Growing a local food network

by Joel Landau

When I arrived in Greensboro in 1981 I was impressed with the beauty of the city and how easy it was to get around town (by car anyway). I was also surprised by how fragmented community life was. Many small pockets of people would be working on a similar issue, but independently of each other. Having lived in several parts of the country prior to moving here I had seen firsthand how geography informs temperament. Greensboro is a city of sprawl with few, if any, population centers. Instead we have residential clusters spread throughout the city, so perhaps it’s not surprising that people are used to working in their own small groups. This has been true as well in the local food movement where we’ve had myriad programs and initiatives working to promote local food production. There are excellent organizations such as the downtown Greensboro Farmers Curb Market, where all the goods are locally produced, providing a hub of local commerce. No group however has succeeded in tying together the many different projects in the community.

The perceived need for a unifying organization to increase overall effectiveness was part of the impetus for a meeting in the fall of 2013. That meeting brought together dozens of interested community members to address issues around food supply in Guilford County. Out of this a Task Force was created to establish a Local Food Council. The Task Force worked on a mission statement, bylaws, and organizational structure for the Council. Lastly, it recruited volunteers to serve on the newly formed Food Council. As a result the Guilford Food Council is now in place and its efforts underway. Its mission is “Connecting Communities and Sharing Resources to Grow a Vibrant Local Food System in Guilford County”. The Council has a Steering Committee and a Technical Advisory Board, but the bulk of the activity is in five “Clusters”. The Clusters are in the key areas of Healthy Neighborhoods, Thriving Economies, Vibrant Farms, Education & Awareness, and Policies & Land Use.

In 2008, Deep Roots Cooperative (I was General Manager at the time) went before the Greensboro City Council with the Eat Local Challenge. This is a nationwide initiative that asks people to pledge to eat meals made of local ingredients. We asked people to set an individual goal during the month of August to eat “x” number of meals made from local ingredients. We went over the many benefits of locally grown food and then asked the Councilmembers to accept the Eat Local Challenge – most of them did so gladly. In 2009 Mayor Johnson declared an Eat Local month in Greensboro; Mayor Knight did the same in 2010. But I digress… back to the Local Food Council! The Council now has a website – The website is not yet complete, but is already loaded with information. One item I found of particular interest is a “Food Map”. This map shows food resources throughout Greensboro and Guilford County, places such as food pantries, places to get a free meal, grocery stores, convenience stores, backpack programs, summer meal sites, and farmers markets. The map is in progress – the Council requests that people look at it and let them know of any resources that haven’t yet made it onto the map.

The Food Council is continuing to collect and interpret data about our local and regional food systems. Besides continued development of the food resources map, they’re also working alongside UNCG and the City’s Community Food Task Force to collect some data to better understand 1) if the Food Research and Action Center study that ranks Greensboro 1st in terms of food hardship actually bears out when you collect better data, and 2) what other topics (e.g., jobs, education, mental health, physical health) our food system is linked to. The Council is also reaching out to the community to gather more input, educate the public, and forge alliances. They are looking for new members, particularly people to get involved with one of the five aforementioned Clusters. And the Council, in collaboration with the Guilford County Cooperative Extension and the Greater High Point Food Alliance, is helping to organize the Guilford County Local Foods Week in June.

Dr. Neisha C. Douglas (Adjunct Professor in Adult Education at NC A&T State Univ.) is an At-large member whose responsibilities include updating the website. I asked what her motivation was for taking part in this project. Douglas replied: “People are my motivation. I love working with my community and I want to make sure that everybody has opportunity and access to fresh foods.”

I asked the same question of Steering Committee member Odile Hutchette (Horticulture Lecturer and Director of the Reid Greenhouse at NC A&T State Univ.). Hutchette’s response: “I believe in empowering the community and in the power of education to improve local food systems and hunger issues.”

Steering Committee member Marianne LeGreco, Ph.D. (Assoc. Prof., Communication Studies, and Academic Sustainability Coordinator at UNC-Greensboro) had this to say about how the Council plans to link together all the different local projects that exist: “For starters, our primary focus is to connect, collaborate, and celebrate. We’re not planning on starting new initiatives. Rather, we’re working toward building asset maps, collecting data about Guilford County’s food needs, and creating a website where people can find out how to “plug in” to what’s already out there. Also, by profiling different farms, volunteer organizations, markets, and other pieces of our food system, we hope to paint a picture of what’s going on, what’s missing, and how we might work together to fill in the gaps.”

Given the fragmented nature of the County, I think it will be challenging for the Guilford Food Council to succeed at becoming the unifying organization it envisions and not just another one of the many related efforts in the County. But the folks involved are certainly going about it in a coherent and thorough manner; with support they’ll be able to pull it off. If you’re interested in our local food system, please check out their website. And maybe even “plug in”! !

JOEL LANDAU served on the Guilford County Local Food Council Task Force and is the Former Chair of the Greensboro Sustainability Council (2008-2015).