Food was on the table Oct. 30 at the forum for Asheville City Council and mayoral candidates — both literally, with complimentary refreshments from Gypsy Queen Cuisine, and figuratively. Hosted by the Asheville Buncombe Food Policy Council, Bountiful Cities and Youth Empowered Solutions, the forum at Lenoir-Rhyne University attracted a sizable crowd eager to hear the candidates’ thoughts on food policy and security.
The topic is particularly timely given council’s recent revisiting of the Food Action Plan, first approved in 2013. Developed in cooperation with the ABFPC and Bountiful Cities, the plan directs the city to promote healthy food access and food sovereignty through changes to regulations, funding allocation and community partnerships. Council’s Planning & Economic Development Committee reviewed the new plan Oct. 17, with final approval by the full Council slated for Tuesday, Nov. 14.
Four questions were posed by moderators Ameena Batada, associate professor of health and wellness at UNC Asheville, and Crystal Guevara-Alday of the YES! youth staff. Following these prepared topics, the candidates were asked two questions from the audience. Each candidate received two minutes to answer each question.
In attendance were all of the Asheville City Council candidates: incumbent Gwen Wisler; minority economic development professional Dee Williams; financial adviser Rich Lee; community organizer Sheneika Smith; municipal budget consultant Vijay Kapoor; and piano teacher/bartender Kim Roney. Mayor Esther Manheimer was also present, but the chair designated for her opponent, waiter Martin Ramsey, sat vacant throughout the evening.
The candidates opened the forum with short introductions that hewed closely to the main themes of their respective campaigns. Wisler emphasized her past four years on Council and her role in the original formation of the ABFPC, calling for a “safe, vibrant, healthy and accessible” vision of Asheville. Williams described her role helping local small businesses achieve greater scale and mentioned the possibility of tying small growers with larger institutional clients such as Mission Health.
Lee mentioned his time on the board of Bountiful Cities and his mission of green, socially responsible investment. Smith focused on the social justice lens she brings to her candidacy and described food security as intersecting with civil rights and language justice. Kapoor spoke about how much he has learned about different issues, including food, while on the campaign trail, and emphasized how successful food policy tied into his goal of an Asheville where everyone goes to bed “safe, fed, healthy and valued.”
Roney shared her own experience growing up in a food desert in rural South Carolina and discussed how improved transit was key to alleviating food insecurity. She was also the only one of the candidates to directly address Spanish-speaking members of the audience. (Spanish interpretation was provided over headphones throughout the forum.) Finally, Manheimer touted her partnership with outgoing Councilman Gordon Smith to first adopt the Food Action Plan.
People and a plan
The first formal question read as follows: “How do you envision [the Food Policy Goals and Action Plan] being incorporated into the city’s comprehensive plan, overall city priority setting, and other relevant staff/department work plans. How would you work with community stakeholders and the food council to support the implementation of the Food Policy Goals and Action Plan?”
Manheimer praised the city’s existing partnerships with the ABFPC and Bountiful Cities while emphasizing that the plan is still a work in progress. She said the city should focus on its traditional responsibilities, such as zoning regulations and permitting fees, while boosting funding to external groups for boots-on-the-ground work such as planting community gardens.
Roney criticized the plan’s lack of specific, measurable goals and placed some blame on city officials for not developing those goals before the plan came before the Planning & Economic Development Committee for endorsement. “We have to do better than lip service if we’re going to get where we’re going to address resiliency and sustainability in our city,” she said.
Kapoor empathized with the challenges of cross-agency collaboration, which he experienced during his time working for the Pennsylvania state government. He recognized the expertise of outside groups in developing measurable goals and drew on the consulting language of deliverables and timelines when describing his vision for the plan.
Candidate Smith gave her approval to the plan’s language about equitable and fair investments across neighborhoods. She prioritized connectivity to food retailers and the use of strategic partnership funding to promote food security in underserved areas. Lee also focused on connectivity, tying in his experience with the city’s greenway projects and how those developments have begun to include food access concerns. However, he criticized council’s lack of motion on dedicating city land to food crops, particularly the “Edible Mile” along the French Broad River in West Asheville.
Williams said that the city’s Office of Sustainability should provide a template for enacting the plan and called for a dedicated staff person to support that effort. She also described how much of the necessary data on food deserts has already been collected by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Wisler, who chairs the Planning & Economic Development Committee, defended the committee’s decision not to endorse the current version of the Food Action Plan. “The fact that we have a lot of objectives but not a lot of measurables behind them in the 2013 plan is one of the reasons that we haven’t gotten as far as we should have,” she explained. She expressed her excitement for tying specific dates and resources to the plan next month.
Food for all
The forum’s second question focused on equitable access to healthy food for underserved communities. In two parts, the candidates were asked what they would do “to remove barriers and create land-use incentives to improve the quality of food and beverages sold in neighborhood food environments,” as well as “how to tackle race and class inequity related to food access and community health.”
Wisler emphasized the importance of transit accessibility for underserved communities as a way for them to “get to the food.” She also mentioned revisions to zoning that would make it easier for residents to sell food within neighborhoods and open community grocery stores. On the issues of race and class inequity, she appealed to individual neighborhoods as incubators for creative ideas that could be applied more broadly throughout the city.
Williams advocated for a community land trust in Southside as a way to support affordable mixed-use development and reduce carbon-dependent transit needs. She called for honest conversations around race and class in the city, saying that “we need to take our policies and make them congruent with our hearts.”
Lee blamed market failure for not satisfying the needs of underserved communities. “If Southside was in Ingles’ business model, there’d already be an Ingles there,” he explained. Lee instead called for the city to promote workplace democracy and co-ops, which he claimed would address both food access and equity concerns.
Smith pointed to the city’s already large investments in community grants and innovation districts and said food should be prioritized in those spending decisions. She said the language of Foodtopia often ignored issues of food access for the residents of those innovation districts. Like Lee, she suggested community-based grocers as a means for tacking both issues mentioned in the question.
Kapoor again returned to the theme of collaboration, admitting a personal lack of knowledge around barriers to food access but emphasizing his willingness to work with the organizations represented in the room. He also brought up the importance of food education, noting his 7-year-old daughter, who “will not eat any vegetables,” and the garden at her school.
Roney said the city could do more to promote the growth of food in public space through land-use incentives. She was particularly passionate about the potential for edible parks and challenged a common objection to those projects: “If I hear one more time that we shouldn’t have edible parks because we’re going to have to pick up food — that’s the worst excuse.” Roney also linked food access to transit and spoke of the opportunity to put food deserts in the foreground of the city’s ongoing transit master plan.
Manheimer expressed sympathy with Kapoor, saying that food policy has traditionally fallen outside of city-level government. But she spoke about how the city’s traditional functions, such as zoning and permitting, allowed for creativity in food solutions; she gained laughs of approval when mentioning relaxed regulations on backyard chickens. As did Roney and Wisler, she recognized the crucial role of transit for racial and class equity in food access.
Buzzwords for bounty
Third, the candidates were asked to give their definitions of food security and food sovereignty, recognized as “buzzwords in the local food movement.” They were also tasked with outlining the role of the city in meeting those issues.
Manheimer defined food sovereignty as the ability of food producers to self-govern, saying that this group often ran into rules created without an understanding of its needs. She emphasized engagement with food producers to reduce those conflicts of regulation. Manheimer also drew strong murmurs of approval from the crowd when calling for better-paying jobs to improve food security.
Roney described food security as reliable access, again relating the issue to transit by praising the recent expansion of Sunday bus service. She tied food sovereignty to ecologically sound and sustainable production methods, which she said could be promoted through participatory budgeting. “As a consultant, I appreciate buzzwords,” joked Kapoor, before explaining that his take on the issue was more visceral. As a parent, his most important issue was childhood hunger in the community. “That is absolutely unacceptable,” Kapoor said.
Smith mentioned how the Black Lives Matter movement had helped her understand the relationships between community consciousness, rural economy and healthy food systems. She specifically expressed interest in incentivizing churches with excess land to use their holdings for community food production. Smith also spoke about historical discrimination against black farmers and suggested that “it’s time to think about reparations in those terms.”
Lee agreed with Kapoor about the importance of childhood hunger. He provided a number of statistics about the prevalence of the problem, noting that one out of five Asheville residents is food-insecure and that 35 percent of those were children. To bring additional accountability for childhood food access, he proposed making school board membership an elected position versus one appointed by council.
Williams expressed disappointment in the historical failure of Asheville leadership, including black representatives, to address redlining and its consequent impacts on food access in minority communities. “We need to look into a mirror and hold ourselves accountable before we point the finger outward,” she said. Williams also emphasized that poverty was the root cause of many food issues and touted her continuing economic development work.
Wisler defined food sovereignty as the community coming together around the issue. She emphasized scaling up local businesses as a way to promote local food use by large institutions such as U.S. Cellular Center and the city itself. Food security was defended as a basic right, meaning that “no one should have to worry about food.”
Feasting with the county
The final official question explored the potential for joint action between the city of Asheville and Buncombe County on issues of food policy. The question specifically mentioned the partnership between Watauga County and the city of Boone for the High Country Food Hub as an example of successful collaboration.
Wisler commended the ABFPC’s previous work of pulling together the city and county and called for the organization to continue its guidance. Williams noted that the success of food hubs requires willing buyers and the kind of deals she has experience arranging. She also downplayed participatory budgeting as appropriate “for very small capital projects under $50,000, relegated to neighborhoods in most cities.”
“Where are the roadblocks” to these collaborations, asked Lee, before taking a jab at the existing city administration. “If you’ve taken any issue through the city government before, you know that it is a silo of professionally cautious and bureaucratic staff that are always the stumbling point,” he continued, drawing a tight-lipped smile in response from Manheimer.
Smith praised Buncombe County’s Department of Health and Human Services, which she says has gathered helpful data on childhood hunger. She also emphasized the role of community navigators and said their on-the-ground insights should help drive funding and policy decisions.
In contrast with Lee, Kapoor defended city staff, finding them to be willing and progressive in their approach to issues. He did call for additional “support from the top,” as well as buy-in from the school district. Roney called attention to municipal composting as a way to close the loop of the local food system; when Manheimer followed up by asking for a show of support for composting, nearly everyone in attendance had their hands raised. She also expressed optimism in her existing relationships with county government.
After these prepared questions, the forum allotted time for responses to two audience queries. Candidates were permitted to opt out of answering. The first question emphasized the importance of early childhood food education and asked the candidates how they would foster food instruction in city schools. The second question asked how the city would protect food service and farm workers without legal documentation from Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
Regarding food in schools, Williams, Wisler and Smith did not respond. Roney pointed to the success of existing programs, such as the FEAST community garden at Vance Elementary School, and called for their expansion. Referencing his own children, Lee said, “I wish I could say that growing food made your kids want to eat it,” which evoked laughter. Nevertheless, he went on to praise the school garden programs at Isaac Dickson Elementary and Hall Fletcher Elementary.
Kapoor suggested that garden programs should take the next step beyond food production and provide cooking instruction, as his daughter experienced at William W. Estes Elementary. He compared food awareness for the current generation to recycling awareness in his own, expressing hope that education could create wider social change.
However, Kapoor did not respond to the following question about protecting workers without legal documentation. Lee was the first to take the microphone, explaining that he saw the city’s civil rights ordinance as a good initial step. He advocated expanding that policy to include city schools and referred to immigrant protection as “a moral matter.”
Williams tied immigration policy to classism. “We tend to devalue people based on what they do for a living,” she said. She hoped that the city police and county sheriff would continue to protect the rights of immigrants moving forward. Smith added that the service industry often fosters exploitation and again pointed to worker co-ops as a way for undocumented immigrants to make a living with less risk of deportation.
As she did in her introduction, Roney spoke briefly in Spanish when she acknowledged the economic impact of “a day without immigrants.” She encouraged the city to adopt a civil rights ordinance around housing similar to that of Greensboro, which would protect people from discrimination based on nation of origin. Roney also called for Council to have courage when facing a loss of federal funds based on sanctuary city status, which attracted a smattering of audience applause. Wisler followed, expressing her pride in hiring a city equity and inclusion manager to help address these concerns.
Manheimer closed out the responses by clarifying that city law enforcement already does not enforce federal immigration policy or detain immigrants for the federal government (the latter by default, given a lack of city jails). She earned the night’s loudest approval when she spoke about her assurance to children in Asheville schools worried about deportation: “It’s important for me to help them know that they are welcomed, that they are loved and they have a future here in our city.”