Three years after the Asheville City Council unanimously approved a plan for reducing local food insecurity and boosting emergency preparedness, progress has been made in certain areas, yet some key steps are still awaiting attention. Several of those steps reference edible landscaping.
The Food Action Plan includes four goals and 14 specific points of action. Many were accomplished quickly, such as allowing greenhouses and farmers markets in residentially zoned areas and lowering the associated fees by nearly 75 percent. City residents are now allowed to raise chickens and sell produce from roadside stands in front of their homes. But achieving other points seems to be taking longer.
Item No. 7 commits the city to “include use of edible landscaping as a priority for public property such as parks, greenways and/or rights of way.” No. 8 adds to that promise, calling for “identifying arable, underutilized city-owned land for lease or sale” and pursuing “methods to make information about such land available to the public.” Item No. 9 goes further still, pledging to “update the city-recommended plant list for developers to include edible plants and remove exotic or invasive species” from their properties.
Darcel Eddins, a member of the Asheville-Buncombe Food Policy Council, says the city “needs to be investing in really prime locations that are visible.”
Formed in 2011, the grassroots group and its volunteers developed the plan and submitted it to City Council for approval. Upon adoption early in 2013, the action plan became part of the city’s existing Sustainability Management Plan. No financial commitments were made at that time, however.
The following month, a report by the Food Research and Action Center, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit, ranked the Asheville metropolitan statistical area as the ninth-hungriest in the nation, with more than one in five residents lacking the money to buy food during the previous year. Other studies have drawn similar conclusions. The Asheville metro, though, also includes the predominantly rural Haywood, Henderson and Madison counties as well as Buncombe, and most of the metro lies outside the city’s jurisdiction.
Minding the bottom line
“Anywhere where there is easement, there should be fruit trees. There just shouldn’t be any argument on that,” says Eddins, the director of Bountiful Cities. The local nonprofit has been organizing, incubating and cultivating community gardens throughout Asheville for over 15 years.
Since the city adopted the Food Action Plan, however, very little of Asheville’s public land has been developed for agricultural purposes.
“We have to maintain our land, and the most cost-effective way is to mow it,” Debbie Ivester, assistant director of the city’s Parks and Recreation Department, explained at a Food Policy Council meeting last May. “If a person comes in that wants to farm it but then leaves, it just costs the city more money.” Meanwhile, according to the city manager’s office, “New plantings are mainly achieved through partnerships with community groups. Some of these partners include edibles in their landscape plans.”
But that answer doesn’t sit well with Eddins, whose organization specializes in networking with local farmers like Patchwork Urban Farms to develop unused city land for agriculture. “When you tell me you can’t, you are telling me that you’re not invested in this and that you just want me to go away,” she declares, adding, “We’re not going away.
Tapping city-owned property
Within the all-volunteer food council, specialized “clusters” focus on such issues as access to food, land use, support for farmers and food policy. The action plan guides the group in the research it conducts and the information it feeds the city to help develop policies for eradicating hunger.
“Let’s start with the understanding that we’re investing in this together, and if you really want to invest, then you take the risk and don’t just continue to tell us why you can’t do it,” says Eddins.
The city has shown signs of focusing more on these issues since the hiring last July of Chief Sustainability Officer Amber Weaver. Her experience working with urban community gardens in Georgia, says Weaver, makes this a priority for her here.
“This work requires research; it requires hiring people like Amber who have this kind of experience,” says Eddins. “But it also requires people in the city interacting with the people doing the work. It requires City Council to visit sites and see what’s going on and get involved with those communities.”
Since Weaver came on board, Asheville has identified land near the Mills River water treatment plant as a prime candidate for agricultural development, but it’s not exactly close to town.
“The city has really put a lot of resources into trying to fulfill that requirement on their end,” Eddins concedes, but that hasn’t necessarily resulted in getting food to the people who most need it. And with ownership of the city’s water system tied up in court, she continues, the Mills River site could be lost. “There’s lots of pluses to that piece of property, but there’s also a lot of city-owned property and resources on greenways and in parks.”
A partnership model
At the food council’s general meeting in November, Weaver said that although city staffers are really interested in using greenways for edible plantings, they’re worried about liability, both for workers and for those consuming the edibles. In addition, she continued, “We want to figure out how to make it the least labor-intensive possible for Public Works.”
Yet when Nicole Hinebaugh, a member of both the food council and Bountiful Cities, asked, “Has the city increased its capacity to implement the Food Action Plan at all?” Weaver’s response was, simply, “No.”
Xpress asked Weaver and City Manager Gary Jackson what’s impeding progress, what barriers the city faces and what steps it’s currently taking to fully execute the action plan. Both responded through city Communications Specialist Joey Robison, citing a February 2015 staff report that noted “significant progress in multiple departments on those action items that require no additional resources.” But “while the city has park property, we have not identified partners to provide materials and maintain the edibles in the parks,” the report continued.
“This is what I think we need to look at,” says Eddins. “The city belongs to us: Those are our resources, our assets. … If the city really wanted to invest, they would produce the [necessary financial] resources.”