Just two weeks after hurricane Florence devastated parts of eastern North Carolina, Greenville resident Jay Bastardo kicked off the 2018 Northeast Regional Gathering of Local Food Councils with a delicious meal–and a challenge. “God did not spare Pitt county by accident,” he said, “we were spared because we were meant to step up and help the ones, our neighbors, who were not as fortunate.” Through his restaurant, Villa Verde, Jay was working hard to live up to that call, and his charge to all attendees to do the same was answered with a long round of applause and agreement.
This purposeful energy was carried throughout the day as attendees from many of the region’s local food councils spent an afternoon hearing from and connecting with each other.
Thirty-seven individuals from the community and six Community Food Strategies members made this a very well-attended and successful event. Five of northeastern North Carolina’s food councils were represented, and members from the North Carolina Local Food Council were present as well. It was inspiring to watch these community members, educators, students, professionals, and volunteers engaging so deeply around the central belief that healthy food should be accessible to the people in their communities.
Local councils with members present were:
- Pitt County Farm and Food Council
- Just Foods Collaborative
- Beaufort HEAL Collaborative
- Warren County Local Food Promotion Council
- Roanoke Valley Local Foods Roundtable
Connecting Over Stories
One aim of the gathering was to share stories of the work councils in the region were doing, including some of their biggest successes and challenges, and the first session focused on doing just that. Every person from each council had an opportunity to introduce themselves, followed by a spokesperson explaining some of their council’s highlights of the last year or more. Others then had the chance to capitalize on this momentum by suggesting conversation topics based on the stories shared, and time was added into the day to allow for the start of deeper discussions of those questions or ideas.
Surveys from attendees of the event showed that 59% made three or more new connections. In total, over forty-seven new connections between community members, councils, and others were forged during this event.
Regional and Statewide Goals
Another of the conversations held during this event was actually based on a previous regional gathering held in 2016, when councils were beginning the work of describing a thriving, sustainable food system. At the 2018 Regional Gathering councils were asked a more pointed question: what can we add to the description that would make it accurately describe an equitable food system? Attendees took some individual time, and then time working in small groups, to tackle this question, and then they shared their answers back to the full gathering to come up with a larger shared understanding of the idea.
The day also held central themes around collaboration on the regional and statewide
levels. Attendees heard about statewide collaborations between councils that had happened over the previous year, such as the SNAP sign-on letter that eleven councils had helped make a success. Information about possible upcoming efforts currently being considered as possible candidates for statewide conversations were talked about as well.
Based on feedback received from the network, the opportunity was provided for those present to participate in a workshop on the benefits and challenges of working regionally to achieve the goal of an equitable food system. Members of NC Partnerships to Improve Community Health (PICH) and the Food Bank of Central and Eastern NC spoke briefly on the work they are doing across their regions to increase access to healthy food and to improve community health. The presenters also provided the opportunity for a closer look at the details of working regionally.
Mapping the Network
Community Food Strategies followed this up with a brief discussion of a new tool that will hopefully allow councils to better connect with each other and the work happening in the region. The network map, created using the Kumu platform, was a big hit among many of the Gathering’s attendees.
Respondents to our surveys shared that they came away from the gathering with some good next steps for their councils or organizations in mind. Some common themes for these next steps were:
- Forming working partnerships with other councils in the region (47%)
- Capacity building within the council/network (35%)
- Specific projects (24%)
Those themes were definitely in line with the conversations we heard throughout the day, and the questions that came up over and over: What can we do to work together as a region? How can we maintain this connection and sense of identity all year long? As a region, who are we?
There is increasing interest in finding answers to these questions, and it was pleasure to be there for some of these conversations at the Northeast Regional Gathering.