“Follow the money” is a phrase often used by investigators and journalists when trying to uncover nefarious behavior. It was also the path that initially guided members of the Community Health Improvement Process, Buncombe County’s Food Security Working Group, to form the WNC Food Justice Planning Initiative, a collaborative entity with the mission “to create a thriving, regenerative, resilient food system with food justice for all in WNC.”
Composed of representatives of organizations, institutions and nonprofits operating in Buncombe and surrounding counties, the CHIP working group started meeting nearly a decade ago to brainstorm strategy areas for addressing food security and systems change. The group’s interest was piqued when Dogwood Health Trust was created in 2018 to receive the proceeds from the 2019 sale of the assets of the nonprofit Mission Health System to HCA Healthcare.
“We recognized that Dogwood Health Trust was going to be focusing their funding on social determinants of health, and food security is a key social determinant of health,” says Nicole Hinebaugh, program director for Bountiful Cities and one of four members of the FJPI leadership team, which also included Laura Lauffer of EmPOWERing Mountain Food Systems, Abbie Young of Bounty & Soul and Abby Holmes, regional health promotion specialist with MountainWise. “It seemed to us an incredible opportunity.”
The leadership team did some initial grant writing and procured funding from the Community Foundation of WNC, the WNC Bridge Foundation and WNC Nonprofit Pathways. They reached out to organizations already addressing food insecurity in the 18 counties and Qualla Boundary of Western North Carolina, and in January 2020 launched WNC FJPI as a yearlong collaborative planning process.
Holmes was drawn to the FJPI’s focus on regionwide food system change. “Not just looking at things in individual silos but at bigger pictures of why food insecurity and injustice exist in our region and how to address that,” she says. “This seemed to me to be the first time this large a group was coming together to discuss that work.”
The seed money allowed FJPI to hire a meeting facilitator, compensate participants for their time and reimburse for mileage and child care as needed. Over 50 organizations joined the first large-group meeting in early 2020, implementing a modified consensus-based decision-making process to achieve the objective of creating a Regional Strategic Action Plan. “That plan identifies a prioritized list of strategies we want to collectively pursue across the region in collaboration and focus on shared resources and information,” explains Hinebaugh.
Two in-person large-group meetings, employing breakout sessions for small-group discussions, were held before COVID-19 forced a move to virtual meetings. As the pandemic unfolded, participants from the emergency food distribution sector were often pulled away from meetings by demands to meet the enormous surge of coronavirus-related need.
Recognizing that participating organizations did not have the racial or socioeconomic diversity of the population they were seeking to serve, members of the initiative conducted over 40 key informant interviews to solicit feedback from individuals such as farmworkers and farm owners, food aggregators and people experiencing food insecurity.
“All of 2020 raised a lot of conversations throughout our planning process, not just about COVID’s inequities but also Black Lives Matter, and we had a lot of conversations about how to be sure our work was focused on equity and being racially inclusive,” Holmes explains.
Six strategies were identified: healthy food distribution; community gardens; agriculture networks; food waste; cooking and nutrition education; and the development of a regional food council. “The council will likely serve as the hub for continued collaborative activity, a regional collaborative vehicle for this work going forward,” says Hinebaugh.
Phase 2 — which kicked off this month — will focus on implementation of the Regional Strategic Action Plan compiled from action plans each strategy group submitted. A new leadership team composed of Hinebaugh, Holmes and representatives from each strategy group has been formed. The individual groups will continue to meet monthly, and large-group meetings will segue to a quarterly schedule.
The Community Foundation has granted another $20,000, and the FPJI has applied to additional funding sources with the goal of putting plans into action and purchasing items such as garden materials and refrigeration units. “If we are successful in Phase 2 implementing the six strategy plans and getting their legs under them, the planning initiative won’t need to exist into Phase 3,” Hinebaugh notes.
Ultimately, Holmes says, the goal is to form “a sustainable coalition to continue the work and be paid to do so — a vessel for all the different projects that will be formulating to address these issues.”