Last year this time, Char-Meck Food Policy Council brought their community together with local candidates for office to talk all about FOOD in Mecklenberg County. This year, with the support of Community Food Strategies and Plate of the Union, four more food councils will follow suit, raising community voices to share the value of community food systems with current and future elected officials. Find out if your community’s food council is hosting an event and how you can take part!
Freshly brewed coffee and fact sheets on food access, Farm-to-School, and local agriculture in Mecklenburg County were both ready at 8am on a bustling Thursday morning last fall at 7th St. Public Market in downtown Charlotte. Members of the Char-Meck Food Policy Council waited, wearing name tags that stated their particular interest in food systems: ‘food access’, ‘school gardens’, ‘urban gardening’, ‘local farms’, for community members and political candidates running for school board, mayor and city council to join them for a cup of coffee and some conversation to talk about all things food and farming. “In efforts to engage the community with local officials and educate our leaders on our issues, such as healthy food in schools and neighborhoods, supporting sustainable agriculture, and growing opportunities for local farms and food entrepreneurs in our county, we decided to host these events where the two audiences could co-mingle,” said Erin Brighton, Executive Director of the Char-Meck Food Policy Council (FPC).
By 9am more than 30 community members and nearly a dozen local officials were trading stories and questions about current issues around food, farming and health. The Char-Meck FPC received a great response from their invitations to all local officials and political candidates for this informal gathering. As a small non-profit organization focused on building a sustainable, equitable and healthy local food system, they leveraged their partner resources to organize this 2015 Meet & Greet Candidate Forum. The food council did the organizing, invitations, and promoting of the event to the community. The location offered coffee, restaurants that support local food, and a downtown space where community members can easily connect. The community and local officials brought their questions and experiences to listen and learn from each other.
To provide data for later viewing or follow up, the food council provided three fact sheets about 1) food deserts, 2) healthy food in schools, and 3) local agriculture to attendees at the event and to all invitees via email. “That next week, we were even invited by the County Commissioners to provide a more in-depth presentation of our work and food system knowledge, “ said Brighton. By capitalizing on appropriate timing of the election, community interest, and diverse partnerships, the Char-Meck FPC established their position as a go-to source for food systems expertise and convener of engaged citizens. They are planning another Candidate Meet & Greet Forum this fall, along with four other food council groups.
Food councils are intentionally cross-sector community groups working together to make change in their food system. They focus on broad community-wide input and create an atmosphere for farmers, local planners, economic developers, parents, nurses, and others to come together to develop a complete picture of the community’s food system and establish a foundation for long-term collaboration. Expanding working relationships and learning other perspectives in the community allow for creativity and deepened understanding of the real issues, the systemic impact of policies and programs. Developing these relationships creates invaluable opportunities for conversations and ideas to emerge. With cultivation, these relationships can evolve into collaborative partnerships.
A New Collaboration
Community Food Strategies is embarking on a new collaborative partnership this fall with Plate of the Union and several local food councils across North Carolina to bring greater awareness of food and farm issues at local, regional, and national levels. This partnership is working to build local capacity and engagement by helping local food councils with event planning, media strategy, and policy expertise.
Community Food Strategies and Plate of the Union staff are working directly with four local food councils in Alamance, Durham, Mecklenberg, and Wautaga Counties to host events with elected officials and candidates running for office. We produced a toolkit for organizing these types of events with detailed information on candidate invitations, volunteer management, facility logistics, and tracking success to encourage other councils to coordinate future events like this.
The Plate of the Union, a national campaign to charge the next president with championing food system change, brings the national spotlight and media expertise. They are calling on the next president to make good food policy a priority, which includes reforming agricultural policies to protect farmers of all sizes to promote diversified farming in all communities. Along with North Carolina, Plate of the Union placed organizers in three other battleground states, including Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Iowa. Our presidential candidates are paying close attention to what happens in these states.
“Food systems issues will require federal, state, and local action and we want to build a movement with grassroots organizations and community members. We are here to support folks already working in North Carolina,” says Robert Corriher, Plate of the Union organizer.
Community Food Strategies, a statewide food systems initiative led by the Center for Environmental Farming Systems along with Carolina Farm Stewardship Association, Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project, Care Share Health Alliance, and Carolina Common Enterprise, brings a connection to the network of local food councils and North Carolina policy advocates and experts.
The local food councils offer existing relationships with partners and local politicians, knowledge of the community’s issues, and an avenue to engage citizen interest. These events can show decision makers that food councils are the local food systems experts and conveners of broad-based community support.
Food Councils as Policy Advocates
Using this heightened awareness of a presidential election season can be advantageous in engaging citizens in state and local policy and program initiatives. Effective policy work involves getting to know people, building relationships, and partnering with decision makers. It also involves education or advocacy on certain causes, bringing a stronger, well-informed voice to the table. Since food councils create space to listen to those impacted by policy, engage leading practitioners, and foster unlikely partnerships to emerge, they are well positioned to support comprehensive public policy shifts that positively impact the whole community.
Mark Winne, a local food advocate and food policy guru of more than 30 years, champions food councils in their policy work. In his recent Food Policy Amnesia blog post, he shares successes of food councils working to change local ordinances in support of community gardens or SNAP benefits at farmers markets. He acknowledges the challenges in doing food policy work by saying “making these connections, doing the research, and advocating for changes can be difficult and complex work.” He also recognizes the rewards that come with public policy implementation, such as “more funding, more projects, and more people served”, and therefore making a greater impact.
Many food councils are built on the foundation of engaging a wide range of stakeholders, understanding the complex intersections of food and farm-related issues, and seeking strategic partnerships to leverage resources and make change. Given this foundation and their common goal of improving their community’s food system, food councils have the ability to be a leader and innovator in public policy and systems change. With opportunities for new entrepreneurial activity and increased community vitality, local governments and city councils would benefit from their efforts.
Community Food Strategies supports food council efforts in policy action and will be releasing Strategic Plan for Policy Action toolkit and an Event Planning toolkit soon.
- Carolina Farm Stewardship Association’s “What’s a Non Profit to Do? Advocacy in An Election Year”
- NC Alliance for Health’s Advocacy vs. Lobbying presentation