the area.  Some of the data showed extreme population growth in many counties, decreasing farmland acres, and the number of food insecure individuals in each county.  MacLeod shared USDA Economic Research Service data that showed a greater than 300% increase in calories coming from fast food chains over a thirty year period versus a 17% decrease in calories coming from home-cooked meals.  He also noted some of the barriers to healthy eating and nutrition as cost, education, and most definitely time, convenience, or access to these foods.  Increased prices of local healthy foods could be a perception for some, especially with limited knowledge of where to purchase and how to prepare healthy foods.  As an example, he showed home-cooked meals from fresh ingredients, pre-prepared frozen meals, and meals from fast food restaurants as having very similar costs and a range in time to have a ready meal. The 5 minutes it takes to receive a fast food meal versus the at least 45 minutes to prepare a home cooked meal could be very significant factors in choosing to eat local foods.  

Later two groups worked through a portion of a Results Based Accountability process with the Community Food Strategies team to start putting a collective voice to regional indicators that would be important to track a shift in growing the local food system in southeastern NC.  The groups separately defined what a thriving, sustainable community based food system might look and feel like in their region.  Then they brainstormed and prioritized several indicators to be tracked for progress.  The group’s top indicators were:

  1. Increase in % of population with a healthy weight
  2. Decrease in % of the population with obesity and/or chronic disease
  3. Increase in sales of local foods

Overall participants seemed to leave with inspiration, full bellies from a delicious locally sourced lunch, and new ideas and relationships to build on when they went back home.  A theme channeled throughout the day’s workshops seemed to be about the opportunities for local foods advocates to engage with their local governments.  

After the conference, Libby Smith, from the Department of Commerce and a representative of the LFCNC, is hoping “to facilitate a collaboration with the NC American Planners Association to develop a series of trainings on food systems for local planners. These gatherings offer real opportunities for the LFCNC to come away with ideas on how they can create tangible resources to support local food systems development.”  

We look forward to upcoming opportunities to connect with our regional partners.


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