The Listening Project Propels Toe River Food Security Network

Yancey County, Western NC

How can your community be more effective at reducing hunger and food insecurity? People and organizations are trialing projects to address that issue for many of our communities. The Toe River Food Security Network, a member of the NC Food Council Network, is bringing community members, food pantries, faith communities, and agency staff together to talk about their innovative solutions and share resources.

For example, how about providing firewood, so that community members can heat their homes. During the winter, some residents have to choose between wood to stay warm and food to eat. Upon learning this reality, Bolens Creek Baptist Church created a wood voucher program and now, not only provides food to residents in the area, but also firewood deliveries.

In the Yancey County School District, 55.2% of K-12 public school students are eligible for free or reduced lunch.  Sixteen percent of the overall population in Yancey County is food insecure based on 2015 data.  Across the county, a number of organizations, churches, and passionate individuals are working to reduce hunger.  The Toe River Food Security Network is one of those groups and began listening sessions in 2015 with all of these entities to raise awareness of the services available.

StoryQuestionsAt a recent listening session the Network held at a local steak house, people from across 14 different organizations shared a meal and their experiences. These stories are usually shaped by two leading questions: “What is going well and what is needed?” They talk about challenges, and opportunities like wrap-around services at food pantries. Churches, food pantries, backpack programs, community gardens, a local diabetes coalition, community college, local newspaper, and local government attended, collectively informing the group of the many available services: from clothing, food, utility support, shelter, car repair, and transportation… to workforce development.

The idea was to offer a platform, where providers of a broad range of services for food insecure people would feel comfortable in sharing, through story, their valuable resources” says Jana Bartleson, Steering Committee member of the Network.  


It was the first time that I had heard what all of these groups were doing, and what kind of direct impact they were having. Hearing their experiences will help me advocate for ongoing services already provided by the county and new opportunities that could support these organizations and the larger community.” says County Commissioner Chairman, Johnny Riddle.


 “These stories really opened Chairman Riddle’s eyes to the vast need and the work that was happening around this cause.“ said Bartleson.

With each gathering, this group of people known as Yancey Food Ministries, continues to build relationship and trust, become better informed, and see the advantages of connecting and learning from each other. In fact, they are asking for more gatherings not less. The local newspaper featured articles focused specifically on the pantries’ available resources. Chairman Riddle wants to continue to be involved at these meetings.

Listening to Community Needs

The first Network listening sessions were held in the winter of 2015 in the form of one-on-one interviews. One set of interviews included 20 community organizations and agencies working with people experiencing food insecurity like the Department of Social Services, School System, and Operation Feed a Child. Another set of interviews were with the food pantries, most of which are faith based. The interview questions were carefully crafted to illicit not only how agencies and churches intersect with food insecure people, but also their feelings and emotions around the issue, as well as grassroots ideas for moving people and the whole community towards greater food security. The use of empathetic listening techniques (putting yourself in the other person’s shoes) began to build relationships of trust for future community organizing including increased awareness, communication, and collaboration around food insecurity.


Photo Credit: Society of St. Andrew.  In 2016, Yancey County Gleaners brought 13,373 pounds of sweet potatoes to food pantries in Yancey County.



The Listening Project results found that organizations and churches wanted more connection with each other. They wanted to know about each other’s services and how to refer clients to services within the Network. As a response, the Network created and distributed a food and wrap around service directory. We ultimately made the directory a part of  NC 2-1-1, a free, confidential, multilingual phone service that provides information on assistance programs by county, and access to a social worker.

The Listening Project guides the Toe River Food Security Network’s work and informed their 2016-2017 strategic planning process, with a 5-year planning document released March, 2017.  They will continue to:

  • facilitate increased collaboration and coordination of resources between organizations for greater efficiency and impact;
  • grow their steering committee for broader community representation;
  • convene community gatherings or Big Idea Forums to provide educational opportunities for learning how to build food security, such as farm to childcare;
  • expand “Yancey Grown”, a public food education collaboration with Cooperative Extension, TRACTOR- our local agricultural food hub, the Farmer’s Market, WIC program, and our local Diabetes Coalition to provide hands-on food demonstrations and tastings of locally grown produce; and
  • grow Yancey Gleaners- a partnership with Society of St. Andrews to harvest extra food from farms and gardens for distribution to food pantries.

The next iteration of the Listening Project has begun with listening directly to clients to learn more about how to improve service delivery and impact long term food security.  

Building relationships created a stronger Network, engaged diverse partners, and improved service delivery. “We are conveners, bringing people together to align common agendas and resources,” Bartleson says. Through the Listening Project, she feels like they have found their niche and how they can best serve the community.

%d bloggers like this: