Collaboration is key but challenging for organizations fighting food insecurity

FAIR SHARE: Isa Whitaker, Bountiful Cities’ Community Garden Network coordinator, says it makes sense for nonprofits to share resources. His organization offers seed and tool libraries to help gardens get started with little or no cost. Photo by Luke Van Hine

Western North Carolina faces a unique set of challenges and opportunities when it comes to food security. With one of the highest percentages of food-insecure individuals in the country, according to the North Carolina Justice Center, our region is also home to a large number of nonprofits, initiatives and institutions tasked with and voluntarily addressing food access.

The need still outpaces the services provided, however, and with overlapping focus areas, access to funding for fixing the problem can become competitive.

Some of these groups recognize that collaboration, not competition, holds the key to making a greater impact on the community. “Even if organizations are working in different areas of the food system, when we have more effective collaboration, we are able to see how our strengths can better support each other,” explains Nicole Hinebaugh, program director for local nonprofit Bountiful Cities. “We’re able to fill in the gaps of weaknesses. It builds a complementary team.”

Ultimately, the goal looks the same for everyone involved: an equitable, resilient system where all community members have access to plenty of nutritious, fresh food. However, collaboration can be cumbersome and time-consuming, requiring effective communication and structure and on-going management.

In spite of these challenges, Western North Carolina food-security organizations are making impressive progress at connecting and supporting each other’s needs. “Having extremely siloed work was true 10 years ago, for sure, even as recently as five years ago,” says Hinebaugh. “At this point, there is collaboration already happening.”

Efficiency of sharing

These partnerships can take different forms, depending on the work at hand. MANNA FoodBank serves a 16-county area through a vast network of partner nonprofits, county governments, schools, churches, individual volunteers, health clinics, businesses and other food banks “that are all focused on the same thing: supporting our most vulnerable residents in WNC,” says Communications Director Kara Irani.

MANNA’s model of collaboration has one large organization as a central hub for distribution of multiple services. Other models look more like a web, with collaboration shared among all involved partners.

In 2011, Bountiful Cities co-founded the Asheville-Buncombe Food Policy Council with this type of shared collaboration in mind. The effort initially brought together hundreds of individuals from different food-related sectors to find ways to work together and create structure. One of the reasons for having a collaborative food policy council, Hinebaugh explains, “is to have a complementary team approach, reducing a certain amount of inefficiency within the system.”

Making the system more efficient doesn’t mean, for example, cutting back on the number of cooking classes offered to children because another organization provides a similar service, she points out. “I’d like to move us away from this concept, because we could duplicate the services all day long and we still wouldn’t meet the need,” she says. “I think that the realm of unnecessary duplication is in the realm of administrative overhead.”

Hinebaugh gives the example of the Asheville-based FEAST program merging with Bountiful Cities. Both organizations offered programming for kids to learn gardening and cooking techniques for empowerment and increased food security. When organizations do complementary work using complementary skill sets, she explains, “It can make sense to actually just come together, share space, share administrative overhead, reduce unnecessary duplication of expenses — not services — in order to be able to be more efficient with the dollars we have.”

Isa Whitaker, coordinator for Bountiful Cities’ Community Garden Network, mirrors Hinebaugh’s remarks, noting the seed and tool libraries offered to anyone involved in the network. “Gardeners don’t even have to have any money to get started,” he points out. Shared tools and seeds, in addition to shared land for growing, allow for more effective use of the dollars these small food hubs have.

The more than three dozen gardens in the Community Garden Network in Asheville and Buncombe County partner on work days and take turns hosting educational and skill-building workshops. A central listserv helps gardeners exchange information about things like free mulch or extra plants, or collaborate on grant funding for infrastructure projects. All of these alliances increase efficiency and effectiveness at the same time.

Greater impact

MAHEC health improvement specialist Terri March also focuses on optimizing impact. One of her priorities is the Community Health Improvement Project. “CHIP is intentionally a collective impact process that recognizes the impact of one agency by itself is not likely to make a significant difference across a county with complex health and social issues like food insecurity,” she says.

CHIP, which addresses several health priorities, has coalesced one group of organizations, called the CHIP Food Security Working Group, that specifically looks at food access-related health issues. Formed in 2012, the FSWG explores ways for residents of Buncombe County to increase consumption of fruits, vegetables and other whole foods to support good health.

With partners as diverse as the UNCA Department of Health and Wellness, Gardens that Give, YMCA and Buncombe County Health and Human Services, the working group has evolved in the past several years. “A great deal of what has been successful in the past year comes out of developing trust and relationships, to the extent that organizations are sharing their work, making conscious decisions to hand off a project or a grant opportunity to another member of the collaborative,” March explains.

GATHERING FORCES: Last fall’s inaugural Regional Food Waste Summit at Warren Wilson College gathered city and county government representatives, nonprofit organizations and business leaders from across Western North Carolina for discussions and strategy sessions on the issue as it impacts local communities. Photo by Cathy Cleary

The Asheville-Buncombe Food Policy Council, also an active partner with the CHIP Food Security group, continues to work with the notion of relationship building. In 2017, it took a lead role in organizing WNC’s first Regional Food Waste Summit. Along with partners including Food Connections, Asheville GreenWorks, West Village Market and Deli, FEAST and UNCA Dining Services, the ABFPC produced a day-long conference that drew people from all over the region.

“The summit is an example of how the Food Policy Council has a stake in bringing people together to bring about change,” says ABFPC coordinator Kiera Bulan. As a result of the conference, a working group has formed to conduct education and networking meetings once a quarter to address ways to reduce and recover food waste. As Hinebaugh says, “Any convening where we are all in the room together is an opportunity to deepen collaboration.”

On Thursday, Nov. 8, the ABFPC will again bring people together with a conference called Putting Resilience to Work: Food Policy in Action. In 2017, the ABFPC developed a Food Policy Action Plan that was approved by Asheville City Council and was adopted by the city last November. But Bulan says the plan doesn’t feel accessible to people. “The understanding of policy or the scope of what we mean when we say ‘policy work’ is this scary thing that people don’t want to engage with,” she says.

Bulan hopes to make her work with policy understandable to a wider audience. “We want to figure out ways we can build stronger bridges with individuals who are already doing this work in the community,” she says. “How do we support them? How do they support us and each other?”

In order to have a framework for building those bridges, Bulan has asked Warren Wilson College social work professor Sarah Himmelheber to conduct research. Using a list of stakeholders identified by the ABFPC, Himmelheber’s students will find the mission and vision for each of several food systems’ groups. The information, Hinebaugh says, will help “create a visual representation of how much overlap we have — in other words, look at how much of a shared vision we already have.”

Often called “ecosystem mapping,” this model of overlapping visions can be used to identify gaps in services and make the work of these organizations more impactful and resilient. “It’s not just checking boxes and evaluating for the sake of pleasing our funders, but really tweaking and asking the question, ‘How do we improve our work?’” says Bulan.

Looking to the future

As collaboration in the nonprofit sector grows with the goal of increased food security and resilience, Bulan would like to see more interest from for-profit businesses. “There are individuals within the business sector involved, but it would be good for us to figure out what that looks like,” she says. “Are we talking about the restaurant industry? Food business owners? It’s undefined for us but it’s obviously a big part of the food system.”

Hinebaugh thinks the story of building an equitable food system includes stories of land loss, ownership and recovery. “I’m really excited to see partners such as Appalachian Highland Conservancy,” she points out. “They tend to work in a more rural setting. And so we are beginning to deepen that partnership and bridge the divide between urban and the rural.”

Reclaiming land intersects with affordable housing, and Hinebaugh would love to see the Southern Appalachian Highland Conservancy lend its many years of wisdom and experience in the area of land reclamation to address affordable housing issues. She would also like to see increased collaboration in the health sector and in the area of economic development as it relates to food security.

All of these efforts are complex and will benefit from relationship-building, partnerships and collaboration across a variety of sectors, the thinking goes. Because, as Hinebaugh says, “It’s not just about building a strong, resilient, equitable food system — it’s about building a resilient and equitable community.”

Contact cathy@thecookandgarden.com to share ideas and stories about equitable community collaboration. For more information on the upcoming Putting Resilience to Work conference, visit avl.mx/prtw or contact coordinator@abfoodpolicy.org.

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About Cathy Cleary
Cathy Cleary works with gardens and food. Her cookbooks include "The West End Bakery Cafe Cookbook" and upcoming "The Southern Harvest Cookbook." Find her blog at thecookandgarden.com She is the co-founder of non-profit FEAST Asheville, providing edible education to kids. Follow me @cathyclearycook

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