Food has been part of Gina Smith‘s professional life for years. As Xpress‘ former food editor, she regularly assigned and worked on stories concerning food policy from 2013-20.
In early 2021, soon after leaving her post with the paper, Smith became staff coordinator for the Asheville Buncombe County Food Policy Council.
Since that time, Smith has seen firsthand the benefits of participatory grant-making, also known as shared gifting. The concept allows organizations and community members to determine where funding goes.
“It really focuses on personal connections, equity and story-sharing as opposed to relying on hard data and top-down decision-making like traditional, competitive funding models,” says Smith. “It promotes stronger, more collaborative relationships among nonprofits and grassroots community groups because it eliminates competition and promotes resource-sharing.”
Xpress sat down with Smith to discuss food policy, shared gifting and recommendations for how other nonprofits might integrate new models of fundraising into their operations.
This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.
Xpress: What drew you to working with organizations focused on food policy?
Smith: I worked with Habitat for Humanity in Catawba County for a while, and I volunteered with them overseas. I like grassroots, community-based work. And when I moved to Asheville, I got together with a group of folks in my neighborhood to start the Oakley Farmers Market, which is no longer happening. That was the first time I really dipped my toes into food policy.
Can you speak more to participatory grant-making and how it differs from traditional grants?
Instead of there being a funder, sitting at the top of a hierarchy, doling out money and making the decisions, the decision-making is in the hands of the groups who need the funds.
The program that our food policy council has participated in for the past three years is a shared gifting circle program through Community Food Strategies, a statewide organization. Community Food Strategies facilitates this by doing all the hard work of writing these big grants to get a big pot of money.
We were paired with five other food councils in similar organizations from all over the state. The six organizations who were part of this cohort each had a certain amount of money that we were allotted to award to the other groups. Each group did a pitch. We talked about what we wanted to fund, why it was important and why it should be funded. And then we all decided how we were going to dole out our funds. In the end, each of us received money, and each of us also gave away money. They put the power in our hands to give that money away to each other as we see fit.
If other nonprofits wanted to engage in this practice, what would you recommend?
Research participatory grant-making to see how the model works. Connect with Community Food Strategies, even if it’s not a food-related nonprofit, and find out what the model looks like in practice because I think they have it nailed down. It works really smoothly the way they do it.
When I talk about it to other organizations across the country, people are always like, “Wow, I want to do that.”
Another good starting point would be participatorygrantmaking.org.
What has been the most rewarding experience in your food policy work?
The shared gifting process itself has been one of the most rewarding because it is so beautiful, so empowering. And it really strengthens the community. But also, I am nourished by working directly with the communities here in Asheville that we collaborate with. The folks that we work with are doing incredible things for their communities. And I just follow along and support however I can. It’s very inspiring.
Policy isn’t often recognized as an important part of food security work or food systems work, but it’s really important. It’s a little-recognized but crucial part of increasing food security in our community because it’s changing policy to meet the needs of the people experiencing food insecurity.
When you change policy, it changes people’s lives. And having people involved in that process and their voices being heard — that’s everything.
What do you do to elevate those voices?
Anyone is welcome to be part of the Asheville Buncombe County Food Policy Council’s work. We have working groups who are on the ground doing things in the community. The council itself meets monthly, and anyone’s welcome to participate in those meetings and hear what’s going on.
And actually, part of the funding that we requested in this round of shared gifting was to support stipends for community members who want to be involved. It can be really hard for people to donate their time, especially those who are working multiple jobs and have all of these other responsibilities. We want to be able to compensate people for their time, attending meetings and being part of the working groups.
So hopefully, that will help us build representation from the communities we collaborate with. That lived experience is so valuable in the work we do. Our staff are already being paid to participate. It’s one thing, if I’m being paid as a coordinator for the food policy council to attend a meeting. But it’s entirely different if there’s somebody else who’s working in food service or as a nurse having to take extra time out of their day to attend a meeting. So, it’s fantastic to get that lived experience and be able to compensate people for sharing that. I think it’s becoming more and more of a thing for funders to try to provide. But it’s newish. And hopefully, it’s going to gain more traction.