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Community food councils: challenges and opportunities 

Efforts to cultivate locally based, self-reliant, sustainable food economies—what some call the local food movement—is an important issue for local governments. Local food systems connect with many core concerns of local government including economic development, food insecurity, public health, environmental stewardship, and social or civic health.

Yet local government isn’t in charge of the local food economy any more than producers or consumers of food are. Local food economies are complex systems. Thus, efforts to improve or change the system require collaboration and partnerships among many key stakeholders, including local governments.

Community food councils are a new and emerging form of partnership organizations in counties and regions across the United States. They are aimed at bringing together the key stakeholders in local food economies to stimulate the kind of dialogue and concerted action necessary to improve community and regional food systems.

City of Asheville Councilman Gordon Smith is a founding member of the Asheville Buncombe Food Policy Council, which was formed to increase food security and improve public health through policy change.

Although Asheville is branded as “Foodtopia,” a place thousands of tourists visit each year to experience regional cuisine, it is the ninth hungriest city in the nation with one in five residents experiencing food hardship.

“We know people who are living in poverty are less likely to get their nutritional needs met,” Smith said. “Therefore, their kids are not getting the opportunity to get a leg up or even get on an even playing field.”

Since forming in 2011, the council had great success. The previous city code made it illegal to have a farmers market in a residentially zoned area, which eliminated community gathering spaces like schools and churches. Since changing the code to allow markets to form, Asheville gained three new farmers markets. According to Smith, the most successful is in the Oakley community, an area the U.S. Department of Agriculture considers a food desert.

“It’s actually become a lot more than a farmers market. It’s become quite the community gathering place, and the church next to it started its own garden, which looks more like a farm to me,” Smith said. “That was an early, quick win for the council.”

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Government is offering resources for municipalities interested in starting a council. An upcoming webinar, Community Food Councils: Challenges and Opportunities, brings together experts on food councils to discuss successes as well as pitfalls to avoid in creating and maintaining a community food council.

Thanks to funding from a community transformation grant from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Blue Cross Blue Shield of North Carolina Foundation, this webinar will be available for viewing free at many locations across the state. The host sites and registration instructions can be found at www.sog.unc.edu/node/30976. The University also has a webinar on demand, Local Food and Local Government: What You Need to Know.

According to Smith, researching options for food policy councils is worth the possible outcomes you could have.

“I think having a group of people who are extremely knowledgeable about food systems focused on these policy areas is helpful so decision makers know where to best apply their efforts if they want to reduce hunger in their community,” Smith said.