WNC Food Systems Coalition The Road to Regional Collaboration
We wanted to give a shout-out to the WNC Food Systems Coalition, formerly the WNC Food Justice Planning Initiative. This team has been working hard to develop a coalition that appropriately and equitably supports farmers and local food initiatives across 18 counties and the Qualla Boundary in Western NC. This is no small feat, as the few regional food coalitions in NC know the beauty and challenges of regional collaboration. This coalition has engaged more than 100 community organizations and citizens through their council meetings, including food systems nonprofits, community members, farmers, community gardeners, food distributors, food aggregators, food waste experts, and nutrition educators.
The Coalition held ongoing meetings in six different strategy areas, including
- Nutrition and Healthy Cooking Education
- Collaborative Ag Network, 3) Community Gardens
- Regional Food Council
- Local & Healthy Food Distribution
- Food Waste Reduction
This last year, the Collaborative Ag Network conducted eight farmer interviews as part of a participatory research project to understand prioritized needs in the region to better support farm and farmer collaboration, well-being, and vitality. Since then, the project has surveyed nine additional farms to expand the data pool, helping this research to inform the 2024 priorities related to regional food system infrastructure needs and investments. Their process is one to be replicated that built relationships, actually contributing to their goal of increasing connection and collaboration among farmers. They also have a comprehensive and deep understanding of farmer priorities in the region regarding land access, labor, funding, as well as and possibly most importantly quality of life assistance.
The Healthy Food Distribution & Nutrition Education membership includes 60 active members across the West. This group focused its efforts on expanding partnerships with agencies that support vulnerable populations through avenues adjacent to food access, such as harm reduction centers. They piloted a free food pantry in a harm reduction center, which was met with great success. This initiative plans to expand greatly in 2024, in direct response to community advocacy for additional support like cold storage and direct buying opportunities from farmers.
The Coalition is also working hard on asset mapping in the region and works diligently to develop strategic relationships in the region, with a specific focus on rural communities. The group has provided support to four new county-based food councils in rural western NC ranging from connecting small councils to pro-bono legal counsel for guidance on becoming a non-profit, to sharing best practices and success stories of other regions with initiatives like farmers’s market expansions, food box delivery methods, farmer networking and more.