Orange County Municipalities Jointly Fund a Local Food Vision
Photo above: Members of the Orange County Food Council (OCFC) in Spring 2017. The OCFC first spent a year in a “task force” phase from 2015 to 2016, and the inaugural members of the OCFC were selected in the summer of 2016.
“In local food council work, it’s important to bring as many voices together at the table as you can, so you can find out what’s already going on in your community. It’s hard to help if you don’t know the issues and resources available.”
– Chapel Hill Mayor Pam Hemminger, former member of the Orange County Food Council
Since its founding in 2016, the Orange County Food Council (OCFC) has been a group of 12-15 volunteer members from diverse backgrounds – from small food producers and farmers, to nonprofit leaders, elected officials, local chefs, small businesses, public health educators and nutritionists, faith leaders, community gardeners and community members. By building strategic partnerships, identifying issues, recommending policies, and coordinating action, the OCFC works to grow and support a community-driven food system in the Orange County region of North Carolina.
As the vision for the OCFC grew, so did the need for a single point person to help the Council achieve its goals. To meet this need, in May 2017, the idea emerged to create a paid, full-time Food Council Coordinator position. “A coordinated point of contact was essential to make connections between community members, local government offices, farmers, institutions, and nonprofits, ” said Chapel Hill Mayor Pam Hemminger. The Food Council Coordinator would be key for convening and coordinating council members, as well as facilitating collaboration and connection with the broader community.
Creation & Impacts of the OCFC Local Food Council Coordinator
While there was considerable support within the OCFC for the establishment of a full-time, jointly-funded Food Council Coordinator, the negotiation process took nearly two years. The OCFC was intentional about how the Food Coordinator position would be structured. “We looked at other models across the state, and there was a strong desire for the Food Council Coordinator to be part of local government,” said Penny Rich, Orange County Commissioner and former OCFC member. As an employee of Orange County government, the Food Council Coordinator would have benefits and healthcare, which were important considerations for members of the Council.
Determining exactly how the position would be jointly funded between Orange County and the towns of Carrboro, Hillsborough, and Chapel Hill required considerable discussion and compromise. Once the final signatures on a MOU were signed in March 2019, a formal interview process took place and the OCFC hired its first Food Council Coordinator, Ashley Heger, in July 2019. Heger previously served as Council Coordinator for the North Carolina Local Food Council and has worked in the network of North Carolina Food Councils since 2014.
Because Heger had been working with the OCFC since the fall of 2016, she was able to hit the ground running in the full-time Food Council Coordinator role. A central goal for the Coordinator is to help build and strengthen relationships between community members, institutions, organizations, and local government. The intention is to work within the county’s more traditional institutions and across town or party lines, while centering lived experiences within the community. As an example of the impact of this intentional relationship building, Heger assisted with the development of a comprehensive Community Food Resource Guide, which includes a list of organizations and resources across Orange County (as well as federal programs) that address access to healthy, local, and affordable food. The idea for the the Community Food Resource Guide came out of one of the first community forums OCFC held in 2016. Based on this community input, the OCFC Food Access work group – one of four OCFC working groups that anyone in the community is welcome to join – focused on developing the guide.
The guide, which is updated annually, is available on the OCFC website and has become invaluable for local organizations to ensure that community members know about resources available for addressing issues related to food access. The development of this resource is a first step towards ensuring equitable food access in the community.
“When we talk about food access, we also have to look at wages,” said Minister Robert Campbell, director for the Rogers Road Community Center (RENA) and member of the Chapel Hill-Carrboro NAACP Labor Committee. “With more collaboration between local organizations and local government, we can ensure that conversations around food access and living wage are working together.”
In addition to facilitating the organizations contributing to the resource guide, Heger’s ability to make connections within the community on behalf of the OCFC has also been demonstrated through her work facilitating a pilot composting program between Orange County Schools, Orange County Solid Waste, and Brooks Compost. The composting program, which will begin in January 2020, is modeled after the system already established in the Carrboro-Chapel Hill School System. This pilot project came as a result of expressed interest from Orange County schools, teachers, parents, and students, and the program came together quickly after the OCFC Coordinator’s initial introductions.
The Rise of Local Food Councils
Food councils are developing rapidly across North America, and North Carolina has emerged as a leader in food council development and capacity building. Much of this growth is thanks to support from organizations like Community Food Strategies, which provides North Carolina food councils with access to key resources like intensive training, system expertise, and networking opportunities.
OCFC members have advice for other communities looking to establish a jointly-funded Food Council Coordinator position. “A jointly-funded position requires a lot of cooperation among municipalities,” said venerated local farmer Ken Dawson, who was one of the original members of the OCFC and a representative of the Orange County Ag Preservation Board. Dawson continued, “In Orange County, it was not easy to get everybody on the same page, and because food systems cross political, social, and geographic boundaries – so must the work.” Several council members also noted the importance of having strong support from community partners and elected officials to ensure that a jointly-funded position can be successfully implemented.
Visions for the Future of the Orange County Food Council
Moving forward, the OCFC has an expansive vision for the future of the Council, and members are laying the groundwork for the development of a comprehensive Food Policy Agenda. The purpose for a Food Policy Agenda is threefold: First, to identify gaps and opportunities for creating a more community-driven, equitable, and sustainable food system; second, to coordinate strategic partners, including centering those with lived expertise to work on these focus areas; and third, to be a tool to support local government and elected officials with information and recommendations based on lived experiences within the community.
Members and supporters of the OCFC hope that the successful implementation of a jointly-funded Food Council Coordinator will inspire other councils to do the same. As Heger explains, “Our work would be so much stronger if there were food council coordinators throughout the region. We could think about the work on a county level and a regional foodshed level, not just defined by geo-political lines.” As the OCFC has demonstrated, local food councils do vital work connecting individuals, local organizations, institutions, and government around the complex issues of regional food and agricultural systems. While revolutionizing a broken food system can’t happen overnight, local food councils and their diverse networks have the power to create community-led collaboration and just policy change at the local, state, and national level.
For more information about the Orange County Food Council, contact Ashley Heger at email@example.com.