Groups work to strengthen and reimagine local food systems

Ameena Batada, left, and Phyllis Utley. Batada's photo courtesy of the writer; Utley's photo by Emma Grace Moon


For those of us who are already working locally to reduce food waste, there is some good news out of Washington. For those of us participating in existing food systems — meaning all of us – there are some serious issues yet to consider.

On Jan. 5, President Biden signed into law the Food Donation Improvement Act of 2021, with implications for Asheville and Buncombe County. The bill strengthens the 1996 policy by improving federal oversight and requiring the U.S. Department of Agriculture to explain safety and labeling requirements to maintain protection. It also expands liability protections to food sold at a reduced price (to cover cost of handling) and to donations made directly to individuals.

The new policy has the potential to make a difference in our community, where several restaurants, grocery stores and others already donate to community organizations that distribute food and offer community meals. Hopefully, more institutions will make food donations to organizations, such as through the nonprofit Food Connection, and directly to community members. Ideally, they will reduce or eliminate the food waste they create.

This may seem like a win-win situation, and yet for the authors of this piece, it requires that we return to the bigger question: Why, with such abundance of food, is any one member of our society still without healthy food?

Addressing racist and classist systems

We know that food donations and assistance will not fully address food insecurity. We must address classist and racist systems and structures through policy change, food sovereignty and food justice. What do these concepts mean for us locally? Let’s consider the following.

In our county and region, the Asheville Buncombe Food Policy Council and Food Justice Planning Initiative, respectively, are coalitions advocating for policy and program changes to strengthen local food systems. Several member organizations are engaged in and reimagining local food systems in this area.

Community-led farms and organizations are engaging in food sovereignty and cultural reclamation in areas where urban renewal and gentrification have and continue to threaten food traditions. The farms are both traditional — bringing back and highlighting current farming practices that are rooted in Indigenous traditions from these, African and other American lands — and liberatory, breaking free of industrial food systems in favor of cycles that prioritize and support growers and producers from communities that have been historically marginalized by dominant systems.

From the ground up

Here’s a look at some of these local community-led initiatives.

Southside Community Farm in Asheville’s Southside neighborhood seeks to “prioritize the needs of Black people and other community members of color and to celebrate diverse cultures and foodways” and to “co-create a web of food sovereignty in which community members have tangible power over their local food system.” The farm hosts a BIPOC farmers market, a free grocery program, a youth garden program, a community orchard and a free seed library. The farm grows medicinal plants, with a focus on herbs and folk medicine of African Americans, and following the vision of leadership team member and longtime resident Roy Harris, plans are underway for a mobile market.

Peace Gardens and Market in the Burton Street community in Asheville is “a destination where community is built — a place where we learn, grow, build, create and heal together,” envisioning “a culture of sustainability that is inclusive and just – where play and work are equal, where trauma is transformed, where the world is inspired and love is expanded.” Founders and managers/artists DeWayne Barton and Safi Martin invite community members to visit and gather at the space, which through its sculptural installations present opportunities for learning about the racialized history of the area, along with a chance to contemplate the roles of structural racism, and to heal and contribute. They sell “value-added” products such as jams, jellies, pickles, salsas, relishes and sauces, and they are currently planning a community health and business incubator called Bluenote Junction.

Shiloh Community Garden offers a gathering place for members of the Shiloh community, which was displaced nearly 150 years ago from its original location when George Vanderbilt bought the land for his mountain estate. The Shiloh Community Garden hosts various community events in its amphitheater and shelter, has a pop-up market, trains and employs youth gardeners, holds cooking demonstrations and educational programs, and offers a legacy art trail and self-guided community walking tour, with benefits going to a new resource center. Several members of the Shiloh Community Association play a significant role in the garden.

The Asheville-Buncombe Food Reparations Coalition is a group of Black leaders, representatives from Asheville’s legacy neighborhoods and community organizations, and other stakeholders that convened in 2021 to “determine reparations recommendations for the city of Asheville and Buncombe County to address harms caused to food security in Asheville’s Black neighborhoods by urban renewal policies.” The coalition is engaged with food and racial and economic justice movements at the city and county levels, including the Racial Justice Coalition and the Asheville-Buncombe Reparations Commission, and is connected to national and international work.

The power rests with us

While today we celebrate a national effort to reduce food waste and increase food security with the potential to influence the well-being of people in local communities, we also recognize that power to address the challenges in our food systems comes directly from us.

Led by the communities mentioned here and additional groups, we can inquire into and change our behaviors, illuminate and work to change the problems with the food systems, and support and contribute to food sovereignty and food justice in our communities right here.

Phyllis Utley is coordinator of the Asheville-Buncombe Food Reparations Coalition. Ameena Batada is co-director of the UNCA-UNC Gillings Master of Public Health program in place-based health and professor of health and wellness at UNC Asheville.



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