Local food resilience programs plan for future disasters

FOOD OR FAMINE: In the event of a natural disaster that disrupts commercial food supplies, Western North Carolina will need to develop alternative ways to grow nutritious and diverse crops, such as community gardens or neighborhood greenhouses. Photo by Cindy Kunst
FOOD OR FAMINE: In the event of a natural disaster that disrupts commercial food supplies, Western North Carolina will need to develop alternative ways to grow nutritious and diverse crops, such as community gardens or neighborhood greenhouses. Photo by Cindy Kunst

Fires and floods sweep across the region, destroying crops. A massive influx of refugees fleeing rising sea levels causes food demand to skyrocket. An electromagnetic pulse decimates the entire electrical system.

And in response, neighbors put down their weapons, marshal their resources and start regenerating sustainable food resources.

That’s the ideal vision, anyway, many speakers at a May 20 Food Security and Disaster Resilience workshop maintained. The 15 participants gathered in the Lenoir-Rhyne University boardroom for the three-hour session heard various panelists speak to Asheville/Buncombe’s immediate needs in the wake of a climate change-related disaster and how they could be met.

Co-organizers Jillian Wolf and Sara deFosset, both of whom are AmeriCorps’ Project Conserve members, said the idea for the workshop grew out of the nonprofit’s requirement that its workers hold some sort of disaster preparedness training. “We wanted to begin a conversation with the movers and shakers here in our local food community to talk about how we can be more resilient in face of disasters,” said DeFosset, who works with the Asheville-based Hemlock Restoration Initiative. “We live in a very uncertain world that seems to be getting more uncertain over time, and our food systems are extremely susceptible to those types of shocks.”

How do you spell disaster?

“Disaster can be on a personal level, a family level, a neighborhood level; it can be city, region or nation,” noted panelist Amy Meier, who is MANNA FoodBank’s Buncombe County outreach coordinator. “It could be weather-related, like a flood or a tornado, or it could be that your plant shut down. But when you’re hungry, it’s a disaster — no matter what the reason.”

At such times, community gardens can be a key local resource, said panelist Carolina Arias, the coordinator of Bountiful Cities’ Asheville Buncombe Community Garden Network. These “small pockets of local, autonomous food production throughout the city,” she continued, “are creating their own structures of governance, their own systems of how to bring in and distribute supplies; they are choosing what they want to grow.” But at the same time, “They’re responding to the needs of the community.”

Yet the 30 community gardens scattered across Buncombe County can do only so much, she stressed. Most don’t grow a nutritionally diverse range of crops, and they’re too small to produce anywhere near enough food to sustain the local population for very long.

To address these issues, the city has contracted with UNC Asheville’s National Environmental Modeling and Analysis Center, using the five-step U.S. Climate Resilience Toolkit. The first two steps mapped local climate-related dangers and folded them into the city’s comprehensive plan. A contract covering the next two steps, which will involve public meetings and staff training, will be finalized soon. The final step, implementation, would require City Council approval of a formal plan.

“The awareness piece of it is huge,” noted panelist Amber Weaver, Asheville’s chief sustainability officer. Besides “identifying partners and beginning the discussion of how to become more resilient,” she explained, the plan aims to “make people more aware of the situation and how climate change will affect you in your home, neighborhood and city.”

Current city programs

The city’s Food Policy Action Plan also addresses some of these issues, outlining strategies to increase the production and consumption of regional foods and food products. The newly launched Asheville Edibles Program enables community members to grow food and pollinator plants on city property. Another arm of the program offers qualified large-scale growers renewable three-year leases to farm city property. Meanwhile, the Edible Mile initiative, a collaboration with the Asheville Buncombe Food Policy Council, will plant edibles along city greenways.

“If there’s really a climate disaster, these plans are not going to feed everyone,” conceded Weaver. “But the goal is to make Asheville residents feel comfortable gardening in their own yards — to have access and see what it takes to grow and preserve things like blueberries, so if anything were to happen you would have those items in your pantry.”

All together now

Building on that theme, Patryk Battle of the Mills River-based Living Web Farms said the only way to survive a postapocalyptic world is to come together in community.

“There’s plenty of reason to believe that we’ll adjust, pull our resources together and take care of each other, because we’re not that stupid,” he said. “We do kind of understand that without each other in those situations, we’re lost. There are instances of blackouts and extreme amounts of looting, but there are also instances of huge amounts of cooperation, people coming together and helping each other. I want to play to that: That’s our strong suit.”

Community members, he pointed out, have different skills, and in extreme situations, agricultural and hunting knowledge, construction know-how and the ability to work well with your hands will become vital to survival. The food is out there, but communities will need to work together to access it.

At the individual level, Battle recommended keeping rolls of plastic on hand that could be used to create a makeshift greenhouse for growing crops year-round, and large quantities of salt for preserving foods. In addition, farmers will need to facilitate the spread of seeds and livestock to communities in need.

“We’re going to need everybody as we move forward,” he emphasized. “We’re going to need investment in infrastructure and neighborhood fertility systems, neighborhood recycling, community neighborhood composting: how to use all the resources we have to find creative ways to do things. What we need are people willing to share this information in the communities, so that people come together and learn from each other.”

About Molly Horak
Molly is a sophomore Journalism and Political Science student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She is spending her summer working with the Mountain Xpress, exploring in the mountains, and drinking excessive amounts of coffee.

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