This article is cross-posted on behalf of Carolina Farm Stewardship Association (who is a team member of Community Food Strategies) and was written by Jared Cates, Community Food Strategies team member and Carolina Farm Stewardship Association Community Mobilizer.
Farming is a strong economic driver across the Charlotte metro region. Farmers have access to traditional wholesale markets as well as many direct to consumer opportunities through farmers markets and CSA’s. Locally sourced food can be also be found on the menus at many medium and high priced restaurants. But, the recent findings of a large-scale planning effort, CONNECT Our Future, drew attention to big challenges with inequity in the regional food system, low wages for food system workers, and large pockets of food insecurity. There is increasing demand for locally grown food, but farmland continues to be sold off and transformed into subdivisions. There is plenty of local produce grown in the region; however little of it is making its way into local school cafeterias. These are the types of issues that the Char-Meck FPC has been tackling. And they’ve been doing it in a variety of ways.
The Charlotte-Mecklenburg Food Policy Council (CMFPC or Char-Meck FPC) has been very busy over the past several years. Under the leadership of Executive Director, Erin Brighton, and Board Chair, Young-Sun Roth, the council has hosted a number of events and supported many initiatives concerned with healthy eating and local food. As North Carolina’s largest city continues to expand, CMFPC’s work is appreciated by more and more people who want to know how their food is grown and who is growing it. The Council connects people from all over the county, encouraging them to work together to create a more robust and sustainable community food system in Mecklenburg County.
Recent estimates put the county’s population at around 1 million people. The Charlotte-Concord-Gastonia, NC-SC Metropolitan Statistical Area, which is defined as seven counties in North Carolina and three counties in South Carolina, has a current population of around 2.5 million. Estimates predict that this region will grow 47% between 2010 and 2030. This increasing concentration of people and economic activity has created challenges and opportunities for the regional food system. CFSA recently worked with multiple partners on the food systems portion of CONNECT Our Future. This multi-faceted planning process identified supporting local farms as a regional priority, assessed the regional food system and made recommendations on actions to take to strengthen that system.
Established in 2010, the Council was formed to advocate for policies that build a more sustainable, equitable and healthy local food system. Marilyn Marks, a food system activist, took a lead role in developing the Council after being inspired by a Farm to Fork Initiative summit back in 2009. This event brought together approximately 400 stakeholders from across the state for the purpose of developing a Statewide Action Plan about food and farming.
The goals of the Council are to enhance the health of Mecklenburg County citizens, to strengthen local economies and market opportunities, and to reduce hunger and food insecurity. Their mission is to strengthen the community by serving as a forum for discussing food issues, building relationships in the food system, educating, advocating for, and communicating policy issues, and acting as a primary information source for food related issues. The Council consists of a 10-member Board of Directors that has representatives from the community, Bank of America, Food Buy, Compass Group, Mecklenburg County Health Department, UNC-Charlotte, and Charlotte Center City Partners. The Council also has an Experts Panel made up of professionals from the farming, public health, hospitality, education, food distribution,government and retail sectors. CMFPC meets with the Panel regularly and consults with them on their work.After attending the summit, members of the Charlotte community came together to discuss what could be done in their region. One of the common concerns was that there was no place for the group to go to talk about food system issues in the way that they were discussed at the state-wide forum. They realized that they all had a vision for an improved food system for Charlotte that was bigger than what any single member of the group was currently doing – and bigger than what any of them could do on their own. Creating a way to come together and hash out these big ideas to move their community forward was appealing. So, they formed Char-Meck FPC as a way to institutionalize this type of collaborative space.
Over 72,000 residents in Mecklenburg County were living in food deserts.
State of the Plate
When the Council was first founded, the group knew that they first had to learn about food and agriculture in their community to understand what they could do to improve the community’s food system. CMFPC partnered with UNC-Charlotte to perform a food system assessment that focused on healthy food access. They found that over 72,000 residents in Mecklenburg County were living in food deserts. The authors defined a food desert in this study as any low income census block groups that did not contain a full service store. The assessment has been used by over 50 organizations in the community to apply for grants and projects related to food access issues.
After five years of work, the Council decided to check back in on how the food system changed since the original assessment. Not only an update, the 2015 State of the Plate assessment also offered new information to CMFPC about how county residents make decisions about food. Based on their findings, CMFPC sees opportunities to expand access to fresh, healthy foods by creating new retail opportunities, enhancing existing retail establishments, working towards 100% availability of SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) and WIC (Women with Infants and Children) at full-service groceries, developing innovative programs that increase distribution of high quality produce, and continuing or expanding programs that educate youth and adults on healthy eating.
Bringing Farmers to Food Deserts
After CMFPC and their partners at UNC-Charlotte presented their 2010 assessment to the Charlotte City Council, the Council invited CMFPC to present their findings to their Economic Development group. CMFPC presented at two sessions with the group and told them about their process, what they learned and ideas for improving food access in the community. One idea that the Economic Development group strongly supported was mobile farmers markets as a way to increase access to fresh, healthy food in neighborhoods and areas that were designated as food deserts.
But there was one major obstacle facing mobile farmers markets who wanted to sell to consumers in the city: zoning prohibited any mobile farmers market from setting up in residential areas. The City Council instructed the Zoning Administration within the Planning Department to create a citizen’s advisory group to work to amend the zoning language.
With lots of input from the food council and from the Charlotte Planning and Health Departments, this advisory group created language that was used as a zoning text amendment. The amendment lays out simple regulations and creates a permitting process with a nominal fee for mobile farmers markets. When asked about lessons learned throughout the process that they went through working with city government, Erin Brighton stated “Understanding the political process and figuring out the schedule was a process itself. For us, finding a strong champion in our City Council was critical in getting the zoning changes that we wanted.” CMFPC sees mobile markets as just one piece in their work of the supporting food access and local entrepreneurs.
“We definitely would not have been able to accomplish so much in the past few years without all of our partners in city and local government, the school system, and with the many local and regional organizations working to support farmers and access to healthy foods.”
Lending Farmers A Hand
Another aspect of the work of the Council has been supporting is a series of events that crowd-sources money directly to farmers. Farm Hands is a micro-funding program, sponsored by CMFPC and and other local partners, that is dedicated to supporting the growth and vitality of Charlotte’s agricultural community. It is a collaborative concept aimed at creating opportunities for Charlotte area farmers while also fostering community and building awareness of the challenges that farmers face.
Now in its third year, Farm Hands raises money by hosting a ticketed community dinner. Farmers submit applications detailing a “big idea” that will help their business. A group of farmer applicants are selected through a blind review process to become finalists who then present their idea at the dinner. The finalists give a short presentation on their project and winners are then voted on by dinner attendees. Proceeds from the event ticket sales are awarded to the winning finalist to fund their “big idea” and support them in developing some part of their farm business.
The food council and its partners plan on holding this event twice a year to connect local farmers with the community and to raise critical funds to keep the local food economy growing. So far, they have hosted three events, all at local breweries. The first event was in collaboration with CFSA and Slow Money NC. Over $5,000 has been raised and awarded directly to farmers. The next event will be November 13, 2016 at Free Range Brewery in Charlotte.
Putting Local on the Menu in School Cafeterias
In 2015, CMFPC worked with the Mecklenburg County Health Department to lead a coalition of partners to organize another event – A Fresh Look at School Food – which was held at Johnson & Wales University. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools serve 38,500 breakfasts and 83,000 lunches a day. This event created an opportunity for community members to come together to discuss ways to help students choose tasty and healthy meals at school.
The event featured many of the efforts underway in the community to make school meals fresher and healthier. The coalition partnered with MomsRising, a group working to support women, mothers and families, to screen “Cafeteria Man,” a movie about ambitious efforts to ‘green’ the public school diet serving 83,000 students in Baltimore and over 200,000 students in Memphis. Following the movie, staff members from school cafeterias went head to head in a cooking competition assisted by local chef, Clark Barlowe, of Heirloom and Chef Megan Lambert, a Johnson and Wales Professor. Students participated in a panel discussion with the audience about different topics related to school food and then judged the meals created by the teams. A few weeks after the Fresh Look the event, the chef featured in the movie, Tony Geraci, participated in a national Google hangout with Fresh Look attendees and the CMFPC director.
The Council and its partners feel that the event helped to create an ongoing dialogue on the importance of healthy food at school – not just school lunches – that continues today. One exciting outcome was a coalition of groups working together to get the gardens at Garinger High School a USDA GAP (Good Agricultural Practices) certification. This project, led by CMFPC’s FoodCorps service members, was a great way to learn from local farmers who had gone through the GAP process themselves. James Cooper, CFSA’s Food Safety Coordinator, worked with the group to make their food safety plan for the certification process. This certification now allows the school to actually serve food grown in the school garden in the school cafeteria. GAP is one of many barriers that makes it difficult for public school systems to procure local products to serve in their cafeterias.
Bringing Attention to Food and Farm Issues
The next event CMFPC has on the calendar is a “2nd Annual Meet the Candidates: Let’s Talk About Food” gathering in partnership with Community Food Strategies, and Plate of the Union. The event will take place on October 25 at Midwood International and Cultural Center from 8 – 10am. This will be an opportunity for community members to have informal discussions with elected officials and candidates for public office about food, health and agriculture. There will also be a moderated discussion with officials and candidates from state and federal-level offices. Please check out the CMFPC website to learn more about this forum. Please consider attending if you live in the Charlotte region! To learn about the First Annual Meet the Candidates event, hosted by CMFPC in 2015, please check out this blog on our Community Food Strategies website.
A Lot on Their Plate
If there’s one thing that the members of CMFPC have learned during their six years as a food council, it is that partnerships and relationships are essential to improving their community food system. “We definitely would not have been able to accomplish so much in the past few years without all of our partners in city and local government, the school system, and with the many local and regional organizations working to support farmers and access to healthy foods. Those relationships have been critical to our success. Working together is the only way forward if we are going to create more food and agricultural opportunities for the greater Charlotte community,” says Erin Brighton.
CMFPC has lots of work on their plate for the last quarter of 2016 and moving into 2017. They have two FoodCorps service members that are beginning their third year working within the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school system, they are hosting the candidates event, they are hosting another Farm Hands event, and they are gearing up to work on all of the goals outlined in the State of the Plate report. As a team member of Community Food Strategies – who works across NC to support the whole network of food councils – CFSA is excited to remain a part of this work and to support CMFPC in creating a Charlotte food system that provides access to healthy, affordable food for all, that is fair to food system workers, that is good for the environment, and ensures that Mecklenburg county farmers can keep farming.