It’s been several years since the Asheville Convention and Visitors Bureau trademarked the term “Foodtopia,” but for some area residents, that moniker remains a bitter joke. A 2013 study by the Washington, D.C.-based Food Research and Action Center ranked the Asheville metropolitan statistical area ninth in its list of the nation’s hungriest cities and found that 1 in 5 residents had experienced “food hardship.”
Other prior studies had yielded similarly alarming results, prompting community activists and advocates to form the Asheville-Buncombe Food Policy Council in 2011. Since then, the group has served as a watchdog, urging the city to formally endorse the Food Action Plan — which lays out 14 steps for reducing food insecurity in the region — and pulling together a core of volunteers and organizers to help develop local food policy.
“We spent much of this last year working through the development of our internal governing documents,” says Food Policy Council member Nicole Hinebaugh. “We created the policies and procedures necessary to enable an organization like ours to make smooth and consistent decisions, transitions and structural developments, in order to become more effective and efficient in our operations and our work in the community.”
One of those transitions was hiring a new coordinator, Kiera Bulan. Hinebaugh says the council chose Bulan because she had “the right combination of a long and varied history of relevant professional experiences and skill sets, and also possessed the thoughtful, energetic and warm personality we were looking for.”
Bulan came on board in October, having moved here from Maine with her family. She previously worked on farmer training and food access projects in Providence, R.I., and Madison, Wis. Her initial focus here will be working with Amber Weaver, the city’s chief sustainability officer, and members of the group’s General Council, to redraft the Food Action Plan.
“Our hope is not to completely revise the previous plan,” says Bulan, “but to offer some revisions and also add new items and work with the structure to make it a more actionable plan, where we can trace progress and hold both the city and the community more accountable to moving the needle forward.”
At this point, Bulan says she’s still trying to get a handle on the situation. “The city is saying, ‘Look at all these great things we’ve done!’ And the community is saying, ‘The city hasn’t done anything.’ I don’t have my own opinion on that yet, because I’m so new.
“What I do know, as a total outsider, is that the Food Action Plan is a list of 14 relatively vague points. You can make the argument that lots of them have been addressed, and you can make the argument that nothing has happened. I’d like to have our plan be more actionable and more benchmark-oriented, so we can really say at the end of six months or a year, here’s what we did and here’s what we didn’t do. That’s the goal.”
The council has seen its share of changes this year. The community-based organization consists of what it calls “clusters” of individual volunteers, each with their own expertise and focus. Clusters often come and go, depending on a situation’s urgency and the level of interest among active volunteers.
Currently there are four standing clusters: Food Access, Farmer Support, Land Use and Water. “The only real change to the cluster format came with the decision to shift Policy Mobilization from a full-time cluster to an as-needed working group,” says Hinebaugh. “This group will now come together only when specific policy objectives and recommendations are submitted by the clusters.”
In the meantime, a Dec. 8 “meeting of the whole” — an open event designed to allow community members to contribute to the conversation — gave the Food Policy Council a chance to reflect on its accomplishments and the necessary steps moving forward.
For her part, says Bulan, “My priority in coming into the position has literally just been meeting people and listening.” She says she appreciates the progress the organization has already made.
“The cluster structure,” Bulan points out, “seems like a strength, in that people can take their passion and be autonomous, and there are a lot more opportunities to be collaborative as a council — to take those initiatives that clusters are researching and passionate about, and bring them forward.”