As the Trump administration reconsiders the federal government's longtime commitment to alleviate hunger through food stamps, Wake County has taken up the issue through local policy. Over the last three years, key stakeholders in a range of fields have developed a plan for addressing hunger in the county. And now they're poised to seriously move forward.
Many of the community groups pursued their own initiatives along the way. But on February 5, Wake County commissioners finally—and formally—approved the plan, setting the stage for the county government to address key policy and funding priorities.
From a layperson's perspective, it's all kind of wonky. Hunger, of course, is "food insecurity," and the many paths by which food is produced and distributed are through the local "food system." There are councils and networks and working groups, strategies and actions and indicators. But at heart, this process helps us understand why 132,000 Wake County residents don't have enough to eat.
In a way, it's a testament to the power of local food councils, which have been on the upswing in North Carolina since 2012; the state now boasts thirty-three of them, more than any state except California. These are intentionally cross-sector groups that allow community members to examine their local food systems and economies.
"They don't necessarily create new programs, but get folks from different perspectives to help create practices, policies, and procedures that allow the food system to work better," says Abbey Piner, who heads Community Food Strategies, a nonprofit that works with food councils across the state. So the councils, for example, might look at zoning changes that allow local residents to grow and then sell their own food.
In Wake County, the process began almost four years ago, when the Capital Area Food Network, a food council, formed. In 2015, policymakers in Wake County—including Commissioner Matt Calabria—had established a Food Security Workgroup to look at what schools were doing to address hunger in kids. Workgroup members quickly found, though, that the issue went way beyond schools.
"School-based strategies are vital but will never be sufficient," says Katherine Williams, director of Wake County's cooperative extension office and a leader throughout the process. "If we really wanted to look at how we could address this ongoing problem in our community, I knew we'd have to broaden our approach and engage all parts of the community and all sectors of the food system."
The Capital Area Food Network, meanwhile, had little legal or political clout, but was engaged with a wide range of actors and resources throughout the community—nonprofits, social service groups, urban farmers, food banks, health care groups.
Eventually the two groups began working together, and, after a June 2016 summit, the county commissioners allocated funding for a comprehensive plan examining food security in the county.
"It's not just about putting food into hungry people's hands; it's more about why people go to a food pantry in the first place, what's the quality of food there, what's the household like that might need assistance," says Erin White, whose company, Community Food Lab, was under contract by the county to develop and write the plan. White, the founder of several innovative food-related initiatives in Wake and Durham counties, helped start the Capital Area Food Network. Thinking big—and collaboratively—is one of his hallmarks.
"We designed a plan with a lot of community engagement," he says. "Through lots of research, we developed a comprehensive approach that looks at education, the economy, networks, and food production locally."
The end result is forty-one action items that can lead to a more prosperous, satisfied community in Wake County. They include things like increasing the number of food pantries at public schools, advocating for broader options for food stamp redemption, increasing meal delivery to low-income seniors, and pushing for a voluntary living wage among private sector businesses.
Wake County has four full-time Americorps VISTA members who focus on food security, as well as a small army of dedicated volunteers. The school system has established a school garden coordinator, community gardens throughout the county have been mapped, and a survey of food pantries is underway. But the pace should pick up considerably later this month; Wake County has funded a full-time food security program manager to coordinate implementation of the plan, and the new hire, Sydney Klein, will start February 26.
County commissioners say they're squarely behind the effort.
"This is an amazing comprehensive food-security plan," said commission chairwoman Jessica Holmes at the February 5 meeting. "I'm proud of how people-centric we are."
The county's recent adoption of the plan means that some of the bigger policy and funding recommendations should get some attention. Commissioners have particularly focused on making a portion of Walnut Hill, a four-hundred-acre preserve in Wake County that the Triangle Land Conservancy is establishing, available to farmers who otherwise lack access to land and using some of that space for agricultural education. They're also interested in partnering with the community action agency Passage Home to establish a site where southeast Raleigh residents can take culinary training classes, utilize a shared-use kitchen, and work in a nearby garden.
Taken as a whole, it's an impressive local effort. If the federal government steps back from efforts like poverty and hunger alleviation, local governments have to step in. And that's exactly what they're doing.