Do we live in a “foodtopia”? Yes and no. While we have a thriving local-food movement, 29.9 percent of children in the region are “food insecure,” according to an August study on the issue conducted by MANNA FoodBank and Feeding America. Buncombe County fares just slightly worse than the state average, with over 50 percent of its students enrolled in the free and reduced lunch program last year. And, according to a 2010 study done by the Food and Research Action Council, Asheville ranked 7th in the nation for food hardship among all metro areas.
So how do you solve a far-reaching problem like food insecurity? Engage the entire community, says Asheville City Council member Gordon Smith, who, with a small group of like-minded individuals, helped organize an Asheville-Buncombe Food Policy Council meeting which convened on Friday, Oct. 21 on the UNCA campus.
For months prior to the UNCA meeting, a food-policy development team met with a diverse group of individuals and organizations including MANNA, ASAP, Mission Hospital, Bountiful Cities, Asheville Housing Authority, Asheville Independent Restaurants, school leaders and elected officials. Nearly 50 meetings and discussions produced a document, Future of Food (which can be viewed at http://ashevillefoodsecurity.wordpress), detailing the problems of food insecurity. The group also came away with the knowledge that they needed help from the community in a big way.
“We all knew full well going into this that we had very limited perspectives on the problem from our own seats; we already knew how little we knew,” Smith says. “Armed with our own ignorance, we were able to say, 'who needs to be [at this meeting]?'" Smith attributes the problems of hunger to environmental, socio-economic and educational factors, among many other things. Such a dynamic problem requires a broad approach, using input from a diverse sampling of the local population.
The ABFPC meeting drew nearly 100 concerned individuals to UNCA (including university students — you can read one recent graduate’s take in this section). Attendees convened in focus groups, discussed their respective interests and ideas on how the issue of food insecurity could best be tackled. The resulting distillation was then presented to the larger group. All the participants that Xpress spoke with felt energized, engaged and encouraged, and walked away from the admittedly long meeting feeling as though real steps were taken to solve a very challenging problem.
The general group came up with a number of short-term solutions on which they will begin work immediately, including: asset-mapping of farmland; financial resources and food organizations; creating an advocacy structure that pushes specific policies; increasing awareness of community hunger; and creating outreach programs working to determine the diverse food needs of WNC. Long-term goals include food mentoring and education; healthy food in schools and hospitals; strengthening of farmland preservation efforts; and banning genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in Western North Carolina.
Smith emphasizes that a number of area nonprofit groups, many represented at the food policy meeting, are already working to solve the food insecurity issue. "I've been blown away by how many people are doing the same things and don't know that the other groups are doing it," he says. "It's a perennial Asheville problem … you have a lot of people competing for the same resources."
The intention of the AB-FPC, Smith says, is to focus a united and concentrated effort between these working groups. “Everyone can ride their own bus,” Smith explains. “We just want all of the buses pointed in the right direction.”