The Power of a Conversation

Community Engagement and the Greater High Point Food Alliance

By Thompson Teagle, Community Food Strategies Intern

By joining neighborhood wisdom with the experience of multiple sectors, the Greater High Point Food Alliance is working to alleviate food insecurity across High Point. Their community-centered and collaborative approach has created innovative programs and partnerships across the city.

In 2014, the Greensboro-High Point metropolitan area ranked first in a nationwide Gallup poll for individuals who did not have enough money to buy the food they needed, with an astounding 28 percent experiencing food hardship. This means that over 200,000 area residents were not able to afford groceries at least once over the course of a year. Unsurprisingly, research from multiple universities shows how being hungry can impact a child’s ability to focus in school, or an adult’s ability to work safely and productively on the job. With over a quarter of the community at times being unsure of where their next meal would come from, it was apparent that action needed to be taken.

Before the poll, community members and organizations were operating in isolation, helping to feed surrounding communities with limited individual capacity.

“For me it was leaving the corporate office to pastor a church, and then leaving the comfort of the four walls of the church to get truly involved in the community. Community engagement requires that we leave our comfort zones,” states Carl Vierling, executive director of the Greater High Point Food Alliance.

This community engagement is the work that comprises the Greater High Point Food Alliance (GHPFA); bringing together all members of the community to have a conversation, with the ultimate goal of addressing issues of food, health, and community agriculture.

With the illumination of these staggering numbers, concerned community members left their silos and came together to put an end to hunger in the Greater High Point area. This group represented people from all backgrounds, from those who experienced food insecurity to those involved in academia and local businesses. These community members and organizations shared a passion for bettering their neighborhoods and the lives of fellow community members.

What makes the GHPFA stand out is its consistent commitment to go directly to the community for solutions, thus actively working with the community, not for it.

Cedar kids planting

GHPFA works to create just and sustainable supplemental food systems for Greater High Point by fostering unity, developing responsibility and empowering communities.

Since 2015, the GHPFA has been hosting an annual Food Summit, a free and public event where attendees learn about available resources, share a meal together, and give input on 90-day and year long goals for each of their work groups. The GHPFA also hosted their first Youth Food Summit in 2017 where again they asked the youth, “What would you do?”. The GHPFA currently has seven work groups: Neighborhood Networks, Urban Agriculture, Food Access, Food Education, Research & Policy, the Senior Task Force, and the International Community Task Force. To get involved with a work group, you simply need to fill out their volunteer application.

index

A perfect example of GHPFA’s community engagement is the Neighborhood Index.

Neighborhood Index

In partnership with High Point University, the GHPFA is developing a food security measure to be used for determining the assets and needs of a community. This assessment aims to make a verifiable assessment that shows what food insecurity truly looks like at a neighborhood level. By joining neighborhood wisdom with the knowledge of academia, the GHPFA is working to facilitate direct actions that can create successful neighborhood models for increased food security. Their ultimate goal is making scalable change across the greater High Point area.

The neighborhood index has four primary measures: accessibility, affordability, quality, and education. These measures were initially created by High Point University, and the operational definitions have evolved through direct feedback from community members and organizations.

Accessibility of a neighborhood is determined by multiple factors, including:

  • the proximity of a neighborhood to a supermarket or food pantry
  • how many families within the neighborhood have cars,
  • do sidewalks and street lights exist and provide safe opportunities for travel, and
  • are bus stops present throughout the neighborhood.

Measuring how accessible food is to community members is perhaps one of the most key determinants of food security. Without convenient access, those struggling with food insecurity face a compounding effect of marginalization, requiring them to prioritize the process of obtaining food over other required daily tasks.

breadmilk

The cost of a gallon of milk and loaf of bread was used to compare affordability across food retail outlets.

The affordability of available food is another crucial measure. Faculty at High Point University developed a simple “food basket” measure to standardize cost across different grocery and corner stores. The food basket measure is the cost of a loaf of bread and a gallon of milk, two common staples for many family members that nearly all stores carry. The GHPFA initially wanted to include a bag of carrots in the food basket as well, but soon realized that carrots could not be found in most stores. In addition to the food basket, the affordability measure observes which stores accept SNAP and WIC, along with how many houses within a neighborhood are above the poverty line.

The third measure, quality, is difficult to measure because of the subjective nature of food quality. Their current measures for quality include: square footage of produce in stores, percentage of healthy food options, and the percentage of food sources offering organic and local produce. Defining healthy food options is complicated, which is why the GHPFA is supporting neighborhood conversations to determine how their own community defines quality, rather than defining it for them.

The final measure that exists for the neighborhood index is education. By determining the levels of knowledge and comfort in food preparation and nutrition, the GHPFA can alter and develop resources within the community that go beyond the provision of food. The level of food education within a community is currently measured by the amount of food and nutrition classes that are available each year and the number of cooking classes offered each year in the community. Additionally, indicators of cultural education and knowledge can help better understand the history and social norms that exist in each neighborhood.

While the neighborhood index is still under development and should be piloted in 2018, the GHPFA has already shown substantial outcomes since their founding in 2014. The GHPFA developed a food finder app for android and iOS for the area, helping connect citizens with food sources available near them. The GHPFA also worked with community members, City staff, and City Council members to develop policies that allow non-profits to adopt vacant city property to create community gardens, seven of which produced $115,000 in produce this year after being established less than three years ago. Recently, the GHPFA advocated for the establishment a full-time Community Garden Coordinator position under Cooperative Extension. Growing High Point opened created a high tunnel urban agriculture operation, providing job skills and entrepreneurship training to community members in need of employment. Other outcomes include the creation of new food pantries, and the development of urban agriculture and vacant lot ordinances.

Burns Hill CG 4

GHPFA has worked extensively to develop and provide resources to many community gardens across High Point.  They even successfully established a full-time Community Garden Coordinator under Cooperative Extension.

The Greater High Point Food Alliance represents a food council that has consistently relied on  community input to make culturally and community informed decisions about food and community agriculture. By maintaining this practice, the GHPFA will continue to successfully foster the development of community leadership while also relying on the power of community knowledge. Through these frameworks and partnerships, everyone in their network can work together towards the goal of food sovereignty for all neighborhoods across High Point and its surrounding communities.

At the 2017 North Carolina Statewide Food Council Gathering, Carl Vierling left his audience with the following idea;

“Today, we are witnessing the transformation of a community with regards to food access, neighbors working together, food education, and partners working together who did not know each other three years ago. And it all started with a conversation.”

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