From various professional experiences and passions, read why these five community members are involved in their food councils.
ALYSSA MOUTON: Health Education Supervisor, Community Health Education Gaston County Department of Health & Human Services
Alyssa Mouton is one of the founders of the Gaston County Food Council. As a professional Health Educator, she got involved in the food council because “after teaching people about healthy eating, you can’t send them back into a food desert.” The benefit of the food council, she says, is that it helps “look at things on a systems level.”
The Gaston County Food Council recently partnered with N.C. Cooperative Extension to conduct a baseline Food System Assessment using Community Food Strategies’ Whole Measures Framework and Baseline Assessment Toolkit. “The food assessment provides a snapshot of the County and common data that our stakeholders said they needed to have,” she says. “The Community Food Strategies Baseline Assessment Toolkit was essential in making the assessment project feel approachable – it broke the process down into steps and offered questions to guide our thinking and decision-making,” she adds.
The Food Council has also supported promotional efforts for National Farmers’ Market Week and sponsored a series of public events including a movie screening, sustainable agriculture discussion, and workshops on equity and access, economic aspects of local foods, and community health.
JONI TORRES: Community Garden Technician, Cooperative Extension
Joni Torres grows more than the fruits and vegetables in her garden, she grows more gardens. Torres is the Community Garden Technician for Pitt County Cooperative Extension, and a member of the Pitt County Farm and Food Council. She manages the Making Pitt Fit Community Garden in Greenville, delivers garden-based educational programming to elementary school students, mentors other community gardeners in the county, leads workshops for teachers and child care centers, and helps people who are trying to start new community gardens.
Her position – and the garden – is supported by a unique partnership of Pitt County (which provided the land and infrastructure, and provides ongoing maintenance), N.C. Cooperative Extension (which provides office space and connection to the Cooperative Extension network and resources), and the Vidant Health Foundation, which funds her position. “It’s how communities should work,” she says, “I feel like I’m supported by my whole community.”
The garden is a lively gathering space of community gardeners and volunteers, some of whom have been there since the garden was founded nine years ago. Joni donates extra produce – 1,200 pounds each year – to a soup kitchen at the local church.
She sees community gardens as a way to address food security, build community, and provide education, all with the goal of giving people access to fresh healthy food. Her involvement in the Pitt County Farm and Food Council broadens her network and magnifies her impact. “By working together, we find out where we can help and we support each other in ways that help the community,” she says.
MICHAEL BANNER: Urban Farmer, Community Organizer, Local Food Activist
Michael Banner is a dedicated and outspoken community leader and local food advocate. Since 2015, Banner has been working with Forsyth Foodworks, a county-level food policy council, as an Action Team Leader and a member of their Advisory Council. He was the Chairperson of the City of Winston-Salem’s now established mayoral-appointed Urban Food Policy Council, and is working with the City of Winston-Salem and Simon G. Atkins Community Development Corporation to secure two vacant lots for urban farming. Banner is also part of the multi-county Piedmont Triad Regional Food Council.
He describes himself as a grassroots urban farmer. “We push the priority of building a local food system of urban farmers,” he says. His vision is of urban farmers growing food and earning income by repurposing underutilized parks and abandoned lots in Winston-Salem to grow food organically for local markets. “First we’ll bring the pollinators back, then we’ll remediate the soil. Then we’ll plant orchards, berries, herbs, and bushes. Then we’ll build seed banks,” he says, his passion evident in his voice.
It’s a vision that he’s bringing to reality through his participation in an extensive web of organizations, food councils, and local government agencies that are building Winston-Salem’s local food system. “It’s important because I’m able to speak to the needs and concerns of the community, which often get overlooked. I have to be there to speak on behalf of the people who feel [food policy impacts] the most.”
Banner knows that to make it profitable, the project needs to achieve a certain scale. He has dreams of planting large-scale GAP-certified gardens that can supply grocery stores and other large markets, generating wealth for his community. “We don’t really have the land in our community to grow enough food to make an impact,” he says. “By being on the council, it allowed me to put [the idea of growing food in parks] right on the table.”
PENNY RICH: Chair, Board of County Commissioners, Orange County, NC
Penny Rich is the Chair of the Board of County Commissioners for Orange County, NC, and the former liaison from the Board of Commissioners to the Orange County Food Council. Food issues have always been close to her heart. She runs a catering company and, as a parent, always made sure to teach her children about the value of food – and the fact that not everyone had enough of it. “Food is a Social Justice issue and we don’t talk about it enough,” she says.
One of the important roles she sees the Food Council having is that of convener – bringing different parts of the food system together. “The Orange County Food Council brings a whole lot of people together – farmers, chefs, caterers, policy-makers, food access advocates…they really are reaching out to folks who need to be brought into the circle,” she says.
When people from different parts of the food system get together, challenges can be turned into opportunities. “It was eye-opening for me to learn about the obstacles for local farmers to sell directly to schools,” she says. In most school districts, farmers who would like to sell food to schools must be GAP (Good Agricultural Practices) certified, but the cost of certification can be a barrier to farmers. Working together, the Food Council was able to identify and successfully advocate for a policy change – Orange County now will pay the cost of GAP-certification for any farmer who would like to get sell into the public schools. “I would like to see us getting more local food in schools,” she says.
RANDOLPH KEATON: Executive Director of Men and Women United for Youth and Families
Randolph Keaton is the Executive Director of Men and Women United for Youth and Families, a non-profit organization located in Delco, North Carolina, whose mission is to promote education, resource awareness and to provide services to assist in creating independent and self–sufficient youth and families.
He is also an advisor to Youth Ambassadors for a Better Community, a youth food council that grew out of the organization. The group of middle- and high-school youth from rural Bladen and Columbus Counties began as a youth leadership development group and evolved following the interests of the youth. “They are really interested in environmental justice work and finding employment,” says Keaton. “If you look around the community at what provides employment and engagement opportunities, food is a huge one for us. This is a very rural area with a history in agriculture,” he adds.
Many of the youth are learning to farm by working with older farmers who mentor them. “The kids weren’t fully aware of the opportunities of growing local produce. It makes a lot of sense – they are entrepreneurs, and farming allows them to take advantage of our rural assets like land,” says Keaton. The youth sell their produce at several area farmers markets.
As the group explored its interest in food and agricultural issues, they started attending events and activities throughout the state, learning and networking with both peers and adults. They also began advocating closer to home on issues that concern them – hog and turkey farming, water quality, the safety of their food and environment. “They’ve been speaking to people in power, at county commissioner and town hall meetings, and visiting their representatives in Raleigh,” says Keaton.
The group formally chartered their organization and released a Food Bill of Rights. “This is an opportunity to present their community in a positive light, and be taken seriously,” says Keaton. “Forming their own legitimate council sets them apart.” The group also brings its voice to regional food council work through participation in the Cape Fear Food Council, and statewide through Community Food Strategies events. “We will bring our voice to this more,” says Keaton.