ASHEVILLE N.C.— When Asheville City Council approved the Food Action Plan in 2013, it was a comprehensive list of goals to tackle the growing epidemic of food insecurity in a city that had just trademarked the term “Foodtopia.” Studies by the U.S. Department of Agriculture show North Carolina as the eighth-most food-insecure state in the union, and in Asheville, a city known for its culinary scene, one in five residents go without enough to eat, 35 percent of whom are children, according to the Food Action & Research Center.
“You don’t find anybody who is against food action, food policy or food security,” says city Councilman Gordon Smith, who helped get the plan and the Asheville Buncombe Food Policy Council a foothold in the city. “It is an area where the city as an organization has really just not stepped up to the plate yet.”
The original plan laid out modifications to Asheville’s urban design overlay to enable easier food access through more flexible zoning that would enable homeowners to raise chickens and gardeners to sell vegetables from their own roadside produce stands. It also helped establish the Asheville City Market downtown on Saturdays and ease the permitting process for tailgate markets throughout the county.
But progress has been slow and incremental at best, and hunger is never a patient beast. So efforts have been underway for nearly a year to redraft the plan to give it more traction. At press time, the new draft was slated to be proposed to the Planning & Economic Development Committee on Oct. 17, on track for final approval by City Council on Tuesday, Oct. 24.
“We haven’t done half of what the initial plan set out to do,” says Smith. “And as far as this next iteration goes, there are some more specific areas that we can address immediately, and then there are some areas that will require us to actively forge new partnerships with community groups, with Buncombe County government and with other regional entities, and that is something that we haven’t seen happen yet.”
In addition to increasing access to food, Smith adds, one of the main goals of the Food Action Plan has been to make sure that everyone in the city encounters food all around them on a daily basis. “So when kids are on their way to a bus stop, they are seeing serviceberries and other edibles. So that when people are just moving through their daily lives, they can see this food growing in all corners of the city. That is a fundamental cultural shift that is available to us and that we have not taken advantage of,” he says.
In an effort to make the plan both more impactful and more feasible, the city contracted the ABFPC and its director, Kiera Bulan, to work with Amber Weaver, the director of the city’s Office of Sustainability, in doing the research and rewriting. Through surveying the communities most affected, consulting with city, county and state staff and the general council of the ABFPC, and studying food policy programs around the country, they developed seven focus areas: food access and distribution; food production and processing; community food education; resource stewardship; state food policy and legislation; emergency preparedness; and city initiatives.
“The goal was to make the plan more actionable, more detailed,” says Bulan. “And we really tried to create something that we can use to hold ourselves and the city more accountable through developing evaluation protocols, benchmarks and more of an implementation plan so that we can attach budget items to it and continue to move forward over time.”
The close collaboration between city staff and the council was helpful in identifying and addressing some of the hurdles that impeded the achievement of many of the plan’s goals over the past four years. Through focus groups with city staff from key departments that would be implementing many facets of the plan, such as Parks and Recreation, Waste Management and Communications, it was possible to craft a concrete strategy rather than a wish list. “It was just another level of vetting,” says Bulan. “The staff is responsible for carrying out tasks and responsibilities that have been adopted by the city, so we want them to be aware and on board with what is being proposed.”
Communication barriers had created slow movement in the past. On May 18, 2015, Joey Robison, then-communication specialist, explained to the ABFPC general council why one of the key goals of the plan — to use public land as a space for growing food — had not been accomplished. “We have to maintain our land in the most cost-effective way, and that is to mow it,” she said. “If a person comes in that wants to farm it, but then leaves, it just costs the city more money.”
When pressed with that question now, Smith has a different response. “There is enormous possibility to partner with any number of groups and to move money around within these budgets,” he says. “That’s one of the questions we haven’t seen answered yet: Whose responsibility will it be to take the initiative on these broader partnerships? It is my belief that the city staff ought to be establishing and growing those partnerships with GreenWorks and the Fruit & Nut Club and Bountiful Cities to be able to establish food access across the city. There are so many food partnerships that we have yet to see, and it will be important that the city organization takes the lead on establishing and growing those.”
But that may prove to be easier said than done. As Bulan points out, resources are limited when it comes to bringing the plan to fruition. “A number of cities and food policy councils have whole departments dedicated to the type of work that Amber and I are attempting to pull off in slivers of full-time work,” she says, noting that in addition to addressing food policy concerns, Weaver’s job encompasses numerous other areas, including climate change, green building, energy conservation and recycling.