“Intentionally Less Intentional”
One NC Food Council’s Effort to Build Community
Dylan Turner, 12/05/2022
Photo by Author
It’s 5:30pm on a December evening and people are trickling into the High Branch Brewing event room for a special dinner. It’s chilly by Concord, North Carolina standards, so everyone is wearing their winter attire as they mingle ahead of a meal of barbeque, mac n’ cheese, and baked beans. The event has been organized by the Cabarrus County Farm and Food Council (CCFFC), and it is part of a series of dinners they’ve put on throughout the year that they’ve named “Fruitful Conversations.”
Two other dinners were held earlier in 2022; one in April and one in September. The first, held on Street Fare Farm, consisted of a farm tour and time for people to eat and interact afterwards. The second dinner on the Elma C. Lomax Research & Education Farm followed the same format. Save the farm tour, these dinners did not have any particular structure or agenda. Their ultimate purpose? Building community.
Pictured Above: Top-left, Street Fare Farm tour of fields. Top-right, food at Street Fare Farm dinner. Bottom-left, food at Lomax Farm dinner. Bottom-right, people talking over a meal at the Lomax Farm dinner. Photo credits: Marcia Brashear.
The Cabarrus County Farm and Food Council, like many organizations, has dealt with a number of challenges throughout the last couple of years. One of the council’s leaders, Marcia Brashear, explained that participation with the council and its events had started to wane going back to 2019. It’s difficult to know exactly why, but with lower turnouts at events and the eventual onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the CCFFC team found themselves going back to the drawing board. A few of the core members, Marcia Brashear, Alicia Primus, Karen Andre, and Aaron Newton got together and decided, “We need to kind of resurrect. Let’s just do something really informal,” Marcia explains.
The CCFFC team got to work developing their idea and finding host locations for the dinners. Everyone had a unique role to play in making the dinners a reality. “Aaron Newton was key in helping the group reconnect with past collaborators and TJ Primus is who coined the term Fruitful Conversations as an event,” Alicia Primus informed me. Each event is free to attendees, but folks are encouraged to bring non-perishable food donations that either go to Cabarrus Health Alliance or to Cooperative Christian Ministry.
There are a lot of great resources CCFFC has offered in the past, like seminars on beekeeping or demonstrations of different agricultural practices. But, Marcia explains, you can find a lot of those things elsewhere these days. Their thinking was that these dinners would be a way to bring people together so that they can simply get to know one another. The CCFFC leaders thought, “‘Let’s just be more organic, and less intentional. Intentionally less intentional!” Marcia says through a laugh.
Food from the Fruitful Conversations Dinner at High Branch Brewing. Photo credits: Cabarrus County Farm and Food Council.
Their idea seems to have worked. Each event has boasted large numbers of people from different walks of life who want to congregate around a shared interest in local food and addressing food insecurity. At the recent dinner in December, I was able to speak with a few folks in attendance to learn their perspectives on these events. Pam Smith, from Cooperative Christian Ministry, explained that these dinners help her “know what’s happening in the community and how we can support that.” She says it’s a great way “to learn, and to know, and to see how I can connect.”
People from outside Cabarrus County have been drawn to these events, too, and echo a similar sentiment. Carol Schmitz-Corken of the Rowan Food and Farm Network says that a big benefit of coming to events like these is “learning from one another.”
She tells me, “I like to see what other food councils are doing and how they’re handling things.”
These opportunities give other food councils ideas of what has worked well so that they can pursue similar projects in their home counties. Additionally, these gatherings help forge relationships across county lines that can be incredibly helpful for addressing food system concerns at the regional scale.
People eating and talking during the Fruitful Conversations Dinner at High Branch Brewing. Photo credits: Cabarrus County Farm and Food Council
Piniel Tadesse, Food Access Program Coordinator for the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Food Policy Council, mentions this point directly: “We know the local food system is not really defined by county lines. Farmers or producers might live in one county and sell in another.” Events like the Fruitful Conversations dinners can build those cross-county partnerships before a specific need arises so that when the time comes to work together you’re not approaching a stranger, but a friend. “It just makes sense for food councils to work together and address similar issues,” Piniel says.
I asked Marcia about the future plans for CCFFC and whether they intend to would they change anything in the next year. She replies, “I don’t think we’re going to change.” They are a small group that has grown in recent months to include a larger planning team, but everyone still has other responsibilities. Moreover, the dinners have been so successful that they do not see a need to change. According to Alicia, “partners are becoming more familiar and we also are attracting new participants.” Certainly, there is a time and a place for events with a specific goal or actionable next steps, but people also need space for meeting others where they might talk about food, sure, but they may also talk about music, their jobs, or their favorite movies.
As Piniel puts it: “Food really brings people together, so being able to sit around a table and share a meal and talk, that’s amazing!”